Horns handle Lamar

If there is such a thing as a sluggish 21 point victory, it happened on Wednesday night at the Frank Erwin Center.
Entering tonight's game, the Lamar Cardinals (4-3) hadn't once played zone defense all season. Not even for a single second. But after watching the Rice film, Lamar head coach Steve Roccaforte came right out in a 2-3 with some 2-2-1 pressure mixed in, and it slowed the Longhorns down.
Turnovers, missed layups, and too much dribbling on the offensive end kept the No. 20 Horns (6-1) from really exposing a very poor Cardinals' defense. But Cory Joseph (16 points on 6-of-10 shooting) and Jordan Hamilton (16 points on 5-of-15 shooting) were able to fuel the Longhorn offense at moments. Combine that with suffocating and outstanding UT defense, and you've got the recipe for an ugly 76-55 victory. Yes, even with a 21-point victory there are questions about the offense, but after the game coach Rick Barnes was very happy with the only thing his team focused on this week in practice - defense.
After a lackluster offensive effort against Rice, you would have thought Texas would have spent all of its practice time before the Lamar game on the offensive end. Well, I guess that's if you don't know the defensive minded Barnes that well.
"We spent the last two days working on our defense," said Barnes. "As a group, we really tried to work hard and we knew these guys were going to drive the ball. And we determined we were going to shut down the three-point line, which we did, because they have been shooting a bunch of threes. And with that, being quick, and we worked really hard on coming over and making some plays. We had nine blocks, and that is where you have to get them. And we actually did a really good job, for the most part, where we talked about our help defense couldn't get scored on. When you have a team shooting 25 percent, you have to be happy with that."
Even with some very good defensive performances this season, Barnes sees room for improvement. And that's been the point of emphasis over the last couple of days, and the UT head coach liked what he saw. Unlike a lot of Longhorn fans, Barnes isn't worried about Texas offensively.
"We're going to be okay offensively, but I am telling you for two days, we have done nothing but defense, and I like the carryover from that," stated Texas' hoops coach.
Even a team that thrives on full-court, man-to-man pressure defense came out in a zone right away against the Horns.
For Texas, the execution was far from perfect. But the Horns were able to work the ball inside to the bigs much more often, and it helped open some things up. Tristan Thompson, Gary Johnson and Matt Hill combined to score 26 points on 7-of-13 shooting from the floor, and Thompson was able to get to the free throw line 11 times.
Turnovers were an issue. Of the 23 UT turnovers, 18 were from the guards and that's something Texas can't afford to do moving forward against better competition. Jai Lucas looked frustrated all night with six points on a 2-for-8 night from the floor with five turnovers and multiple dropped passes. J'Covan Brown was good in flashes, but he managed to turn the basketball over four times in just nine minutes of action. Those two have to be better, especially Lucas, who played 26 minutes against the zone while Dogus Balbay saw just 11 minutes of action.
Still, even with some struggles against the zone at time, UT's best scorer isn't concerned.
"Not at all," said Hamilton when he was asked if he was concerned about the offense. "We'll get together as a team and talk about some things that we all have to do because no team is perfect. I think we can do some great things by the time conference play starts. We just have to make shots."
Texas shot 45.3 percent from the floor, and with more than five missed layups, it should have been a better than 50 percent night for the Horns.
Rewind the clock back to last season, and Hamilton could barely stay on the floor. His decision making on the offensive end and lack of impact defensively landed him a seat on the bench far too often. Fortunately for Texas fans, that's not the case this season. And on Wednesday night against Lamar, Hamilton did something that would have never happened last season - he played the entire game.
And it wasn't because UT was facing a zone offense, although that did play a role. According to Barnes, his 6-7 star point-forward has improved a ton defensively, and believe it or not, Hamilton wanted nothing to do with the offensive end this week in practice.
"We spent the last two days working on our defense, and the best part over the last two days, was we would go offense-defense, but Jordan Hamilton wanted to stay on the defensive end the entire time," said Barnes. "I thought tonight, he came out and did as well as he has maybe done his entire time here."
Barnes recognized early that Hamilton was really grinding on the defensive end, and picked up on how much effort the sophomore was putting into helping his team defend a high scoring offense.
"He was working hard, and I thought he had a smaller guy on him sometimes that was quick, and he really fought to get in front of the ball," stated the recent member of the 500 wins club. "He did a lot of good things defensively, and he stayed with it. He got in the stance; he was working and helping away from the ball. But for two days, that is all he has done is play defense."
Hamilton's next game will be a homecoming when the Horns travel to Los Angeles to play USC. In fact, UT's leading scorer lived just five minutes away from USC.
After a career high in points against Rice, Joseph posted another high mark against Lamar with his 16 points. The more aggressive and comfortable freshman guard is seeing his shot fall more and more.
"I feel better. I'm just trying to find my rhythm. I think I'm doing better," said Joseph.
Once again, he was one of the leaders and minutes and only Hamilton bested his 34 minutes on the floor against the Cardinals. Despite the five turnovers, the 6-3 guard handled the pressure extremely well, and got UT out in transition. Plus, he was able to start some one-man fast breaks by crashing the glass, and Joseph hauled in nine rebounds. The 2010 five-star prospect is making his presence felt in all aspects of the game, but it has to be encouraging for the UT staff and fans to see him continue to grow into an offensive scoring threat. It's been two straight games of basically all zone defense, and it's back-to-back strong scoring performances by Joseph.
"My three-point shots have been falling the last couple of games," said the star freshman. "Earlier in the season they weren't. Against the zone, we try to work inside out. We try to get the ball inside. When they collapse they get the perimeter guys open looks, so that's how I've been able to get into a rhythm and knock them down."
On Sunday, December 5, the Horns travel to Los Angeles to face the USC Trojans (4-4) at 9:30 PM as part of the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series.