After flirting with a 0-3 start to Big 12 play, which would have probably been a death sentence to their NCAA Tournament hopes, the Longhorns (12-4, 1-2) managed to pull out a 67-64 win over Texas Tech (8-8, 0-3) thanks to an outstanding individual effort with the game on the line.
1) One of the final sequences of the game was probably the best example you'll see this year of the transformation Cameron Ridley has undergone from last year to this year.
With the game on the line and Texas down 64-63, Ridley went straight up and challenged a layup attempt at the rim, which resulted in a miss. He then sprinted back down the floor in transition, and after Javan Felix missed a wide open three, Ridley grabbed the offensive rebound, tried to go up strong, and was fouled. The sophomore big man, who shot 33 percent from the line last year, then knocked down two free-throws to put Texas up 65-64 with 31 seconds left.
Rick Barnes and Ridley have put a ton of time in after practice on free-throws.
"Pretty much after workouts staying with coach Barnes after and him showing me different guys that are really good free-throw shooters like Stephen Curry and guys like that," responded Ridley about what's helped him at the line. "Just working on my touch from the free-throw line and building my confidence. The amount of time I've put in the gym, and trying to get better at that."
Barnes added more detail about Ridley's work:
"We started a year ago," Texas' head coach said. "Cam's got really good hands. He can shoot the ball and that's why the big thing with his is that he doesn't have to try to power the ball to the basket. What we did on his free-throw was try to eliminate as much of the things he didn't need to focus on - his touch and his hands. Routine was a major part of it. It's been a major makeover and you can't change your shot unless you want to put in a lot of individual time yourself. I would say we spend many, many hours just standing two feet from the basket, shooting one-handed and moving back a board at a time while trying to get him to use his legs."
There was a point this season when it really started to click confidence wise for Ridley.
"Around when we played BYU, that's when I started to build my confidence as far as my game and the free-throw line," the sophomore said. "Around that time, I put my focus on making free-throws because I wasn't going to be useful if I wasn't making them. If I was missing shots, I'd at least be able to make free-throws."
Would that sequence have happened last year? Nope. That's no knock on Ridley, but it's the reality - credit to him for transforming his body and blossoming as a player.
By the way, Ridley had to get a couple of stitches - he got a nasty cut during the Oklahoma State game - before meeting with the media Saturday night.
2) Oh, and one more thing about Ridley: he made the only field goal he attempted. Seriously. He went just 1-of-1 from the floor, and although he went 6-of-8 from the free-throw line, the big fella absolutely needs more touches.
3) Why aren't Ridley and other big men getting more touches? Part of it tonight was foul trouble because Ridley, Jonathan Holmes, and Connor Lammert all had two fouls early, and had to sit for a good chunk of the first half. However, Texas' zone offense continues to struggle. The Longhorns passed the ball around the perimeter way too often, especially in the first half, and didn't make it a point to try to work the ball inside. And there were other times when guards missed the window/timing to hit a big man in a good position, or a post-player wasn't quite in a strong position to receive a pass.
If Texas played Syracuse, I'm not sure it would break 50 points. At times, Texas will get a great look easily against the zone, and then that type of aggressiveness and execution disappears for a long time. The spacing needs to get better; the timing needs to get better; and the aggressiveness needs to get better. Basically, Texas really, really needs to improve its zone offense.
4) If the Longhorns continue to reach and chase on defense, they'll continue to get in foul trouble early. At times, Texas went zone, maybe because it couldn't afford to let other guys get in foul trouble, and it was a lot of scramble defense instead of strong defense. Barnes said after the win that he stayed in the zone defense longer than he should have.
That being said, credit to Texas for adjusting in the second half. After Tech shot 18 free-throws in the first half, it shot just five in the second half.
"We definitely touched on that at halftime, because it was the third time in a row we were in foul trouble," said Javan Felix about the defense and fouling after the game. "That is definitely something we went over in practice and that we worked on. It is always in our scouting report every game, to not foul and to not give them the points at the line. The last three games we have done a terrible job of that and starting off tonight it looked like it was going to go that way again. But coach got on us at halftime and we came out and fixed it."
Felix went into more detail about what's causing the issue:
"I think it's sometimes out of position and sometimes us being lazy at times - guys get in these long possessions and since we want to run so much we kind of try to make a stupid play at the ball or try to get out quick. And it sometimes costs us."
5) Much better from Isaiah Taylor in this Big 12 game. After two games that were a struggle and a surprise after playing so well in non-conference play, the freshman point guard looked like himself at home. Taylor scored a team-high 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting (4-of-4 from the free-throw line) with three rebounds, four assists, and just two turnovers. He was aggressive at the right times, pushed the ball well and played under control much better compared to the first two Big 12 games.
6) Texas won the battle on the glass (plus-eight overall and plus-four on the offensive glass), second-chance points (10 to 6), fast-break points (17 to 10), points in the paint (32 to 22) and points off of turnovers (19 to 15).
7) Prince Ibeh was a force when he was in the game for 21 minutes. He scored eight points (3-of-4 shooting and 2-of-2 from the free-throw line) with eight rebounds, including four on the offensive end when he aggressively attacked missed jumpers in the zone offense with great timing. Ibeh also blocked two shots. This was probably the most aggressive and best he's looked in a while.
8) Martez Walker got his first start of his career against Texas Tech, and the freshman was solid before leaving with what looked like a tailbone injury after a hard fall. With each game, Walker looks more and more comfortable both offensively and defensively. He could be the best shooter on the team, and lately he's shown off a strong passing ability.
Walker should be considered day-to-day (the injury was to the muscle and not the tailbone) and is a game-time decision for Monday's game.
9) In Big 12 play, Holmes is averaging just 4.7 minutes in the first half and has committed six fouls in three games. If Texas is going to beat good teams, that has to change.
10) Disaster avoided. A loss tonight against Texas Tech would have made Texas' tournament hopes nearly impossible. Not only would it have marked a 0-3 start before a quick turnaround at West Virginia on Monday, but it would have been Texas' first bad loss of the season. It definitely wasn't pretty at times, especially in the first half, but a win is a win in the Big 12.