What we saw in Storrs, Conn., today was a prime example of how valuable Dogus Balbay is to this basketball team.
And I don't want to hear about how he doesn't hit free throws or make shots from outside. We've known that for two seasons. What you saw in the first half was Balbay completely undress Kemba Walker, UConn's floor general.
To the tune of Walker turning it over 6 times in the first half. The Huskies followed Walker's lead and turned it over 16 times in the first half. That's not a typo - 16 times in the first half.
Walker was 0-of-4 shooting from the field in the first half against Balbay, including three missed 3-pointers. His only points were on two made free throws.
Texas let a lot of chances to build a 15-point lead or bigger get away by missing shots around the rim, including 4 bunnies by Matt Hill.
Jordan Hamilton (8 pts, 3-of-7 FG, 2-of-3 3-pt) missed two layups. Justin Mason (5 pts, 1-of-4 FG, 3-of-4 FT, 1 assist, 2 turnovers, 2 rebounds, 2 steals) and J'Covan Brown (0 pts, 0-of-5 FG, 0-of-3 3pt) each missed one, and Alexis Wangmene missed a layup and a DUNK. That was all in the first half, when Texas led by as many as 9 twice, including the halftime margin, 43-34.
If there was a surprise in the first half, it was that Jerome Dyson got it going against Avery Bradley (15 pts, 6-of-14 FG, 1-of-4 3pt, 3 assists, 3 TOs, 3 rebs, 2 steals) and Justin Mason.
Although Mason did a decent job against Stanley Robinson (17 pts, 7-of-9 FG, 12 rebs) for much of the first half. To start the second half, Balbay switched onto Dyson (32 pts, 12-of-23 FG, 4-of-8 3pt).
THE TURNING POINT
But the game completely changed in a matter of 27 seconds after Texas had taken a 44-34 lead.
First, Balbay was called for going over the back of UConn 6-11 freshman Ater Majok with 19:19 left in the game. That was his first foul.
Fifteen seconds later, Balbay was trying to deny Dyson on a dribble handoff from Alex Oriakhi and was called for his second foul with 19:04 left in the game and UT still leading 44-34. It was Balbay's second foul.
Then the back-breaker came just 12 seconds later. After a made basket by Walker, Damion James (23 pts, 9-of-11 FG, 3-4 3pt, 2-2 FT, 7 rebs, 4 TOs, 3 steals) threw a lazy inbounds pass to Dogus that Dyson stole and quickly dished to Walker for a layup. Balbay fouled Walker on the play, picking up his third foul.
Walker converted the and-one, and that got him going and forced Dogus out of the game. Walker, after going 0-of-4 in the first half would finish 4-of-5 in the second half.
And even though Texas would trade baskets with UConn for the next five minutes, the Huskies were getting into an offensive rhythm with Balbay off the floor. Walker, Dyson and Robinson all hit baskets, including a monster dunk by Dyson that electrified the crowd.
After Jordan Hamilton hit a layup with 14:50 left, Texas led 52-45, but momentum had already shifted to the Huskies, who were all starting to feel it.
THEN IT ALL UNRAVELED
Texas went scoreless over the next four minutes as UConn went on a 13-0 run. Balbay was on the bench for every last second of the Huskies' run. But again, the UConn team was getting hot well before that actual run because the Huskies had been trading baskets with UT since Balbay left the game with 18 minutes left.
Damion James finally scored on a dunk to stop the run and cut UConn's lead to 58-54. But the fatal blow occurred with 8:40 left, when Balbay picked up his fourth foul and left the game with Texas trailing 62-58.
Justin Mason took over the point from Balbay and promptly turned it over twice. Pittman also turned it over, and UConn went on another run with Balbay on the bench, this time it was a 9-0 spurt, and the Huskies were up 71-58 with just under six minutes to play.
Texas never got closer than 11 the rest of the way.
People will look at Balbay's line (0-of-1 from the floor and 0-of-2 from the foul line - he also had five assists, 1 turnover, 1 steal and 1 block) and think the guy had no impact on this game. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Balbay had Kemba Walker so twisted up in the first half. Texas had 25 points off turnovers in the first half, and 10 of those 16 turnovers came from Walker and Dyson, the same guys who buried Texas in the second half with Balbay off the floor.
When Balbay is on the floor, this team is calm and settled. When he's off the floor, it's anybody's guess how the team will react.
Sure, there are a lot of other things you can point to, like the usual missed free throws (9-of-16 after going 9-of-22 in the loss at Kansas State) and 19 turnovers (after turning it over 18 times against K-State).
But if you want to know who holds this team together, it's Balbay.
WHO ELSE CAN PLAY POINT IN A TIGHT GAME?
The frightening thing for Rick Barnes, and he has to know this, is J'Covan Brown looked early on like he was going to be the go-to guy late in games. The guy who could take over if something happened to Balbay. Brown is the ONLY player on the team who is money from the FT line.
And Brown's minutes are all but disappearing, along with what looks like Barnes' confidence in him. Brown only played 12 minutes against UConn, went 0-of-5, and just seems to playing with a lack of confidence.
I thought Brown was really good against A&M (14 points, 10 rebounds) and probably deserved to be put back into the starting lineup for the Kansas State game instead of Justin Mason. Sometimes a thing as simple as giving a guy a start after a great effort can jump-start a freshman.
Instead, J'Covan came off the bench and was 1-of-6 from the floor against K-State and followed that up with an 0-of-5 game against the Huskies.
(Brown's uneven play can be traced back to when Jai Lucas became eligible and started getting more minutes. I'm sure Rick Barnes wants Brown to man up and reclaim his minutes.
Brown may not be used to Barnes' icy treatment when Barnes gets down on a player. This is when T.J. Ford needs to call Brown and tell him, "Don't listen to HOW Barnes is saying something, just listen to WHAT he is saying.")
Of the Longhorns' options at point guard, Justin Mason showed today he is not up for the challenge of running this team when things are tight in a hostile environment.
Texas had to hold it together in two tough environments this week and didn't. Texas doesn't go on the road again until Feb. 1 (at Oklahoma State).
This week, Texas gets to come home for games on Wednesday against Texas Tech and next Saturday against Baylor.
By then, maybe Barnes can figure out a way to get J'Covan Brown going because if Balbay isn't on the floor, Texas has to have a guy the rest of the team trusts running things. And right now, the team doesn't seem to be reacting to Mason, Jai Lucas or Brown. Someone has to step up.
Damion James, Gary Johnson and Balbay continue to play at a high level. Avery Bradley is working through a bit of an offensive slump, as is Pittman. But Bradley's D has been invaluable.
Barnes is probably waiting and watching to see how J'Covan Brown will handle not having his hand held by the coach. And these are all things Texas has time to figure out.
It's not time to panic. Not even close. If Balbay doesn't suffer three fouls in 27 seconds, this game against UConn is almost undoubtedly a Texas victory (remember, UT was ahead by 10 at that time, and UConn was a turnover machine).
Some tough lessons are being learned. The Longhorns have plenty of time to learn and grow from them.
Now, that free-throw shooting …