In case you haven't done it yet, check out the notes Bald Eagle graciously shared with all of us from his Thanksgiving vacation in Maui. BB had a chance to scout out couple of future Bruin opponents - Texas and Notre Dame - in the 2008 Maui Invitational when he had chance to check out the great game between those two teams. Notre Dame won that game barely before getting pummeled by UNC but it's pretty clear based on BB's observations and from what we have seen from both UCLA and Texas this season, our Ben Ball warriors (now back in the top-10 at least according to one poll) will be underdogs when they take on the Horns (ranked number 8 in both polls) this Thursday night in Austin (tip off scheduled for 6 pm PST on ESPN2). Here were BB's early impressions on the Longhorns:
As expected, this is a very athletic team. They return 4 starters and 9 of their top 10 scorers from last year’s team that went 31-7, including a gut-wrenching, last second victory at Pauley last year. They return 73 percent of their scoring from last year.
Their backcourt is absolutely terrific. A.J. Abrams is their floor leader. They went to him consistently at the end of the game to make threes to bring UT back from a late 7 point deficit. Justin Mason also ran the point some and was lighting fast on D and created numerous shots driving to the hoop.
Dexter Pittman started at center and he is Tight End in hoops shorts. At 6-10 298 he is a load down low. Thankfully he is a foul waiting to happen. Worse than AA2 on his worst day. Connor Atchley, a 5th yr. Senior was active around the hoop but really nothing to write home about. I got the same impression last year when I watched him at Pauley. If you don’t put a body on him he’ll sneak in for some put-backs and easy hoops.
Damion James is arguably their best player. He killed us last year. A 6-7’ G/F who can leap out of the building, he is a nightmare match-up. He didn’t have a huge game today, but every time you looked up he was flying above the rim grabbing rebounds or slashing to the hoop for easy points off the glass. If JA can’t guard him this year, he could be our Achilles Heel again.
I am assuming BB meant JS instead of JA because last year it was JS who simply got abused by Damion James. I am extremely worried about this game on Thursday night because I am not sure if we have the answer for James. He is a matchup nightmare and based on what I have seen from JS this year, I am not sure if he is ready to guard him.
I am not sure how Howland will scheme his defense to help out JS because he will need a lot of it. If JS can't handle James (which he didn't much of last year) who will get to step up? Can we feel confident about either ND or MR handling James? Oy vez.
As for rest of the team, just like Rick Barnes has done in previous years he has reorganized his talented roster to fill in for the departure of D.J. Augstin just like his teams stepped up in previous years to make up for the losses of college stars such as Durant, Ford, Mim and on and on. From Sportsline.com:
Returnees abound for Texas, though the biggest question entering the season is how the Longhorns will function without All-American point guard D.J. Augustin.
It's not as if coach Rick Barnes hasn't fielded such inquiries before.
This is the same coach who's sent the NBA other lottery picks, such as Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, T.J. Ford and Chris Mihm, so the Longhorns are accustomed to reloading and doing so before players exhaust their eligibility.
"We don't replace those guys," Barnes said. "This is a new year with a different team, so roles will change."
Mason is your point guard. The Abrams at point experiment is over. Unless Balbay was also in the game, Mase handled the duties at the point. Again, this is not a knock on Abrams. In fact, AJ is better able to score off catch-and-shoot jumpers when he plays off the ball and can run the baseline as well. Abrams is also able to make plays for his teammates off baseline curls when he is off the ball. This may not bode well for Abrams’s future as a point guard in the NBA. It does, however, bode well for the Texas Longhorns this season.
Imagine DC and JA will get the assignments to take him on while JH will get the duties to take on Abrams.
As Mason and Abrams make up the starting backcourt for the Long Horns, keep an eye on Dogus Balbay, a soph guard from Turkey who sat out last season due to a knee injury. Per BON Balbay has emerged as a key contributor off the bench for the Longhorns as they dubbed the kid the defensive MVP of their last game (a blowout win over Rice):
The Defensive MVP was: Dogus Balbay. Again, this designation could go to a couple of players. James played well defensively and ended with two steals and a block and Mason added three steals of his own to complete a solid overall performance. However, Balbay stood out with the most memorable defensive play of the game.
Rice had an easy two on zero fast-break lay-up erased by an incredibly athletic block by Dogus. Balbay caught the ball from behind, slashed across the lane, and threw a one-handed attempted lay-up backwards. For the second game in a row, he made a block that most players six inches taller than him can’t make.
The combination of Balbay, Abrams and Mason no doubt will be a huge test for our backcourt which is deep but of course laden with freshmen inexperience. It will be interesting to see how our cubs respond in a true environment.
Meanwhile, on the other end of the court we mentioned about the nightmare matchup against James. Also look out for Dexter Pittman, who BB noted is built like a football TE. The guys at BON think that Pittman has some developing to do:
The Dexter Pittman Watch: 6 points (1-of-3) and three rebounds in eight minutes. Big Dex is a starter in name only. He has started the last few games and played until just shy of the first tv timeout before he becomes visibly winded. When he is in the game, he is a force in the paint. Unfortunately, he is still not able to stay on the floor long enough to be a real factor in the game.
In the last couple of games, it has been foul trouble that plagued him; this afternoon, it was probably stamina and the pace of the game being too fast for him. Most of you are bigger Dex supporters than I am. However, I really want to see him succeed and I want Texas to have an interior force that opponents must game-plan to stop. Call me pessimistic, but I don’t see that happening this season. Dex is still not able to play more than four or five consecutive minutes, is slow on off-the-ball defense, and has trouble elevating on jump hooks and rebounds.
Yet, I am sure AA and rest of our front court guys will not take this kid lightly. Inspired by a marquee matchup and a fired up home crowd, I can see this kind having a great game against a Bruin front court which is going through its own development process during this early non conference season.
Speaking of going up against a marquee opponent early in the season, I think it's too early to make too much out of data points available on Kenpom.com but for those who are curious here are the scouting stats on a 5-1 Texas team. The number that sticks is that they are ranked number 5 (adj. efficiency) in the country in defense while 114th on offense. That is off compared to the defensive/offensive rankings in the same category from 2008 (36/3), 2007 (62/5), and 2006 (10/4). Again, I am not sure if you want to put a lot of stock in their early 2009 numbers but at least judging by their offensive output from their first 6 games, it looks like they are still figuring out a way to replace the lost offensive firepower from the departures from studs like Augustin and Durant. FWIW they are making it up early on a via strong defense. As for UCLA as we have discussed heading into the FIU game we have a lot of work to do on our defensive front, as at least in the early going our defensive stats are no where close to what they have been in recent years. Here are the early 2009 numbers which show UCLA with the 75th ranked defense (adj efficiency) in 2009. Anyway, like I said above I don't put a lot of stock in these stats at this point of the season even though they are kind of fund to play around with.
So with all that said here are my three key factors for Thursday night's games:
- DC's performance. I don't need to go over how he went missing against Michigan. Although he rebounded well against the Salukis, the spotlight is going to be on him in this matchup against a great Texas backcourt. Given DC's performance (or lack thereof) against Michigan guards and the nightmarish Final-4 against Memphis, this could be a huge opportunity for DC to make a statement (don't forget he was also somewhat of nonfactor in this game last year as he was trying to come back from a serious injury)
- JS v. James. I am having nightmares about it and unless someone can talk me down, I think this could be the potential matchup that might cost us thsi game
The composure of our young freshmen. Huge opportunity for JH as he will probably get the chance to guard against one of the better guards in the country in Abrams. Also, the guys like JMM and DG (if they see action) will have a big challenge in dealing with an experienced Texas frontcourt.
That's what I got for now on this game. As we get more notes, I will keep sharing them on BN and as always feel free to share your thoughts and takes on Thursday night, setting of a huge week in Bruin Nation.