First Take: Kansas Handles ‘Horns
Inconsistency kills Texas again.
Don’t blame this on Rick Barnes.
I know in the past the Texas coach has drawn the criticism of many a fan for bringing in jaw dropping talent and then finding every conceivable way to not win the big games when they count. When I ranked the Longhorns #2 overall behind Kansas in the SLAM preseason rankings there were mixed opinions, but the naysayers attacked the track record of Barnes. I’m telling you though, this time the fault is bigger than Barnes.
Last night’s 80-68 loss to the Jayhawks was really a microcosm of what the season has been for Texas, more specifically the last three weeks when they have lost five of their last seven games since reaching the number one ranking in the country. The problem lies with consistency: there hasn’t been any to speak of. In an effort to find some combination of players that works, Barnes played 12 men last night and the result was the same as it has typically been, Damion James has another strong game and someone else steps up. The problem is, that someone else has changed more often than Texas’s ranking this season.
Early in the year it looked like Dexter Pittman had finally realized his potential and was physically conditioned enough to play long stretches of time. The big man put up four 20-point games in the first two months of the season, including his monster 23 and 15 effort against North Carolina. Since conference play has started the senior has reached double figures just twice and has been missing in action in the biggest of games, scoring five points against UConn, six against Kansas State and just three last night. While Pittman was plummeting it seemed like freshman Avery Bradley was hitting his stride, scoring 29 and 24 in each of his first two Big 12 contests. But the youngster has battled with inconsistency as well going 3-of-11 in a loss to Baylor and managing just a 1-for-6 showing last night. Bradley is young and clearly has time to develop into a consistent performer as a high level, but Texas needs consistency now.
Now it appears as though the flavor of the week in Austin is another freshman guard in J’Covan Brown who had a monster game last night, scoring 28 points. The problem is, this is only the fourth time since the newcomer has scored in double figures since the third week in December and his playing time has been nearly as up and down as his scoring totals have.
The true problem doesn’t lie in the lack of a consistent second scoring option behind James, there are plenty of teams that ride the hot hand, whoever it may be, on a nightly basis. Teams loaded down with big time offensive threats may get 20 from player A on Tuesday only to see player B take the reins with 25 on Thursday. What kills Texas right now is that when one of these options isn’t have a big game, they disappear almost entirely – it’s a case of all or nothing. Pittman and Bradley don’t need to score 20 points every night for the Longhorns to win games, but on nights where they aren’t leading the charge, they can’t fail to show up altogether. The same can be said for Brown and Jordan Hamilton who have played at opposite ends of the spectrum during various points this season.
I said this yesterday and I will stick by it, Texas may be in a tailspin right now, but you cannot deny the talent level on this team. If – and that’s a big if at this point – the Longhorns can figure it all out in the next couple of weeks, they can make a major run come Tournament time.
I’ll keep my comments on Kansas to a minimum but I will say this, Marcus Morris has made himself a lot of money in the last several weeks. While it is likely he will be returning for his junior season at Kansas (things can change) his sudden explosion in Big 12 play has no doubt drawn the attention of plenty of pro scouts. Forgetting the fact that he has scored at least 13 points and grabbed at least seven rebounds in each of his last nine games, the power forward has shown off the skill set that first caught people’s attention during his freshman season. Morris has shown tremendous toughness, even coming back to lead the Jayhawks in scoring last night after dislocating a finger in the first half. His face up game looks better and better, allowing him to attack opposing defenders off the dribble even when starting from beyond the arc, and his jumper is showing improvements. Given this sudden arrival on the scene in the last month or so, Morris allows Kansas to lay claim to the arguably the best frontcourt in the nation.
Villanova rebounded nicely from their loss to Georgetown on Saturday, going into West Virginia and coming away with a win. Even though the Mountaineers have been ranked in the top ten for the majority of the season, I’ve always felt as though they were just a tad overrated. Watching them fall to the Wildcats at home last night only further validated my thoughts, as it appears that Bob Huggins’ squad is just a half step below ‘Nova and Syracuse in the Big East race. I think what stood out the most in this game is the manner in which Villanova attacked the glass, outrebounding WVU 37-27 despite lacking the kind of interior presence the Mountaineers have. Once again though, when his team needed him, Scottie Reynolds stepped up, doing the bulk of his damage in the final 13 minutes of the game, finishing with 21 points.
It was a fairly quiet nice everywhere else around college hoops land. Butler and Siena both remained undefeated in conference play with the 15th-ranked Bulldogs getting past Loyola (IL) with no problems to move to 14-0 in the Horizon League. Siena on the other hand had their hands full with Fairfield, just outlasting the Stags 69-67 to improve to 14-0 in the MAAC. One other note from the MAAC, Rider’s Ryan Thompson (younger brother of Sacramento’s Jason Thompson) has been on an absolute tear. After scoring 31 in a win over Niagara last night, the senior guard has now eclipsed 25 points in three of his last four games. While his chances of reaching the pros like big bro are not fantastic, a good showing at events like Portsmouth could put his name in the mix.
Out west New Mexico State squeaked past Louisiana Tech in a pivotal match up in the WAC. Entering the contest, both teams were 7-2 in conference play before the Aggies pulled off the win, moving into a first place tie with Utah State, while the Bulldogs fell one game behind the race for conference supremacy.
Tonight features three excellent games worth watching in three separate conferences. Starting in the SEC, #12 Tennessee visits #24 Vanderbilt in a rematch of a game from a few weeks ago, a game that the Commodores won in Knoxville. Since then, Vandy has been somewhat up and down, having a head scratching loss to Georgia in their last game that saw them get trounced by the Bulldogs. The Vols have reeled off three straight wins, including a 26-point beat down of South Carolina. Following that will be a huge game in the Big Ten when Purdue visits Michigan State. Obviously the status of Kalin Lucas’s ankle is almost solely responsible for the outcome of this game and will determine exactly how screwed up the Big Ten could be after tonight. If the Boilermakers pull off the tough road win, that will at least temporarily create a five-way tie atop the Big Ten standings with Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio State. That shouldn’t last long though as the Badgers and Illini meet tonight as well. Finally in the CAA we can’t overlook VCU at George Mason, the best rivalry in that conference and with the Rams on fire right now taking on a Mason team just one game back of first place Northeastern, there is a lot at stake tonight. Enjoy the hoops!