AUSTIN, Texas -- Motivational props have long been a coaching ploy.
The sling cradling Rick Barnes surgically repaired right shoulder was not a prop. But that didn’t stop the Texas coach from using it as a little bit of motivation.
“When I was [Alexis Wangmene’s] age I played hard, and have had to deal with it,” Barnes said of the shoulder.
“I played harder than that too,” he said. “I had to.”
Barnes had to because he was a player with more grit than gifts. In that way he mirrors this Texas team. The Longhorns are not blessed with the size or the developed physical tools that are sprinkled throughout the rosters of the teams vying for the field of 65.
So what they lack in mature talent has to be made up for in toughness. And in Barnes’ mind, that toughness begins on the defensive end of the floor. Which is why practice for the past few days has been about fighting through screens not under them, staying in front of the dribble not for one bounce, but for two, until help arrives, and stepping up and taking charges.
All of that played out as Texas extended its win streak to five with a lopsided thrashing of Texas State on Saturday night.
“Of all the games we’ve played this year, we looked most like a Texas team defensively than we have this year,” Barnes said.
Some of that might have had to do with Texas State. Aside from a win against Houston, the Bobcats haven’t done much, except miss shots. Still, Texas was able to shine some light on what its capabilities might be in the future.
The Bobcats went 14:20 without making a field goal. Texas State shot 14 percent for the first half and 26 percent for the game. And, because of the aggressive man-to-man defense, Texas forced a one-on-one game in which Texas State was unable to move the ball and had to settle for contested shots.
“We are getting there.” Wangmene said. “Everybody is buying into it. We just have to get into it and work.”
The work ethic is always an issue with a young team. Freshmen rarely understand the significance of defense at the college level. Texas is loaded with freshmen. Take Julien Lewis, who had a career-high 19 points against Texas State, and Sheldon McClellan, who had a career-high 23 against UT-Arlington.
Barnes wants to play them both. He knows both are pure scorers. But their defense terrifies him. So much so that the coach has told each they will only play extended minutes if they can prove to him they have a willingness to play defense.
While Lewis and McClellan have struggled defensively, point guard Myck Kabongo is the opposite.
“He has competed, and I told them the reason he has played more than most of the freshmen is that he has consistently competed [on the defensive end of the floor],” Barnes said.
What Kabongo has also done is started to communicate with his teammates on defense. When working within a defense that is working angles, communication is paramount to success.
At times, that success is easy to see. At other times, as in early season games against Oregon State and N.C. State, for example, it is not.
“The guys are starting to talk a lot on defense,” Wangmene said. “[The communication is] not great. It is not where we can be yet.”
Neither, for that matter, is the defense. But it is getting better.
“Everybody has to come with the mindset that I'm going to play defense tonight,” Wangmene said.
And if they need a reminder of what that takes, all any of them have to do is look at the coach on the sideline with his arm in a sling.