Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Saddle Up: Texas in the spotlight
By Eamonn Brennan
Texas vs. No. 15 Georgetown, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: It is easy to take shots at Rick Barnes. It is easy to look back at the NBA talent that has passed through Austin, and to contrast that with the lone Final Four on Barnes' résumé, and accuse Barnes of not actually being able to coach, and to accuse Texas fans of being too obsessed with football to even notice (which seems especially questionable). If you can relay these sentiments in a comedic manner, well, that's just the icing on the cake.
Barnes has himself to blame for some of this. Some of his best teams should have gone deeper in the tournament than they did, and the buck has to stop somewhere. But it is hard to look at Barnes' overall record -- 14 straight NCAA tournament berths, three conference titles (in a league, standard disclaimer, that also includes Kansas), a 333-130 record entering this season -- and not start to wonder whether the backlash doesn't deserve a backlash of its own.
Or maybe it's just easy to feel bad for Barnes this season.
If you saw Texas in Maui in November, you saw the youngest team in the country play some of the more tentative, ugly offensive basketball you could ever see. As a result, the Longhorns lost -- not only to the ever-ugly USC Trojans but to Division II Chaminade. So it was easy to rip Barnes once more.
But when you consider the fact that Barnes spent pretty much all offseason expecting to have star point guard Myck Kabongo available, and then lost his team's undisputed leader and best player to an NBA-workout/agent-relationship-related NCAA inquest a few days before the start of practice. Under similar circumstances -- loaded with youngsters, missing its best player and leader -- what team wouldn't struggle?
In any case, there are some green shoots in Texas. For one, Kabongo shouldn't miss the whole season (this seems about right, but we'll see). More than that, though, is that Barnes' team has already played some of the best defense in the country -- one of his recent teams' most consistent trademarks -- by holding opponents to the worst 2-point field goal percentage in the country so far this season, and by blocking 19.8 percent of their opponents' shot attempts. (Highly touted freshman center Cameron Ridley is clueless on offense, but boy can he protect the rim.) Granted, Texas' opponents have not exactly been Indiana. But for all its offensive struggles (see: turnovers), this Longhorns team appears very capable defensively.
Do I think Barnes & Co. will beat Georgetown on a neutral floor Tuesday night? I do not. Otto Porter is too good; the Hoyas are too polished. Do I think Texas is better than that whuppin' the Silverswords gave them in Maui? I do. Will Kabongo's eventual return make them a top-half Big 12 team? I think so.
Sure, this could be the year Barnes finally misses an NCAA tournament. But I wouldn't bet on it just yet.
No. 25 NC State at Connecticut, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN: Even at their incoherent worst, NC State has too many individual weapons -- C.J. Leslie, Richard Howell, hyper-efficient freshman T.J. Warren, less-efficient-but-still-good freshman Rodney Purvis, distance specialist Scott Wood -- to not be a good offensive team. And thus far, the Wolfpack have scored the ball at a pretty efficient clip. What they have not done, as Seth Greenberg detailed in a great film analysis today, is guarded anybody. Thus far -- and this includes games not only against Michigan and Oklahoma State but against UMass, NC Asheville, Penn State and Miami of Ohio -- the Wolfpack have actually regressed from last year's defensive effort, in all the predictable ways.
For example: Last season, per KenPom, Mark Gottfried's team created turnovers on 18.6 percent of opponents' possessions; this season, NC State is performing even worse (17.2 percent, ranked No. 306 in the country) than that.
It's easy to look back now and ask everyone what they were thinking picking NC State to win the ACC (and I, having picked Duke and routinely doubted the Wolfpack, always feel doubly tempted), but as much as I disagreed with the logic I could at least understand it: NC State was crazy talented. And they are. And so they score points, even when they don't play fluid, together basketball. But it isn't enough to merely score. If the Wolfpack want to be great -- if they want to challenge for their conference title and go deep in the NCAA tournament -- they have to guard. They haven't thus far, and that's really all you need to know.
We'll see whether that changes in Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. Connecticut will come right at them -- Shabazz Napier & Co. are hungry, almost as hungry as their quasi-interim coach, and they've knocked off good teams on big stages (Michigan State in Germany) already this season. Gottfried has spent much of his time preaching the importance of togetherness to his team, of toughing out wins as a group, and rarely in basketball is that quality more transparent than on the defensive end. However small it may be, can the Wolfpack take a step?