With a brand new No.2 ranking in the national polls, the Texas Longhorns made several statements on Thursday night in their 69-50 win over USC.
The first statement is that this team isn't really the nation's No.2 team
not yet. Oh, they might be ranked second, but with so many new pieces coming together on Rick Barnes' roster, it's pretty clear that he has a team that's still trying to forge an identity on the offensive end of the floor.
If that statement is a little concerning, you can take solace in the fact that the other statements made in this game are all positive, starting with the continued certification of a defensive standard that is becoming the foundation of this team. For all of the frustrations that might have arrived with a bevy of missed three-point shots and free throws, the Longhorns never stopped swarming the Trojans on the defensive end and the result was another double-digit win against a nationally respected program.
Perhaps the Longhorns can't hit the broad side of the barn at times when they are shooting the ball, but there can be no disputing the fact that UT has played six games this season and they've won each of them by no fewer than 16 points.
As another defensive mind in this town might say - great defenses don't have bad days. On a night when the Longhorns didn't make a three-point shot for the first 32 minutes of the game and only made 19-of-35 free throws, they limited USC to 30.4-percent shooting from the floor and forced 17 turnovers to runaway late with a double-digit win.
"Everything starts with defense," Texas point guard Dogus Balbay said. "Play defense, really hard, and the offense will come."
According to Barnes, the intensity level on the defensive end of the floor was a focal point this week in workouts.
"We came back from the Rice game and were really working on defense, so we went with a defensive team," Barnes said. On the perimeter, I thought Dogus (Balbay) and Justin (Mason) were terrific. Avery did a good job defensively. He probably pressed a little too much offensively, but we've got to set the tone early defensively. We did the things that we talked about doing coming in tonight. We spent two days of practice on defense. Offensively, we missed some shots, but if we made some more free throws, we'd feel better about our shooting."
Senior Damion James led the Longhorns with 19 points and nine rebounds on the night, but when the game tightened up in the second half, it was true freshman J'Covan Brown who provided the dagger to USC's heart.
After USC cut Texas' lead to 44-41 midway through the second half, the Longhorns went on a 25-9 run to end the game, with Brown going on a seven-point scoring spree in a span of 1:09 on the clock. By the time Brown had knocked down Texas' first three-point shot of the night, the lead was back up to 10 points and the Trojans didn't have enough in the tank to muster another run.
"We obviously got a little worn down in the second half," USC head coach Kevin O'Neill said. "I thought our guys fought hard. We really don't have quite enough right now, obviously, to come here and win."
Inside the Numbers
The Longhorns finished the night 24-of-58 from the field (41.4 percent), 2-of-11 (18.2 percent) from three-point land and were 19-of-34 (55.9 percent) from the free throw line. The Trojans were 21-of-69 from the field (30.4 percent), 1-of-10 (10.0 percent) from three-point land and were 7-of-11 (63.6 percent) from the free throw line. The Longhorns beat the Trojans on the glass 47-43, while also besting them in bench points (17-6), assists (9-2), blocks (10-7) and forced turnovers (17-10). Both teams finished with eight steals.
Star of the game
You'd have to give the nod on this night to James, who led the team in scoring and rebounding, while also getting to the free throw line a team-best 10 times. James will often allow himself to turn into a jump-shooting machine, but he was aggressive, attacked the rim and didn't allow himself to be a one-dimensional player on the offensive end, while also providing terrific support on defense.
Dogus Balbay continues to give this team a solid stat line each night. On Thursday against the Trojans, Balbay scored seven points, dished our four assists, grabbed four rebounds, created two steals, blocked a shot and only turned the ball over once in 28 minutes.
Momma always said there would be days like this
True freshman Avery Bradley's continuing evolution as a college player hit a roadblock on Thursday night with a two-of-10 night from the floor that was made worse with a 2-of-6 performance from the free throw line. It's not so much that Bradley missed too many shots as much as the timid approach he seems to be bring to the floor is holding him back. He's only six games in to his career and it's taking him a little while to figure out the speed of this level, but at some point Bradley has to start asserting himself better on the floor because it hurt the team more last night than it has at any other point in the early season.
The best sign that you might have missed
The Longhorns had six players play 20+ minutes and nine players play 10+ minutes, and not a single committed more than two turnovers on the night. Only Justin Mason (0 assists/2 turnovers) had an upside down assist-to-turnover number on the night.
On the other hand
The free throw shooting has been a crime at times this season and on Thursday night it felt like a felony offense. Despite dominating the game with their defense, the Longhorns found themselves in a tight game because they were terrible from the charity stripe. Only James (seven-of-ten) knocked down better than 50-percent from the line against the Trojans.
Gold medal play of the night
The Longhorns started to impose their will on the Trojans late in the first half when they went on a 14-4 run that was highlighted by a steal on the defensive end by Bradley, who then fed a high-flying James for a highlight-reel dunk over USC's Ryan Wetherell.
Longhorn Dunk O'Meter
Because these things matter to me, here's a look at the dunk scorecard from tonight:
Damion James - 1
Justin Mason - 1
The BIG number
That's the number of fouls the Longhorns committed against the Trojans, who had three players foul out of the game and another with one finish with four. With all of the defensive pressure that the Longhorns applied in the game, it didn't lead to sloppy play that would have given the Trojans free points. The only Longhorn with three fouls was James and no USC player shot more than four free throws.
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