November 29, 2009

Horns learn a few things in win over Rice

The evolution of a pre-season national favorite continues.

Although it's only November, it's easy to sit back and watch the No.3 Texas Longhorns and anticipate a net-cutting outfit with their array of talented athletes/players that runs a dozen deep and possesses a perfect blend of skill/talent.

Dexter Pittman is often dominant on the court. The freshmen class oozes NBA talent. The defensive intensity and effort is there are all times.

Still, Rome wasn't built in a day and NCAA champions aren't crowned before Christmas. If you're looking for a lesson to be learned in Texas' 77-59 win over the Rice Owns on Sunday in Houston, that's it.

For all of this team's promise, there is still a long way to go. The great news is that undefeated Longhorns keep learning valuable lessons for the future, while finding a way to win at the same time.

On a night when the Longhorns shot 41.2-percent from the floor as a team, Pittman remained one of the nation's most productive players, as he led the Longhorns with 21 points in 26 minutes on seven-of-eight shooting from the field.

"I think I'm the biggest player in college basketball," Pittman said. "If I see the refs let it go, I'm going to turn on my physical game."

If the Longhorns had a problem in the first half, it's that they didn't have an offensive answer to Rice's zone defense when Pittman was off the court or when they were unable to establish him in the paint. With zero transition game to speak of early in the game, the Longhorns held onto a 12-10 lead with a shade over 10 minutes remaining in the first half.

That's when the freshmen trio of J'Covan Brown, Avery Bradley and Jordan Hamilton helped ignite a 18-4 run, with the trio combining for 14 of those points via a mid-jumper and a rim-shaking ally-oop from Bradley, a pair of free throws from Brown and back-to-back three-point bombs by Hamilton.

The Longhorns coasted on a double-digit lead into the second half until the missed free throws and jump shots caught up to them, as the Owls started to knock down some of their own shots to cut the lead to 59-55 with 7:22 left in the game.

It was at that time that the Longhorns learned a little more about themselves heading into the second month of the season. While Pittman reestablished himself inside as a go-to-guy in the final minutes, the true closer for the Longhorns was Brown, who scored 10 of the team's final 20 points to finish with 15 points on the night.

"They were playing emotional. They wanted to win," Pittman said. "I think it was a great experience for the young guys to see what it takes to win on the road."

Texas will look to extend their undefeated ways on Thursday night when they host USC at 8pm in the only game scheduled this week. The Trojans are 2-2 and lost 51-48 to Nebraska at home on Sunday.

Inside the Numbers

The Longhorns finished the night 21-of-51 from the field (41.2 percent), 4-of-17 (23.5 percent) from three-point land and were 31-of-46 (67.4 percent) from the free throw line. The Owls were 25-of-63 from the field (39.7 percent), 1-of-10 (10.0 percent) from three-point land and were 8-of-14 (57.1 percent) from the free throw line. The Longhorns beat the Owls on the glass 45-36, while also besting them in bench points (24-23), assists (15-14) and blocks (5-1). The Owls finished with the edge in steals (8-6) and steals (12-7). Both teams finished with 14 turnovers.

Star of the game

There's not a player in the country that has been as dominant and efficient setting up shop in the paint as Pittman has through the first five games of the season. The Longhorns opened up the game with a great offensive set that allowed Pittman to establish himself on the block and he finished with a dunk on his first shot. From that moment on, the Longhorns had a tough time getting Pittman into the flow of the game in the first half, but that changed in the second half ands when Pittman was needed to help close out the game, he produced 14 second-half points.

Unsung hero

Very quietly, Bradley is starting to emerge as a real force for this team. With each game that passes, Bradley's comfort zone seems to reach new places and the fact that he was much more aggressive on the offensive end in this game - mixing in some mid-range skill off the bounce along with his high-flying attack on the rim. On top of the eight points that he scored, he chipped in four assists and a steal, while committing zero turnovers.

Leaving his game in Austin…

Senior Damion James is an All-America hopeful this season, but there were times on Sunday when it was hard to remember if he was on the court, as he finished with eight points on two-of-nine shooting and eight rebounds in 26 minutes. James is at his best when he's attacking the glass and rim offensively, but he settled for too many jump shots in the first half. While he was certainly more aggressive in the second half, there was never a point when the A-game James showed up.

The best sign that you might have missed

The point guard discussion might be answering itself in the first month of the season. With the Longhorns locked in a tight second-half battle, Rick Barnes turned to a true freshman down the stretch and there never seemed to be any doubt that the final five minutes of the game was his show to run. It's early, but Brown has the look of a born finisher at this level.

On the other hand…

Senior Justin Mason did a nice job of setting people up in his 16 minutes of action (4:1 assist-to-turnover radio), but he only scored one point in 16 minutes. When you consider how well Brown is finishing plays on the offensive end at the moment, it's important to note that Mason was 0-of-2 from the field and 1-of-4 from the free throw line. Mason played hard, but he has to find a way to finish a little better.

Gold medal play of the night

Moments after Brown caught and converted a one-handed alley-oop from Brown to give the Longhorns a 20-12 lead, Hamilton knocked down a pair of three-points shots like a cold-blooded shooting assassin, as the Longhorns lead suddenly grew to 28-14.

Longhorn Dunk O'Meter

Because these things matter to me, here's a look at the dunk scorecard from tonight:

Avery Bradley - 1
Gary Johnson - 1
Dexter Pittman - 1

The BIG number


That's the number of points that the freshmen trio of Brown, Bradley and Hamilton combined for. All three get better with each passing game.

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