With just four games left in the regular season, Texas was in dire need a bounce-back win after suffering their first conference loss of the season on Saturday. Fortunately for Rick Barnes and the Longhorns, the schedule-makers helped out in that department. Texas had the good fortune of hosting the Iowa State Cyclones, Big 12 cellar dwellers, and took care of business in fashion. The Longhorns turned in another brilliant defensive performance and stifled the short-handed Cyclones, coasting to a 76-53 win.
While fans shouldn’t get too excited about thumping the worst team in the conference, the win allowed the team a chance to iron out some wrinkles that had popped up in Lincoln. Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson took advantage of favorable matchups to have great games, while Dogus Balbay played out of his mind for 23 minutes. The Longhorns certainly have much bigger challenges waiting in the next three games, but it’s reassuring to see that the team was able to rebound quickly from one of their most disappointing performances of the season.
What looked good
Hamilton was the Texas player who most needed a shot in the arm, and he found it in a big way on Tuesday night. After shooting just 24% from the field in the team’s previous two games, Hamilton lit up the scoreboard against the Cyclones. He made 50% of his attempts, including 3-of-4 from behind the arc. His two threes in the second half helped fuel a Texas run that extended the team’s lead from just nine at half to more than 20 in a matter of minutes. In the first half, Hamilton even added the rare four-point play after being fouled by Melvin Ejim on a made three.
Thompson also had a breakout night against a smaller Iowa State frontcourt that was without its big defensive presence, 6’11″ Jamie Vanderbeken. Tristan posted a double-double with 17 points and 14 rebounds, while piling up the fouls on the Cyclone bigs. Calvin Godfrey fouled out of the game, while Ejim and Jordan Railey finished with four personals each. Most teams will provide a much stiffer test for Thompson in the post, but it’s a good sign that the team identified the mismatches and mercilessly exploited them.
Gary Johnson also had a double-double against Iowa State, scoring 14 points to go with his 12 rebounds. Perhaps most importantly, Johnson finally took the opportunity to step out and knock down a three-pointer in this game.
As we mentioned last month, Gary is one of the nation’s best shooters when it comes to shooting in the “danger zone,” located from 17-feet out to the three-point arc. It’s the furthest shot on the court that isn’t worth an extra point, so the risk is much greater than the reward. When we ran the numbers back on January 15th, Johnson was scoring 1.2 points per shot in that “danger zone.” It seems a natural progression for the senior to take a few steps back and earn an extra point for the team.
Another senior that chipped in with a quality outing was Dogus Balbay, who kept the Longhorn machine churning in the second half with hustle play all over the court. With the Cyclones sagging off of him in ways not seen since the 2009-10 season, Balbay attacked the paint off the dribble and contributed six points and two assists. More importantly, his active hands on defense deflected numerous passes out of bounds to disrupt the Cyclones, while he added a steal and a pair of impressive blocks late in the game.
As far as the numbers go, the Longhorn performance was absolutely dominant. Texas scored just 11 points in the final 11 minutes of the game, yet still finished with an impressive 23-point victory. The defense, meanwhile, squashed any hopes of an upset by holding the Cyclones scoreless for a combined 7:39 to open and close out the first half.
In terms of efficiency, the Longhorns put up the second-best outing against Iowa State all season. They held the Cyclones to just 0.767 points per possession, thanks largely in part to excellent perimeter defense. Although Iowa State had some open long-range looks early, they missed many of them, and Texas quickly adjusted to lock down the arc. The Cyclones, who were one of the nation’s top fifty teams from long range, managed to make just 25% of their three-point attempts against Texas.
Add in the fact that the Longhorns had a brief stretch in the first half where they were unable to stop Iowa State’s dribble-drive, and those stifling defensive numbers are even more impressive. After grabbing a 4-0 lead out of the gate, Texas allowed the Cyclones to score 13 points in just seven possessions, thanks to four layups and a dunk. Once the Longhorns made the effort to shut down the dribble penetration, Iowa State was limited to mostly contested jumpers. Excluding that four-minute stretch of porous defense, Texas held the Cyclones to an unbelievable 0.656 points per possession.
What needed work
In all honesty, there was very little to nitpick in Tuesday night’s game. The Longhorns had that four-minute stretch of weak defense which we just addressed, but otherwise they appeared impenetrable.
From the free-throw line, the team actually started 10-for-13 before finishing just 3-for-8 down the stretch. That gave the Longhorns a 61.9% success rate at the line, which has unfortunately become par for the course at this point. As usual, Thompson was the main offender, making just one of his six attempts.
Jai Lucas had a disappointing 1-of-7 night from the field, finally breaking through late in the game with a pull-up jumper a few feet inside the arc. Fortunately, the Iowa State game gave Jai a harmless opportunity to work on his shot at game speed. Unfortunately, the extra time didn’t seem to make much of a difference.
It’s essentially a given that Lucas will have to chew up some minutes down the stretch to give the starters some rest. Hopefully, he will be more of a floor manager and less of a shooter in games that are a little more tightly contested. Limiting his playing time to stints in which other scorers are on the floor should help to limit the damage during those stretches.
Up next: at Colorado (16-11 overall, 5-7 Big 12); Saturday, 3 P.M. CT
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