When six freshmen make up the majority of your roster, you’re bound to have some growing pains. Texas coach Rick Barnes might not have expected them to happen so soon, however. His Longhorns made it interesting against Rhode Island yesterday afternoon, building and then conceding a 17-point lead before finally finishing off the Rams, 100-90.
Texas fans were able to see brief glimpses of their team’s problem areas in a thoroughly dominating win over Boston University on Sunday, but the flaws came out in full force as the Horns slowly gave up their double-digit lead against Rhode Island. Poor rebounding, failure to control the ball, and a cold spell from long range allowed Rhode Island to erase that 17-point deficit and briefly claim a 59-58 lead early in the second half. Fortunately, the backcourt of J’Covan Brown and Myck Kabongo took charge and attacked a pesky Rhode Island defense, guiding Texas to the win.
What looked good
After tying his career high with 28 points against Boston, Brown upped the ante with an impressive 35-point performance against the Rams. He was 5-of-10 from behind the arc and earned 10 points at the line by pressuring the aggressive Rhode Island D with dribble penetration.
But while his epic scoring totals are impressive, Brown’s assist numbers are just as important. J’Covan dished out six assists, giving him 14 on the season. Opponents are going to be keying on the junior guard this season, so it’s a good sign that he is already looking for and finding his open teammates. When other teams start throwing double teams at Brown, he’ll have to make them pay with timely passes.
The Longhorns also found a spark in freshman Jaylen Bond. When the team was having difficulties on the glass, he simply went out and got the basketball. Bond showed nice hops and ripped his rebounds out of the air, not allowing the ball bounce to around like many of his teammates have been. In just 17 minutes on the floor, the freshman secured six rebounds, four of them on the defensive end.
The team leader in rebounding was Clint Chapman, who grabbed eight boards on the afternoon. He also showed a little more agility with the ball than fans have seen in past seasons, unveiling a few nice face-up offensive moves. He finished with seven points, which is really all that Texas can expect at this point from the big man. While he still was beat for some rebounds that he should have controlled, overall it was a satisfactory performance.
On the perimeter, Julien Lewis picked up right where he left off, knocking down a triple to open the scoring for Texas. He took one ill-advised three early in the first half and was promptly removed and talked to by Barnes, but he learned from the mistake and stuck to open looks the rest of the way. Lewis finished 3-for-7 from long range, giving him a cool 50% success rate for the season.
Texas also found success at the free-throw stripe, a welcome sight for fans used to seeing the team struggle there in recent years. The team earned a whopping 44 free throw attempts and missed only nine of them. Bond and Jonathan Holmes, who didn’t make any trips to the line in the season opener, combined to go 9-for-10.
Not only are Horns knocking down 78.6% of their free throws so far this year, they showed great awareness in getting there against Rhode Island. With the refs calling a very tight game and the Rams playing even tighter defense, the guards put the ball on the floor and drew a hefty share of fouls all the way out on the perimeter. As a result, Texas’ free-throw rate — measured as free throw attempts per field goal attempts — was a ridiculous 74.6%. For comparison, last year’s national leaders at Northwestern State posted a 50.6% FTR.
What needed work
Unfortunately, Texas made this game much closer than it ever needed to be. The Horns were sloppy in the transition game, costing them a lot of points on turnovers and bad shots. They often careened right into the defense on the break, forcing up challenged looks or getting into positions where their only option was to throw a terrible pass at the last minute.
Kabongo was one player who especially had issues with this, and it underscored the fact that he isn’t quite the inside finisher that former point guard D.J. Augustin was. If Myck isn’t strong enough yet to score amongst the trees in the paint, he will have to be more under control on his drives. Flying headlong into good interior D with no passing options to bail him out simply won’t work.
Texas also had trouble with the transition game on the defensive end. As Rhode Island put together their late first-half run, their speedy guards were able to get deep into the defense and often all the way to the rim without a single Horn trying to stop the ball. When Texas did manage to turn away dribble penetration, often someone else failed to pick up an assignment coming down the court, leading to mismatches and open threes.
The Rams also utilized a ton of full-court pressure during their comeback, and the Longhorns had quite a few issues against it. Rather than beating it with the pass, their only solution was to wait for Brown or Kabongo to beat the press with their dribble. Once Texas can learn to move the ball quickly with smart passes, they can score a lot of easy points against aggressive defenses like this one.
While Chapman had a generally positive game, Alexis Wangmene struggled early and saw his playing time diminish. Early on, he had a rough time keeping up with the quicker Orion Outerbridge when the forward played face-up against him, and Barnes elected to go with Chapman and Holmes instead. Wangmene also continued to have issues hanging on to the ball on passes, rebounds, and loose ball situations. Fortunately, he did do quite a few little things right, taking a charge, setting some good screens, and sinking the midrange baseline J he took late in the game.
Finally, it is also worth mentioning that different players had defensive lapses at different times throughout the game, which is to be expected with such a young team. Barnes was liberal with the hook and took advantage of the teaching opportunities, talking over the mistakes with each player as they came off the court. Even though these Longhorns are going to have to run-and-gun to beat quite a few teams, Barnes is still very focused on teaching sound defense.
Up next: vs. Oregon State (2-0) in East Rutherford, NJ; Saturday, 8 P.M. CT