In front of a raucous crowd of nearly 15,000, the young Texas Longhorns faced their first true road test of the season in East Lansing yesterday afternoon. While they didn’t escape the Breslin Center with an improbable win, the team responded to adversity and battled down to the final minutes in a game that was much tighter than the final score indicated.
The Horns came out of the gate very shaky, hitting just one of their first nine shots, with the make coming on a simple stickback by Jonathan Holmes. Texas turned it over five times in the team’s first ten possessions, giving fans flashbacks to the disastrous start against Georgetown in New York. After eight minutes of play, the Horns had already fallen behind 12-4 and had gone more than seven minutes without a field goal.
This time, the Longhorns didn’t wither under the pressure. The team suddenly heated up from long range and charged into the lead, while Sheldon McClellan woke up late in the half against a Michigan State defense that was keyed in on denying him the ball. He fought through tight defense, earning six free throw attempts as the half wound down, all of which he converted.
The one player Texas couldn’t stop in the first half was Derrick Nix, who had half of his team’s 28 points when they headed to the locker room. He put the Longhorn bigs in foul trouble early, sending Holmes and Cameron Ridley to the bench for extended periods of time. Michigan State continued to feed the big man in the second half, and the rotating Longhorn frontcourt was eaten alive. Nix finished with a career day, scoring 25 points to go with 11 boards. Eleven of his points came at the line, as he hit 84.6% of his free throws, well above his career average of 51%.
With Nix dominating and the Spartans putting on a run, the Longhorns found themselves down by as many as 10 points. Once again, they relied on stout defense down the stretch to hold the Spartans in check while they slowly mounted a comeback. Texas didn’t allow an offensive rebound and forced three turnovers during a seven-minute stretch where they clawed back to within two points of Michigan State. In the end, an inability to score in the clutch allowed the Spartans to slowly pull away over the final two minutes.
What looked good
Once again, the Longhorns were active in setting screens for their shooters, who had to fight through tight defensive pressure on every cut and curl. Texas has been much more active on the offensive end in their last four games, looking like a completely different team than the one that stood around on the court in the Maui Invitational. Javan Felix logged 11 assists on the afternoon, hitting the shooters at the right time for midrange jumpers.
Julien Lewis was the leading scorer for Texas, putting up 16 points for the game. Ten of his points came in the second half, where he repeatedly knocked down tough, contested jumpers in the lane. He was the only Longhorn who could be counted on to consistently score as the game wound down, and his buckets kept Texas in it until the final minutes.
Lewis is much more reliable this season, thanks to his new role as a catch-and-shoot guy. Last year, he often tried to create his own looks, and especially struggled if he couldn’t get going early. Now, Felix and the Horns are working hard to get Lewis open, and his quick release means he doesn’t need much space. The tight defense he is drawing is also opening up opponents to the shot fake and drive. Julien has done this on a few occasions this year, but with future opponents likely to throw additional pressure at him, he’ll have to mix it in even more.
The most important thing for these young Horns to take from this game was the experience. They are learning to respond to adversity and different players are trying to shoulder the load down the stretch. Connor Lammert had a huge bucket in the final minutes, although it appeared to be released after the shot clock had expired. Jonathan Holmes worked hard inside during the comeback push, but had a key hoop wiped out by a controversial charge. Lewis was a workhorse, and even Ioannis Papapetrou added a key three-point play and snagged timely defensive rebounds.
The Longhorns came up short in close games time after time last season, with most of their final possessions turning into an adventure. Texas’ primary option was clearly J’Covan Brown, and many times the late-game sets were simply him clearing out and trying to drive on an isolated defender. Opponents knew that and help defense was quick to respond.
This year, there are more players who are willing to step up and the team has more options. Unfortunately, the Longhorns are still not shooting the ball consistently, so those opportunities are not being converted. Only time will tell if this leads to a repeat of last year’s close-game frustrations, or if some of the youngsters will emerge as heroes and pull out a few tight victories.
What needed work
The player that most observers expected to take over Brown’s go-to role was sophomore Sheldon McClellan. Opponents have put a lot of energy into denying him the ball and making Texas have to work very hard to free him up. It’s been a struggle for Sheldon to get going in most games this year, as he often seems frustrated by the suffocating defense.
While he fought through the pressure late in the first half and earned some trips to the line, he was forcing things from the field all game long. He knocked down only one jumper on the afternoon, a three-pointer during Texas’ first-half run. His other two buckets came on drives to the rim, and he finished with an ugly 3-for-10 line. Most importantly, he missed two technical free throws with Texas down by one in the second half, energizing the crowd and fueling a nine-point run that gave Michigan State its largest lead of the game. He pressed the rest of the way, forcing terrible, off-balance looks.
Sheldon is drawing the bulk of the defensive attention, and it is going to be that way all season long. He has to stop backing down from the challenge and continue to fight for his looks, even when blanketed by top defenders. McClellan also has to start taking the ball to the rack. With defenders right on him as he catches the ball, almost all of his shots are contested. Shot fakes and head fakes will get the defense off balance and open up driving opportunities. Even if help shuts off those lanes, it forces opponents to rotate and will open up looks for his teammates.
Felix also forced things at time, taking some of the luster off of his 11-assist performance. The Texas bigs certainly had major issues handling passes in this game, but sometimes the blame rested on the point guard. Late in the game, Lammert bobbled a pass in the middle of the lane, but Felix had thrown it low and right into the middle of a gaggle of Spartan defenders. Also in the second half, Felix zipped an inbounds pass above the head of Prince Ibeh, which the big man tipped out of bounds. Prince often has trouble handling even easy passes, so a high heater only highlighted that weakness.
Javan also failed to make layups once he got to the rim, a problem that has been a team-wide affair in recent weeks. Felix missed a pair of layups after shaking the defense, and he also lost the ball on the way up in the final possession of the first half. Papapetrou also failed to convert his own open look at the rim after deftly slipping through the Spartan D.
The missed layup was the least of the problems for Papi on Saturday afternoon, however. He once again left a ton of points at the line, making just four of his nine free throw attempts. The Longhorns missed five other free throws, hitting only 58.3% at the stripe. A miss by Lammert also came on the front end of a one-and-one in the second half, essentially costing the team a possible two points. In a game that was close until the final minutes and in which the Spartans made nearly 77% of their free throws, the charity stripe played a huge role.
Even with that many points left at the line, the biggest problem for Texas came in defending the post. Nix and sixth man Adreian Payne had their way with the Longhorn bigs throughout the game, scoring against whoever Texas threw out there. They piled up the fouls on the Texas bigs, limiting both Ridley and Holmes to less than 20 minutes.
Ibeh was the only player to find much success against Nix, blocking two shots in consecutive second-half possessions. Nix was whistled for a technical after the second block as he argued for a foul, but Ibeh could have easily earned his own T for staring down the big man as he sat on the floor. When fighting hard for a win on the road, Ibeh’s preening after a good play could have been disastrous. He has to show some maturity and restraint in the future.
The lack of double teams on Nix was mystifying, as the Spartans had struggled with that at times this year. Michigan State players often forgot to help their big man, abandoning him against the pressure when he was doubled in previous games. In addition, the Spartans’ lack of a consistent midrange game and outside shooting meant that they likely would have struggled to beat Texas with the jumper. Instead, the Longhorns waited to offer post help until after Nix had beat the primary defender, resulting in easy buckets and needless fouls.
If one thing can be taken from the Texas struggles against Nix and Payne, it’s that the post players were forced to defend one-on-one. Against a team like Baylor that has length all over the court, doubling would be much less effective. If the Longhorn frontcourt can learn from their mistakes against MSU, perhaps it will pay off against some of the bigger teams in the Big 12.
Texas will also need to lock down the defensive glass in key situations as they move into conference play. On the whole, the Longhorns did an excellent job closing out defensive possessions with rebounds, limiting the Spartans to an offensive rebounding mark of 31%. The Longhorns performed even better in that category than UConn, Kansas, and Miami did against the Spartans, holding them well below their season average of 37.4%. However, the offensive boards that Michigan State did manage to control often resulted in second chance points. One was a big bucket at the end of the first half, and a clutch three by Keith Appling during Michigan State’s second-half push came after the Spartans reclaimed one of their missed free throws.
Texas has done good work on the defensive glass this season, but has struggled when the game is on the line. An inability to box out late in the UCLA game helped fuel that Bruin comeback, and the second chance points given to Michigan State were crippling. The Longhorns have to maintain their focus and close out defensive possessions with strong rebounds when the pressure is highest.
Finally, it must be noted that once again the turnover bug cost Texas in a big way. Although the Longhorns settled down for a long stretch of the first half, the five early turnovers killed their offense for nearly eight minutes. The team wasted 26.1% of their total possessions with miscues, the worst ball-control performance since the Georgetown game, and the third-worst of the season. It’s been said time and again, but for an offense that already struggles to score points, simply throwing away possessions is a recipe for failure.
Up next: vs. Rice (3-8); Saturday, 1 P.M.