There are two schools of thought on Texas.
One school says: Whoa. With Saturday's 74-63 win at Kansas safely tucked in this team's pocket, the chances for an undefeated run through the Big 12 now have to be seriously considered, starting with tonight's game at Oklahoma State. It's a big "if," but if Texas can take care of the Cowboys in Stillwater, get past Missouri at home on Saturday, and then turn around and win at Texas A&M this coming Monday, the "run the table" talk will really begin in earnest. At that point 16-0 could be a real possibility.
The other school of thought on the Longhorns, however, says: Whoa. How excited should we really get about a team that lost to USC by 17? After all, isn't this just the latest in a series of fad teams out of Austin? Look at last year. On January 18, 2010, Texas was 17-0 and ranked No. 1 in the nation. From that point forward the Horns went 7-10. They limped into the NCAA tournament, where they lost in the first round to an opponent (Wake Forest) that was about to fire its coach. Forgive us if we take a wait-and-see attitude in January toward yet another talented group of Longhorns.
Which school of thought is correct? Well, both are. (I'm so diplomatic.) Let me walk you through my recommended set of responses to this Texas team. Think of it as two cheers for the Horns.
Sure, Texas probably won't keep playing this well.
Or if they do they're the most dominant team in recent college basketball history, better than North Carolina in 2009, Florida in 2007, or any other team since the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. After four games UT is outscoring the Big 12 by 0.32 points per possession. That's unheard of -- anything north of 0.20 is rare enough in major-conference play -- and with 75 percent of this team's Big 12 schedule yet to be played it's not terribly risky to predict something closer to normality in the Longhorns' future. By "normality" I mean (gasp) close games or even (shudder) a loss or two. Chances are Barnes' team won't continue to make 53 percent of its twos and 43 percent of its threes against the Big 12. A correction is coming.
But good luck waiting for this defense to weaken.
Even when Texas finds more of its shots rimming out, though, they'll still have their excellent D to fall back on, one that's been impressively strong for more or less the entire season. Not that there haven't been hiccups, of course. As recently as January 8 Connecticut was able to ring up 82 points in 76 possessions in their OT win at home over the Horns. But over the long haul this projects to be a defense that opposing offenses would do well to avoid. Thus far Big 12 opponents have made just 22 percent of their threes against the athletic and active Texas D, while Barnes' men have pulled down 74 percent of the available defensive rebounds in conference play. Kansas certainly doesn't lack for talent, and last Saturday the Jayhawks managed just 63 points in 72 possessions against this defense. That kind of result is no accident.
Jordan Hamilton's for real.
When even Bill Self, with the weapons he has at his disposal, frets about the tough match-up an opposing player poses for the Jayhawks, you know that has to be one special player. Jordan Hamilton is indeed a tough match-up for any defense facing Texas. At 6-7 Hamilton can post up defenders who are quick enough to stay with him, but on the year he's also making 42 percent of his threes. Most importantly, the sophomore from L.A. takes pretty good care of the ball while functioning as Barnes' featured scorer. In short, Hamilton is more than just a guy who scores the proverbial "20 a game." He's also an efficient source of offense, one who draws the attention of opposing defenses and creates opportunities for his teammates (see below). Hamilton is projected as a mid-first-round selection in this summer's NBA draft.
Texas is more than Hamilton.
Highly-touted freshman Tristan Thompson has improved as the year's progressed, to the point where he's posting better stats against the Big 12 than he did against non-conference opponents. (For one thing the 51 percent free throw shooter went 6-of-8 from the line against Kansas.) By the same token J'Covan Brown went off for 23 points in 29 minutes against the Jayhawks. And freshman Cory Joseph has been UT's most reliable perimeter shooter, hitting 43 percent of his shots from beyond the arc. As per usual, Barnes has no shortage of horsepower on his roster.
Even so, there's a "book" on Texas.
With all the success that Barnes' team has enjoyed early, there's one unusual and rather surprising area of mediocrity this season in Austin. In stark contrast to past years, this group's been merely average on the offensive glass in Big 12 play. That's good news for opponents, who stand a reasonable chance of ending a Longhorn possession after the first shot as long as they don't foul. Also bear in mind that, other things being equal, Texas would rather take the ball inside -- among Big 12 teams only Texas Tech is less likely to attempt a three. So the book on the Longhorns says push them out of their preference: pack the paint, don't foul, take care of your own defensive glass, and hope that Hamilton and Joseph miss some threes.
The cautionary example of last season means that Texas is facing some legitimate skepticism in 2011. But given the strength of this defense and the proven effectiveness of Hamilton as a scorer, the Longhorns will have every opportunity to silence the skeptics and create a whole new school of thought. Again, the Horns are about to play three games in six days: at Oklahoma State, at home against Missouri, and at Texas A&M. I for one will be watching very closely.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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