Ten Things That Need to Happen for Texas to Win a National Championship
The Texas Longhorns (17-1) are off to their best start in over 20 years and have the look of a legitimate National Title contender after just under three months of play.
Combining a solid core of seniors and a plethora of talented specialists, the Longhorns are a formidable force on both ends of the court and have the players in place to make it a very special season in Austin.
However, the once invincible-looking Longhorns were toppled by Big 12 foe Kansas State on Monday night, in a game that exposed some significant flaws in this Texas squad.
Whether the loss to the Wildcats was merely a blip on the radar or an ominous foreshadowing of problems yet to come remains to be seen.
Here are 10 things that need to happen for Texas to make a run at, and perhaps win, a National Championship for the first time in the program's long history.
10. Find More Playing Time For Gary Johnson
Junior Gary Johnson is easily one of the best sixth men in the nation.
Averaging eight points and four rebounds a game, the dynamic Johnson offers the Longhorns a blend of terrific post presence on offense and suffocating defense on the other end.
The tenacious forward has come up big off the bench for Texas in some of the most significant games of the year, including a dominating defensive performance against Michigan State which essentially sealed the win for the Longhorns.
While Johnson does see about 19 minutes per game (starter Dexter Pittman sees about 20), I still think he could be implemented more often.
While we are all aware of his defensive prowess, his improving offensive game makes him a match-up nightmare for smaller forwards in the paint.
9. Avoid Leaning On The Freshmen Too Much
Rick Barnes has said that this may be close to, if not the best, set of freshmen he's ever coached (that's saying a lot considering Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin, and Damion James all arrived in the same class).
Avery Bradley, Jordan Hamilton, and J'Covan Brown are all stellar players with potential that has no limits.
Of the three, Bradley has made the biggest splash, averaging 27 minutes and 12 points a game as a starter for the Longhorns.
The young guard had a monster two-game stretch against Colorado and Iowa State in which he averaged just under 30 points per contest, shooting over 50 percent from the field.
He and the other two freshmen have been so effective at times that people tend to forget they are still freshmen, including Rick Barnes.
The road game at Kansas State proved to be the first real road test for these youngsters, and they collectively struggled, shooting just 9-of-27 combined.
When the heat was turned on by the K-State defense, they became flustered and either threw up desperate shots or just threw the ball away.
This is a very talented group of rookies, but they are not yet capable of running the show. Allowing seniors James and Pittman to pace the offense will open up easier scoring opportunities for these freshmen.
8. Make Jai Lucas A Spot-Up Shooter
Florida transfer Jai Lucas is a bit of an unknown on the national scale, despite averaging eight points a game for the Gators during the 2007-2008 season.
Lucas is lightning quick and has a three-ball that has a rather eerie resemblance to that of former three-point ace A.J. Abrams.
Jai has run the point in his limited playing time this season, but as I watch him, I can't help but notice that he's not the best ball-handler. Last season Rick Barnes attempted to turn Abrams into a point guard, but that experiment didn't quite pan out.
I think we're looking at a similar scenario. Lucas, like Abrams, is a terrific shooter with incredible range and quick release.
If he could be freed up on the perimeter through a pick-and-roll or something of the like, he could flat out burn defenses and really loosen up the zone defenses the Longhorns will see often.
He's proven his worth from beyond the arc at times this season, hitting five three's against Gardner-Webb and two against Texas A&M-CC.
Rick Barnes should strongly consider this switch to better suit Lucas' talents.
7. Cut The Costly Turnovers
This has been a major area of concern as of late for Rick Barnes and Texas.
Over the last two games, Texas has turned the ball over an average of 13 times (season-high of 18 against Kansas State).
Many of these turnovers are the result of carelessness in transition and mental mistakes by some of the younger players.
There were too many times Monday night where Texas players became desperate for points against the stingy Wildcat defense, which resulted in some uncharacteristic mistakes by this Texas team.
The rushed tempo on offense played right into the hands of Kansas State.
If the Longhorns can keep away from the turnover bug, the offense will develop a better flow as the season goes on.
6. Maintain A Consistent Edge On The Boards
The Longhorns currently lead the nation in rebounding at 44 boards per game.
One of the biggest reasons the Longhorns are off to such a hot start is because of their dominance down low.
In two games against the North Carolina and Michigan State, Texas won the rebounding battle by an average of 42-31 (16-6 on the offensive glass).
Damion James and Dexter Pittman combine for 17 rebounds per game, so it's safe to say they have controlled the paint area effectively.
However, I noticed breakdowns in blocking out in the Longhorns' last two contests against Texas A&M and Kansas State.
In their contest against the Aggies, the Longhorns failed to box out consistently, allowing easy second-chance points for Bryan Davis, Dash Harris, and Nathan Walkup. Consequently, the Aggies held the lead throughout the entire game until Texas forced overtime.
Against the Wildcats, the tandem of Curtis Kelly and Jamar Samuels crushed the Longhorns on the boards, combining for 19 rebounds (nine offensive).
With Texas' Pittman spending much of the game on the bench with foul trouble, the Longhorns were powerless to stop the Wildcat's onslaught down low.
Moral of the story: When the Longhorns are able to control the glass, they win handily. When they fail to do so, they fall victim to upset-hungry teams.
5. Keep "Big Dex" Out Of Foul Trouble
Senior Dexter Pittman may be the single most important piece of the Longhorns' interior game.
At 6"11, 290 lbs, his imposing presence causes a number of problems for opponents.
Averaging 12 points and six rebounds on the season, Pittman has allowed Texas to pound opposing teams in the paint over the course of games, eventually wearing them down.
While Pittman may not play for more than three to four minutes at a time (Barnes rests him frequently), his minutes add up and end up having a huge impact on the outcome of the game.
Against the Tar Heels in Dallas, Dex easily had his best game of the season, smashing his way to 23 points and 15 rebounds in 26 minutes of play.
A major reason he was able to leave such a big footprint on the game was because he stayed out of foul trouble, something that has plagued him his entire career.
When Pittman has been able to see more than 25 minutes of playing time this season, his numbers are rock solid.
However, when his minutes dip below 20 due to time spent on the bench with fouls, not only do his numbers decline, the team suffers as well.
Pittman played only 16 minutes aginst Kansas State Monday night, resulting in just six points, and ultimately a Longhorn loss.
While Texas does have capable players to fill the void when Pittman is taking his routine rests, none of them have the ability to affect the outcome of the game in the way that he does when he sees significant time on the floor.
Sticking with the three- to four-minute intervals on the court should help keep Pittman fresh, resulting in fewer careless fouls due to fatigue or frustration.
4. Choose A Starting Point Guard And Stick With Him
It seems that ever since D.J. Augustin left Texas in 2008, the Longhorns have been lacking a true starting point guard.
Last season, A.J. Abrams, Justin Mason, and Dogus Balbay all got time at the point, but none of them could distinguish themselves from the others.
Rick Barnes is facing a similar dilemma this season.
Dogus Balbay is technically the starter, but freshman J'Covan Brown and junior Jai Lucas have seen some significant minutes as well.
All three bring different skills to the table. Balbay is the best ball-handler, Brown has the crafty moves, and Lucas is the best shooter.
Unfortunately, none of these three players possess all of those skills, which has forced Barnes to sub in a new point guard every so often.
The problem with this approach is the fact that the offense can never get in rhythm with a single point guard. The other four players on the floor are forced to adapt to the skills of whichever point guard is in the game at the time.
As we've seen the past few weeks, the offense has sputtered a bit when a new floor general comes in.
Now I made the suggestion earlier that Jai Lucas be moved to the No. 2 spot in the offense, which would allow Rick Barnes to start Balbay and sub in Brown whenever the team needs some quick offense.
Balbay is a very mediocre shooter, but he provides the spark that sets the offense in motion. He's a terrific passer and can get to the rim in a hurry, thus making him the prime candidate for the starting job.
By rotating less at the point, the players can develop some chemistry with a single point guard instead of three.
3. Make The Easy Shots
This one is pretty self-explanatory.
If you make the easy shots, you take a lot of pressure off of your offense.
Unfortunately for the Longhorns, the last two weeks have been anything but easy, especially from a shooting standpoint.
In the last 15 seconds of the A&M game, Avery Bradley stole a pass and was driving down the court for an easy, game-winning layup. He failed to convert, and both Alexis Wangmene and Damion James missed on the putbacks.
On Monday night, the same sort of things continued to happen. Even Damion James, arguably the best all-around player in the Big 12, missed easy layups in transition.
It would be foolish to say that a team should have an incredibly efficient shooting night every time they step on the court, it just doesn't work like that. Some nights you're really hot, and other nights you're stone cold.
However, I will say that championship-caliber teams always find ways to put up points, even when some of the easier shots aren't falling.
I have no reason to believe these shooting woes will last long for Texas, but with the Big 12 stacked top to bottom, the Longhorns can't afford another night like they had on Monday, or even the Saturday before that.
2. Capitalize From The Charity Stripe
If there was one statistic that summed up the Longhorns' loss to Kansas State, it would have to be 9-of-22.
Those numbers are referring to the way Texas shot the ball from the free-throw line.
Shocking, isn't it?
You won't find many championship contenders who shoot that poorly from the free throw line (2007-2008 Memphis team comes to mind).
The Longhorns are dead last in the Big 12 in terms of free throw percentage at just over 60 percent for the season.
J'Covan Brown (93 percent) is the only player on the team who shoots above 75 percent from the charity stripe, with the next closest being Jai Lucas at 71 percent.
When you have that many players on the floor who are utterly inept from the line, opposing defenses become that much more confident knowing they can play physically without having to worry about getting chipped away at at the line.
And then there's the obvious fact that if you can't hit free throws consistently in big games you are likely to lose, as the Longhorns did when they shot an atrocious 40 percent.
If the Longhorns don't start making better use of the free points they are given chances at, a Big 12 and National Title may be out of the question for this group.
1. Win All Six Games in March
This may come across as facetious and blatantly obvious, but the fact remains that no matter how much success you have during the regular season, it makes no difference if you don't bring your A game to the Big Dance.
It is important for Rick Barnes to have his team continuing down the path of improvement while avoiding peaking too soon.
As good as Texas is, there are plenty of issues that have to be corrected before they can be considered the absolute favorites to win it all.
However, this team is going to have ample opportunities to continue to show the nation just how good they are.
A Feb. 8 match up with Kansas in Austin highlights a tough remaining Big 12 schedule that includes a much-improved Baylor team and a rematch with the Aggies of A&M in College Station.
It should be a very interesting two months for Rick Barnes and the Texas Longhorns. Very interesting indeed...