Deep in the Heart of Texas: Five Reasons the Longhorns Could Make Noise in March
Last year, I watched as a promising Texas Longhorns basketball team went from undefeated and top-ranked team in the land to a 7-10 finish and a frustrating first round loss to Wake Forest in the opening round of the NCAA Tourney.
This season, I have again watched the Longhorns very closely as they have gotten off to another promising start, ascending to a #12 national ranking with notable victories against Illinois, North Carolina, and Michigan State (each of which were either on a neutral court or on the road).
I believe this year's version of Texas basketball has more of a chance to find success in March than last year's incarnation ever did. Although it is a very different team, different is exactly what coach Rick Barnes needed. Here are some reasons why the Longhorns will be superbly equipped to make noise during the NCAA Tournament this season.
5. Possible Home Court Advantage
Duke and Kansas probably have number 1 seeds locked up for March already, because the teams they have assembled are just that talented. If I were to venture a guess, I'd say Ohio State is well on their way to the 3rd seed so far this season. While Big East teams such as Syracuse, Pitt, and Villanova are supremely talented the difficult nature of that conference (having 7 teams ranked in the top 25 as of January 3rd) will dictate Big East teams having less than perfect records.
While Texas' schedule also remains loaded, they will likely be favored in every game for the remainder of the season (save for January 22nd at Kansas). If they can finish the rest of the season only losing in Allen Fieldhouse once, who's to say that Texas can't slide into the last remaining number 1 slot? If this occurs, the Southwest regional taking place in San Antonio and the Final Four in Houston would dictate a home-court edge for the Longhorns.
4. Elevated Bench Play
Last year, Barnes struggled to establish a rotation, with most players coming off the bench struggling to find a role once they entered the game. The team's two best reserves, Jordan Hamilton and J'Covan Brown, provided at best an inconsistent offensive presence.
This season, however, has been much different. Guards Brown and Jai Lucas, forward Alexis Wangmene, and center Matt Hill have all at times provided valuable services. None of these players average over 20 minutes per game, but their contributions at both ends of the floor should prove useful in March.
3. Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson
These two Canadian high school teammates were quite the recruiting win for Rick Barnes. Both hailing from the Toronto area and Findlay College Prep, their achievements thus far are deserving of mention with all of the other fabulous freshmen of this college basketball season.
Joseph has provided an increasingly stable point guard presence and uncommon poise. One needs to look no further than his game against North Carolina in which he scored 21 points with no turnovers and the game-winning shot with just one second on the clock.
Thompson, meanwhile, has burst onto the scene, leading the team in rebounds, steals, and blocks. He is also averaging 12 points a game, including 20 versus Illinois and 17 at Michigan State.
2. Senior Leadership
This year's Texas basketball team has 3 seniors in the rotation, all of whom know their role and have provided a good influence to the numerous underclassmen on the squad.
Matt Hill, while only playing 14 minutes a game and scoring a total of 15 points this season, provides important depth in the front-court off the bench and has performed well on the defensive end.
Although his statistics don't seem like much, Dogus Balbay remains one of the most important players on the Texas roster. His endless hustle and defensive effort energize the rest of the team and he facilitates the offense better than any other player while on the floor, despite his shortcomings shooting the ball.
Gary Johnson's play this season has made it obvious that he put a huge amount of work into improving his game in the offseason. His gains on offense, including lengthening the range on his jump shot, and elevated defensive play have been paramount to Texas' success so far this year.
The contributions of these three will be very important to any continued success this season.
1. Jordan Hamilton
If there were some sort of award in college basketball for the most improved player, the smart bet at this point would be for Connecticut's Kemba Walker to receive the award.
However, Jordan Hamilton is an easy second.
The main knocks on Jordan Hamilton last year was that he didn't play defense and consistently utilize his offensive talents. By my observations, his performances in these departments have improved drastically.
Hamilton has greatly improved his defensive play, grabbing seven rebounds a game and often contributing big blocks and steals at crucial times.
As for the offensive end, anyone who saw Hamilton's performance at Oklahoma State in 2010 conference play knows he possesses a special ability to put the ball in the hoop. His consistency was the problem. This season Hamilton has improved from all areas of the floor, improving his field goal, free throw, and three point percentages and his assist to turnover ratio. This has allowed the team as a whole to play offense around him instead of trying to score despite him.
If Jordan Hamilton continues this level of play, he could be a household name by April.