|In case you haven’t noticed, and with the coaching drama going on you might not have, the Texas Longhorns are pretty darn good so far this year. Texas was picked to finish anywhere from 4th to 6th, depending on what you read. Texas lost the leaders of the 2009/10 team in Damion James and Dexter Pittman and super frosh Avery Bradley was now in the NBA as well. No wonder Texas was picked so low, had no one on the pre-season All Big 12 team and was considered an afterthought by many. The problems with Texas hoops in 2010 were well documented- the rise to no.1, the descent to unranked, the rumored division of the team, et al. It added more fuel to the afterthought fire. As you know, Rick Barnes spent the summer in Utah with the Jazz coaching staff, reinventing his offense and reinventing his coaching approach. Always known as a “defense first” guy, Barnes decided to lighten up some on the offensive end, not punishing his players if they occasionally took a shot too quickly. In fact, Barnes went into the fall practices preaching good shots first, meaning if someone had a good shot early, they should take it, so long as it was within the flow of the offense. Immediately his team connected with this new system.
With seniors Dogus Balbay, Gary Johnson and Matt Hill, the Horns were going to have to depend on new players in new roles. Sophomores J’Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton had played in 2010, but not consistently enough to be considered proven commodities. The depth was going to come from true freshmen Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson, a pair of Canadian high school superstars. Will the team embrace the new system; there was no telling how it would stack up against elite competition. Would they fracture like they did last year, freshmen vs. upperclassmen? Would the offense disappear like it did last year?
Well so far, so good. The team seems to like each other and the guys have embraced their roles and the offense is working. The Horns are fourth in the conference in scoring, averaging 78.3 points per game. Jordan Hamilton, who had his struggles as a freshman and was a guy I thought might end up transferring, is second in the Big 12 in scoring, averaging 19.6 points per game. At 6-foot-7 and playing guard, Hamilton is a match up problem that can hurt defenses with his great outside shot or play inside on smaller players. With the confidence and trust of his coach, Hamilton has gone from the first man off the bench to an All Big 12 caliber player. While Hamilton gets a lot of the attention, his teammates are making it easier for him. Three other Longhorns- Tristan Thompson (12.1), Gary Johnson (11.8) and Cory Joseph (11.2) are averaging double digit points. J’Covan Brown is right behind them with nine points per game. What does that mean? It means that the offense is spreading it around and making it hard for defenses to focus on one player. Last year when things were going bad, the Horns seemed to stand around and wait for Damion James to drive and then try and react. The result, as you remember, was not very good. In complete contrast, this season Texas seems to be disciplined and knowledgeable about who is doing what and when and why they are doing it. It’s amazing what clearing the air and getting on the same page will do. Another big reason is the play of those two freshmen, Joseph and Thompson. In case you didn’t know, Cory Joseph is the 6-foot-3, 185-pound point guard that was the No.7 ranked player in the nation coming out of high school. Tristan Thompson is the 6-foot-8, 225-pound forward that was the 10th best player in the nation last season. They are both from Findley Prep in Nevada and both originally from Toronto, Canada. And both have been impressive to start the season. On top of the 12.1 points, Thompson is sixth in the conference with eight rebounds per game. Joseph adds 3.14 assists per game (12th best in the conference) to his 11.2 points per game. These aren’t off-the-bench stats either as the two averages over 30 minutes a game on the floor. Along with the impressive stats is their play in the crunch. Against No.12 Michigan State, Thompson had 17 points and 15 boards and had 20 points, four assists and five blocks in an early season win over No.13 Illinois. At times in the past Texas big men have had trouble finishing inside. Thompson is not one of those guys. He looks like a dunk machine in the paint. As for Joseph, all he did was hit the game winner in Greensboro in front of 20,000 screaming Tar Heel fans, lifting Texas over UNC, 78-76. The kids are good and they seem to get better as the stakes get higher.
And Texas is doing this against some very, very good teams (as referenced above). They started the year with a big win over No.13 Illinois in the 2K Sports Classic in Madison Square Garden on national TV. They beat the Illini, 90-84, in overtime. They lost to No.5 Pitt in the championship round, 68-66, in game they had a chance to win or tie at the buzzer. They followed that up with a win at Carolina and a win at No.12 Michigan State, which was the first non-conference home loss by Sparty since 2003, spanning a stretch of 52 games. The Horns are handling their business and bringing it each and every night.
Ironically, a loss is what has most impressed me. After a lackadaisical effort in a blowout loss at USC late on a Sunday night, the Horns could have easily fallen back on some old 2009/10 habits. However, they did not. Six days later they beat Texas State at home, 101-65 and pounded North Florida, 70-48. Then came the back-to-back wins over Carolina and Michigan State, a convincing win over Coppin State and an absolute hammering of Arkansas Tuesday night, 79-46.
Saturday, with the coaching hires that should be pretty much complete and the fan base’s attention turned to hoops, No.12 Texas can make a statement against No. 9 Connecticut. Last season the No.1 ranked Horns got beaten by an average UConn team on national TV and that was catalyst for bad things to come the rest of the year. I, for one, hope Texas gives it back to them in spades Saturday at the Drum.
Whatever happens Saturday, the Horns seem to have righted the ship and are back on course after last season. The Big 12 conference awaits with some terrific match ups with Kansas, K-State, Baylor, Mizzou and A&M. So far this year, Texas has done everything right, and done it the right way, to get back to competing for conference titles.
Through Tuesday night Texas is ranked No. 12, rising from unranked in the pre-season.
It looks like the dominoes are starting to fall pretty quickly now that the targeted candidates for the coaching vacancies are done with their bowl games. The catchphrase for all of the rumors and reports has been “The situation is fluid” which is a really clever way of saying “this is what will happen. Probably. Or not.” We’ve gone through what everyone thinks will happen, now let’s go through what is happening. Here’s what we know. I’ll add what I think that means as well.
When hires become official, I’ll hit you back with more news. For now, the latest:
- Assistant Athletic Director of Operations George Wynn resigned from his job at Texas to take the same position at Florida for Will Muschamp. Wynn has been the No.2 behind Cleve Bryant for six seasons. So what does this mean? I think it means that someone else is slotted for the A.D. of Operations position. Cleve Bryant is on paid leave pending some sort of legal action in which the other party has hired Gloria Alred. I expect this case to be settled out of court and whatever the issue was will never be made public. I also expect that we have seen the last of Cleve Bryant at the University of Texas. If George Wynn was not going to get that role because, say, another coach would be “reassigned” to that job or a close confident of Mack Brown was going to get that job, then it understandable why Wynn decided to pack his stuff and move east. My guess is that is exactly what happened. I think it’s one of two guys and if you read the tea leaves you can probably figure them out. I expect that role to get filled this week. Don’t get mad, dawg. Of course, this is “fluid.”
- Kansas wide receivers coach Darrell Wyatt has been hired as the new wide receivers coach and co-recruiting coordinator. The guy has had stops in the NFL and in college, most notably with the oklahoma sooners. He went with Chuck Long to San Diego State and then to Kansas when Long was hired by Turner Gill as the OC. He is a recruiting machine, is from Texas and knows the lay of the land here, which are all things Mack Brown covets. He tutored guys like Mark Clayton, Mark Bradley and Malcolm Kelly, among others, while at ou. What does this mean? It means an offensive coordinator is very close if not already a done deal. Mack Brown, at least through reports, wanted his new OC’s input on who the new position coaches would be. Obviously the new offensive coordinator would want to mesh well with the position coaches charged with prepping and developing his specific unit to fit into that offensive coordinator’s vision. Unless you are Jerry Jones that makes sense, right? Of course it does. So, with that in mind, I firmly believe that Mack Brown has his OC in place and has had discussions with this person about hiring a new wide receivers coach. I also believe that Major Applwhite will be involved as at least a “co” offensive coordinator. Applewhite has been instrumental in keeping the ship afloat and the recruits calm and confident in their decision about Texas. I think it’s one of two guys for the OC job and (depending on what you read) they might each bring their offensive line coach with them. Looking at the system Mack Brown seems most comfortable running I see one being the clear leader. Both candidates come from towns where the weather is much colder than Austin right now, but I shouldn’t get more specific because the “situation is fluid” and it could change. What was that Adam Sandler movie my friends and I were talking about New Year’s Night? Oh, yeah, it was Billy Madison.
- Things are not quite as clear on the defensive front. You all know the list of names that have been rumored to either be in the running or even offered the job, but at this point it is all just that- rumors. What we know is while the offensive search seems to have narrowed and focused on a few key people seems to be almost done; the defensive search has seemed to expand. Why is that? I see a couple of reasons for that. First, obviously, Mack Brown isn’t sold on any one guy yet and he is going to keep interviewing candidates until he is. The names kicked around early were good on paper but they didn’t work for one reason or another: not a great personality fit, not interested in recruiting, not long for Texas, etc… and the national search moved on. Another thing to consider is the search for a new offensive coordinator has been going on for several weeks longer than the search for a defensive coordinator and the “whittle down” process isn’t as far along on that side of the ball. And the lack of real, tangible, confirmed, on-the-record information isn’t out there, meaning many people are taking what others are speculating as legitimate information rather than “food for thought” as it might have been intended. One thing is for sure- Mack Brown is not going to bow to pressure to make a “quick” hire to appease a grumbling segment of the fan base. That doesn’t really work in the long run, anyway. Bill Stewart and Houston Nutt aren’t exactly tearing it up at their current schools, are they? Brown will take his time and find the right guy for the job. I think that “right guy” could be on campus right now interviewing and that hire could go down as I type this. –. Okay nothing went down as I typed that. I think there are three names in the hat for the defensive coordinator job right now- one in the NFL and two in college. The NFL one is a bit of a reach at this point and I think that one of the two college coordinators (both of whom won their bowl games with great defense) will get the job possibly as early as now. –. Dang it! I expect that hire to happen quick nonetheless. While neither are household names to the casual fans, both are what I would call big splash hires. Once that coach is in place, expect the other defensive assistant to be hired and/or announced.
- The one piece missing in all of this is the special teams coordinator. Why is that? Here’s what I think. I believe that guy is already on campus and his name starts with a “Duane.” I expect Mack Brown to shift some of defensive back Duane Akina’s responsibilities around and make him the special teams coordinator. It seems like a perfect fit to me. But what do I know? Maybe one of the new hires on the defensive side of the ball will take over that role. “The situation is fluid” seems like a good phrase to use here.
So, in review, Texas has one piece in place and it sure is looking like the others are about to drop in as well. As soon we get something official on the rest, we will break down all the new hires and what they bring and what they bring to the table for the Texas Longhorns. We will also break down all the Big 12 bowl games next week after the Cotton Bowl.
From the Stands