The stars for #2 Texas in the win over North Carolina on Saturday were Dexter Pittman and Damion James, who combined for 48 points and 30 rebounds. But what would Rick Barnes' team do if one of those two (in this case Pittman; James was the best player on the floor with 23 and 13, becoming the school's all-time leading rebounder) was saddled with foul trouble? We found out on Tuesday night in a late-game display that showed off the depth that makes the Longhorns a serious Final Four/national title contender. Gary Johnson and Dogus Balbay came up big for Texas, using defense to spearhead a runaway 79-68 win over #9 Michigan State.
Neither is expected to score due to the firepower already at Coach Barnes' disposal but for Balbay and Johnson to combine for six steals on a night that saw Pittman play just twelve minutes due to foul trouble was huge. Balbay had the job of slowing down All-America candidate Kalin Lucas and he did just that, limiting Lucas to 11 points on 3-11 shooting to go along with six turnovers. Most people tend to point to the native of Turkey as the Longhorn's "weak link" due to his relative lack of scoring. But after tonight there should be no question of Balbay's value at the point on both ends of the floor (six assists, no turnovers).
As for Johnson, he accounted for seven points, two rebounds and two assists in addition to the three steals. He hasn't played as much as he did last season but it's a credit to him that he's stayed mentally ready to contribute. The two steals at the top of the key late in the game ended any thoughts of a Michigan State rally and showed off one more piece that the Longhorns have. The list of teams as deep as Texas is a short one, giving them an edge on most of their competition for the national title.
Three Key Happenings
1. Texas A&M suffers a key loss in Derrick Roland. The fact that the Aggies fell to Washington in Seattle 73-64 pales in comparison to the loss of their senior defensive stalwart due to a broken leg. Roland, who did an outstanding job on Isaiah Thomas in the first half (zero points), fell onto the court in terrible fashion due to breaking both the tibia and fibula in his right leg. In Roland the Aggies will be without their best perimeter defender and their second-leading scorer. But most importantly they'll be down a leader on the court, and the emotional toll of the injury was clearly too much for this team to withstand as the second half progressed. The workload will become a bit heavier for Donald Sloan, Dash Harris and B.J. Holmes as Mark Turgeon's team gets into Big 12 play; it's extremely difficult to make up for the loss of a player/leader the caliber of Roland.
2. Florida loses their third consecutive game. The Gators looked to be a team on the rise at the end of November, boasting an undefeated mark on the season due to a more equitable distribution of shots. But that early optimism has been replaced by anxiety due to a losing streak that's reached three thanks to to their 67-66 loss to South Alabama. The Jaguars won on a follow by DeAndre Hersey with 1.8 seconds remaining on the clock, and Erving Walker's 3/4-court heave hit the back iron.
The reason for Florida's recent struggles: shooting. In their last two games the Gators have shot 38.2% (Richmond) and 36.8% in tonight's loss. On the season Florida is shooting 45.6% from the field and when you're not a great rebounding team shooting slumps are harder to cover up. With their final three games before the start of SEC play being American, Presbyterian and NC State look for Billy Donovan's team to find their shooting touch. But they clearly need to turn things around before that opening trip to Vanderbilt.
3. Can Washington State be a contender in the Pac-10? Yes. The Cougars are now 10-2 on the year following a 72-70 overtime win over LSU at the Cougar Hardwood Classic in Seattle with Klay Thompson leading the way with 26. Thompson in fact may be one of the best players in the country and it's rare for him to shoot a percentage like the one he shot against the Tigers (7-18 FG, 38.9%). Reggie Moore and DeAngelo Casto can take some of the pressure off of the sophomore and Nikola Koprivica has shown the ability to add scoring off the bench.
And to be frank the conference hasn't been at its best to start the season; it wouldn't be much of a stretch to say that anyone outside of the Oregon schools could compete with Cal and Washington atop the standings. Unlike past editions this Cougar squad can get to the foul line; Wazzu was 31-40 from the line against LSU. Ken Bone has this team playing at a higher tempo but it hasn't had a negative effect on their decision-making. Expect to hear more from the Cougars as the season wears on.
Top Three Games
1. Denver 84, Seattle 83 Denver's Andrew Hooper made just one shot the entire game: a three pointer that came off a play similar to the one run by Valparaiso against Ole Miss in the 1998 NCAA Tournament. The difference: imagine Bryce Drew tapping the ball to a wide-open teammate in the corner instead of shooting it (had there been enough time to do that). Hooper was that man and he came through.
2. Washington State 72, LSU 70 (OT) See above.
3. BYU 110, Nevada 104 Defense optional in this one at the Las Vegas Classic, with the Cougars scoring 64 points in the second half to earn the victory. Jimmer Fredette (33 points) and Jackson Emery (27) led the way for BYU while Armon Johnson led the Wolf Pack with 30 points.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Kevin Thompson (Morgan State) Thompson was sensational in the Bears' 87-80 win over Towson, scoring 23 points and grabbing 25 rebounds. As a team Morgan State outrebounded the Tigers 52-27.
2. F Jonathan Rodriguez (Campbell) and F Quincy Pondexter (Washington) Both finished the night with lines of 25 points and 13 rebounds. Rodriguez did his damage in the Camels' 88-80 loss to Longwood while Pondexter led the Huskies to a 73-64 loss over Texas A&M.
3. G Greivis Vasquez (Maryland) Vasquez led the Terrapins to a 98-55 win over Winston Salem State with 27 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds.