To the naked eye, the No. 2 Longhorns seem perfect. With a 7-0 start, why wouldn’t anyone think that? Behind closed doors, however, lie a coach and team who understand they have a long way to go before reaching their ultimate goal in Indianapolis in March 2010.
Depth has been the story of the Longhorns thus far. From the get-go, head coach Rick Barnes has said that the flow of the game can only increase as he goes 10 or 11 players deep into his bench. In their last game against Long Beach State on Monday night, Barnes played his entire 14-man roster, and the bench accounted for 61 of Texas’ total 107 points in 106 minutes on the court. In the final 11 minutes of the first half, the team’s reserves scored 20 of 31 points.
“We want to continue to attack, and we want to make fatigue a factor in games,” Barnes said. “We want to try to get into people’s benches, and so it’s important that we play hard with everybody.”
Now that they are seven games into the season, Barnes feels comfortable using all of his players — even the inexperienced.
“I guarantee every one of those [younger] guys will tell you that they’re learning things that they’ve never even thought about — what goes into being a team and doing your job and being a good teammate, and the game is faster,” Barnes said. “It’s a faster game than they’ve ever played.”
Throughout these first five weeks, Barnes has stressed the importance of defense, and the stats show it. Texas has limited every one of its opponents to less than 40 percent in field goal shooting.
In their win against Long Beach State on Monday, Texas faced a different type of team.
The 49ers, a fast-paced running team, averaging 74 points per game before facing the Longhorns. Though Texas dominated in size, every aspect of their game was tested for the first time this year.
Barnes said that it’s important to play teams like Long Beach State at this point in the season, especially with powerhouses like No. 11 North Carolina and No. 12 Michigan State looming in the next two weeks.
“What’s really good about our schedule is that teams like Long Beach State and Texas State are up-tempo teams,” Barnes said. “I can assure you that North Carolina and Michigan State will get up and down the floor as quick or quicker than these guys. So the fact that these games are coming right here are really going to help us in terms of transition defense and getting back and matched up.”
Junior guard Dogus Balbay is a big fan of the basketball running game. Monday night Balbay was quick to bring the ball up on offense and he totaled 11 assists with zero turnovers.
“Dogus will tell you that a year ago, he wanted to run a whole lot more than we ran,” Barnes said. “He likes the fact that we’re really running. He’ll beat everybody down the court. He really likes it, and so the more high-paced the game is, the more comfortable he feels.”
Balbay explained that he grew accustomed to the running game by playing for Turkey’s National Team.
“That’s kind of my style,” Balbay said. “When I was playing in Turkey, my team was always running, and I always tried to push them to run. And that’s what we’re trying to get right now with this team, and we’re doing a much better job. I always tell the younger guys to run and get to the corner, and they are getting better at it.”
The backcourt will get more help on Dec. 15, when junior guard Jai Lucas becomes eligible. Lucas transferred from the University of Florida after his fall 2008 semester and enrolled in classes at UT last spring. He will get to play in his first game as a Longhorn against Texas Pan-American on Dec. 15.
“We’ve got a great guard in Jai Lucas coming up,” said senior forward Damion James. “Things happen for a reason. He’s going to be great. He’s a great shooter, a great point guard, and he gives everybody the ball, so he’s going to do what he has to do to help us win. It’ll be fun having him out there.”
As winter break nears, the Longhorns will continue to work and provide entertainment.
The biggest test of the season will come in two weeks when they play North Carolina at Cowboys Stadium and Michigan State a few days later at the Frank Erwin Center.