Yours truly is going to get fully back into the morning recap game starting Monday morning -- this was a bit of a weird week, as my very confused internal clock can attest -- because there is too much good basketball going on every night to not try to discuss all of it in the morning.
Such was the case last night, especially with regard to Texas' 90-84 overtime win against Illinois. With all due respect to some of the marathon thrillers, this was probably the best nationally televised game of the season so far ... and I am still not quite sure what to make of either of these teams. To the bulleted random thoughts!
Both of these teams look like very good defensive teams. Both, to the naked eye, were. That said, both allowed a very high number of points per possession; I tweeted that Rick Barnes looked like he had another good defense -- one of the few things Texas did consistently well even during its slide last season -- before checking the tempo-free numbers and realizing that somewhere midway through the second half, Illinois was scoring about 1.25 points per trip. Texas was even more efficient than that. So much for stifling defense. That said, both teams clamped down in the second half -- neither ended the game with the gaudy numbers they had been putting up for much of the first half -- and on both sides of the ball, every shot was challenged, blocked, or resulted in a physical play (and, oftentimes, a foul). Which is why it's probably fair to expect both of these teams to get awfully good at defense. Neither was great for all 40 minutes, but each simply has too much athletic talent at the guard positions and around the rim to be quite as defensively forgiving as in the early going last night.
If I'm a Texas fan, I'm feeling awfully good about my team right now. Not just because the Longhorns got the win -- it's still early in the season, and last season we all saw how quickly early success can fade -- but because the Longhorns played with such self-assured confidence down the stretch. That's a team that starts a freshman at point guard (Cory Joseph), had a freshman at forward in for the majority of the late minutes (Tristan Thompson) and relies on an occasionally erratic (and often brilliant) sophomore Jordan Hamilton for much of its scoring. Texas' offense was stagnant in the later minutes; there was too much standing around, too many haphazard ball screens, and very little of the flowing stuff that got Texas its points in the first half. And still, Texas' young players -- Hamilton and Joseph especially -- were able to make big one-on-one plays down the stretch against a defense that had severely ratcheted up the intensity. The Longhorns will have to get much more cohesive as the season goes along, less quick to abandon their offense for one-on-one stuff, but the sheer playmaking ability on hand definitely portends good things.
Illinois needs more Jereme Richmond. Demetri McCamey played like an All-American last night, but he was bottled up by Dogus Balbay late in the game. That's when Richmond started to show some of what he can do -- bringing the ball up the floor, dribbling the length of the court and finishing underneath, getting rebounds and using his intuitive interior scoring ability to get Illinois second-chance points under the basket. It wasn't enough to win, but there were signs that Richmond can fill a role Illinois has desperately needed on this team -- a scoring wing with versatile skills who can create his own shot with the ball in his hand.
Oh, and there was McCamey. If Demetri keeps playing like he did last night, he's going to have a fantastic season. He won't face too many more lockdown defenders like Balbay, who might be the best perimeter defender in college basketball now that Chris Kramer has left Purdue. When McCamey gets hot, look out. He's still a shooting guard playing point, but for a shooting guard, he's an awfully good passer, too.
It's too early to draw too many conclusions from one game, but if I was a fan of either team, I wouldn't be all that concerned. There is plenty of room for improvement here, but for a Nov. 19 game at a neutral site, this was a pretty encouraging performance for both.