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Conversations with the Enemy: Talking Texas with Burnt Orange Nation

Peter Bean of the excellent Texas Longhorns blog Burnt Orange Nation (a fellow SB Nation site) exchanged questions and answers about Tuesday night's big showdown.  His responses to my queries are below.  I'm in bold.

Texas was one of the few tournament-level teams as reluctant to shoot the three-pointer as MSU was last season. How have the Longhorns dealt with the departure of the designated sharp-shooter A.J. Abrams? Where are the points coming from so far this season (starting perhaps with the 103 points the team dumped on the Tarheels on Saturday)?

You hit the nail on the head in terms of the problem last season: Texas had no one who could punish teams with the three ball, which meant you could just stay tight on AJ Abrams, who struggles to create on his own, and collapse the rest of the defense on the interior. This year, Texas can score in a variety of ways.

In the half court, Texas preferred first option will be to work inside-out through Dexter Pittman. If he gets the ball down low in good position, he's looking to score if he's one-on-one, and if the double arrives, he's passing out of it. Depending where the double comes from, Texas is getting a good look from Damion James on the weakside block, a cutting guard, or an open jump shooter. Secondarily, Texas' halfcourt offense is much more potent this year with three guards who can break down the defense with penetration -- Dogus Balbay, Avery Bradley, and J'Covan Brown. And finally, this team is grabbing 39% of its own misses, which go a long way to keeping the scoring moving, whether or not Texas is having a good shooting day.

Beyond that, this is a terrific team in open space, and Rick Barnes is appropriately looking to push the tempo (75.4 possessions per 40 minutes, 9th fastest nationally). What's really exciting (or frightening, depending on your perspective) is how much better this team is going to be by season's end. The supremely talented freshman Jordan Hamilton is playing pretty bad basketball right now. Avery Bradley and J'Covan Brown are beginning to play high-elite basketball, and they too are just freshmen.

Damion James was a pretty scary player last season. He looks to be even better this season. Tell us about the development of his game. Does he have a glaring weakness left at this point?

I'll be honest: James is playing at a higher level than I thought he had in him. He worked out for NBA teams last summer who told him he needed to work on his leadership and assertiveness, and he apparently took the message to heart. He was a very strong player last year, but he's taken things up a notch this year, to my surprise. His mid-range game and spot-up shooting are still merely solid, but he's doing a much better job parlaying his athleticism into scoring chances near the rim, as reflected in his 6.7 fouls drawn per 40 minutes. (It'd be nice if he could make more of those FTs, but...)

His glaring weakness is still his dribbling, which makes me laugh in a proud parent sort of way. It's great seeing him succeed as he is, because he's not a natural basketball freak like a Kevin Durant. He's an athletic freak who has humbly busted his ass to become a great basketball player.

The Longhorns have been downright stingy on defense this season, holding opponents to a 2-point FG% of .371 and a 3-point FG% of .243 and ranking #1 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. How are they doing it? Related: How much is Rick Barnes deploying the 2-3 zone this year?

For the most part, Texas is playing straight man defense, which has always been his preference. His zones have never been particularly effective, even when we've had the personnel to seemingly deploy a good one. This group is playing outstanding help/team defense, whether it's guards switching on screens, forwards showing on screens, or targeted double-teaming. We've seen a little bit of press from this group, and I suspect Rick would like to do more of it as the year goes on. I don't think Michigan State's the team we'll see it against, though.

Texas is off to a great start this season: 10-0 with an average margin of victory of 29.8 points (!!!). A #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament looks like a very obtainable goal. How big do you see the game vs. MSU being for the team's long-term prospects?

If Texas had lost to North Carolina on Saturday, I'd be very anxious about a second loss to Michigan State. As it is, winning this one will just be validation; a poor performance wouldn't be a major setback. At this point, the focus starts to be big picture, with no one game being make-or-break. Given what we've seen so far, a #1 seed looks like the appropriate goal, and there appear to be three games which will determine whether they deserve it: Tuesday vs MSU, January 23 at UCONN, and February 8 vs Kansas. Win two out of three and I'll be ecstatic.

Give us four signs--two positive, two negative--that, upon seeing them develop in the game, will make you cackle with delight / cringe in fear about the outcome.

Cackle catalysts: (1) Texas looks to the inside-out offense, be that through passes to Pittman or guard penetration. (2) No foul or injury issues that keep either Pittman or James from playing 25+ minutes.

Cringe creators: (1) Michigan State's excellent perimeter defenders choking off Texas' penetration and post-passing, leading to setting for jump shots. (2) Hot three point shooting early from Michigan State, forcing the defense out and giving the Spartans much more space to maneuver offensively.

Thanks, Peter.  Here's to a great game Tuesday night--culminating in a Spartan upset.