Friday night at the Frank Erwin Center, the #7 Longhorns showed exactly why with a sluggish opening half on the offensive end only to be overshadowed by a top-notch defensive effort in which the Stetson Hatters could manage only 26% from the field for the night.
Friday was the first start at point guard for A.J. Abrams and the team struggled as the ball wasn't moving and the offense became stagnant and grinded to a halt against the 3-2 match-up zone of Stetson.
While Abrams struggled running the team, he was the offense for the Longhorns using ball screen after ball screen to net 14 first half points, including four three-pointers with the biggest long range jumper coming as time expired giving Texas a 29-18 advantage headed to the locker room.
Adding to the first half struggle was a hard face first fall by Connor Atchley that required a trip to the locker room to have his chin bandaged. With Atchley sidelined for the better part of the first half, the Longhorns relied on suffocating defense that gave up just the occasional converted field goal on a late switch on ball screens or late rotation resulting in wide open three-point looks.
The second half was a different story on offense as the Longhorns moved Abrams to his natural spot off the ball, while Mason slid over to run the team resulting in much better flow and higher percentage scoring opportunities.
Texas (1-0) was led in the final twenty minutes by the all-around play of Mason, who finished with four points, three rebounds, three assists and four steals, as well as the hot shooting and shot blocking of Atchley.
Atchley knocked down all three long-range bombs he attempted in the second half finishing with 14 points, five rebounds and three blocked shots.
The Longhorns continued the menacing defense in the second half causing three turnovers on inbound passes and employed token man-to-man ball pressure that was enough to harass the Hatters guards into 19 turnovers on the night.
A.J. Smith led Stetson with 12 points, while the Longhorns held senior guard Garfield Blair to 10 points on 5-13 shooting.
The win was the 450th career coaching victory for Rick Barnes, including 248 at Texas.
The Longhorns will return to the court on Tuesday night playing host to the Tulane Green Wave at 7pm.
A Look at the Numbers
The Longhorns converted 27-50 field goal attempts (54%), 8-15 from three (53.3%) and a miserable 6-16 from the free throw line (37.5%).
Stetson shot just 13-50 overall (26%), 4-19 from the three-point line (21.1%) and 8-11 from the foul line (72.7%).
The Longhorns won the battle of the boards 37-28 and the turnover battle 19-15.
The Longhorns played very impressive defense for a season opener against a team that played four guards at times. Watching Connor Atchley bend the knees and defend Garfield Blair at times on the perimeter was something to see. As the smartest player on the Texas team, Atchley played near perfect defense on the Stetson leading scorer playing with active feet as well as using his length to force drives followed by controlled recovery making for tough field goal attempts.
As usual, Atchley was also terrific in help defense. He rotated several times to change or block shots.
Clint Chapman, who got the start after two solid weeks of practice, and Gary Johnson still recovering from a sprained ankle, were active on defense blocking two shots in 13 minutes. Chapman can slide the feet and is pretty quick off the ground and it showed as he played the role of shot changer/blocker next to Atchley.
Texas got caught on late switches in the ball screen game in the first half and early second, but was very quick and reactive for the majority of the night.
On offense, Mason ran the team as it should be done in the second half. He looked to attack off the dribble at times, but also did a good job of drawing defensive help without forcing the issue. With Abrams playing off the ball and Atchley back in the line-up, Texas got in a positive flow. The flow with the ball moving also allowed for James to have match-ups and rotations to take advantage of off the bounce or playing along the baseline.
James showed his improved mid-range game off of the bounce knocking down a couple of jumpers.
Gary Johnson provided a first half spark with two short jumpers and some timely rebounds. Against the zone, he flashed to the high post and was a factor.
Texas man-to-man defense on inbounds plays was solid for the most part. Texas played near exclusive 2-3 zone last year on inbounds plays and was hurt at times. Texas pressed more tonight and did a good job of communicating on cutters through the lane and cross screens.
Pittman was good and bad, but he played with very good effort. He was active on defense against an inferior opponent, but hustled out to hedge on ball screens and ran to get back in position. The junior was decent on offense, but the feel plays just aren't being made.
Texas is going to be sub-par free throw shooting team, but Friday was atrocious. Varez Ward missed all six attempts in the second half, Atchley hit one of two in the second half and James hit one of two in the first half. Throw in 2-4 from Pittman and the Longhorns were dismal.
Damion James continues to struggle catching the ball and finishing easy plays and securing loose ball rebounds.
Justin Mason, in the first half, didn't look for his shot to say the least and provided nothing on the wing.
Abrams at the point was not impressive. He never looked to turn the corner on ball screens or set up a split and penetration. Instead, he dribbled around from screen to screen until he created space for a long-range jumper. Three first half shots were ill advised and aren't going to provide the types of possession for Texas to have success against a quality opponent.
Clint Chapman didn't take advantage of the starting opportunity as he rushed on the offensive end and missed all three field goal attempts. In the second half, both shots were rushed and out of rhythm.
The zone offense in the first half was stagnant with Atchley out and often times amounted to pass around from wing to middle to wing until there was 10 second left and Abrams would let fly.
Mason did a poor job of looking to the post. He works out of triple threat well, but has to use a hip-to-hip jab step move to create a post entry-passing angle.
A terrific defensive opener and okay offensive opener when considering Atchley was out for the majority of the first half and Dogus Balbay didn't play due to the NCAA suspension. Balbay would have pushed more in transition and Atchley is the key to the Texas half court offense in man or zone.
Texas is not going to be a good free throw shooting team, but they have to find a way to knock down 67% this year. That will be a real problem in close games and when attempting to close out games.
The Longhorns are at their best when Abrams is off the ball and being the scorer he is capable of being. Mason is more comfortable in the lead guard role. James is more active when Mason is running the team.
Texas is going to be a defensive and rebounding team for the majority of non-conference play until all of the parts get the chance to play enough together to find the chance for greatest success as well as developing the depth to play at a quicker tempo. The Longhorns have to create some transition scoring opportunities this year as depending on the half court grind game in and game out is not going to be the formula for a high level of success.