Texas on two-game skid after reaching No. 1
Their big man has all but disappeared. Their free throw shooting ranks among the worst in the country. They've lost two games in a row after the best start in school history.
The No. 6 Texas Longhorns are struggling just two weeks after earning the first No. 1 ranking in school history.
``I don't think I did a good enough job talking about when you become the No. 1 team in the country, you are under attack,'' coach Rick Barnes said as Texas (17-2, 3-1 Big 12) prepared to host Texas Tech (14-5, 2-3) on Wednesday night.
``We'll work through it. I'm not going to panic. It is what it is.''
The problems start with the regression of 6-foot-10, 290-pound senior forward Dexter Pittman, who has been a non-factor for the Longhorns since getting 21 points and 10 rebounds in a win over Arkansas on Jan. 5.
When Pittman's game is on, he gives Texas an all but unstoppable inside-out attack when paired with Damion James and shooting guard Avery Bradley. But in Texas' five games since the Arkansas win, Pittman hasn't scored more than six points. In three games he took four or fewer shots. In a double-overtime win over Texas A&M, he went 0-5.
Opponents have kept Pittman out of games by getting him into foul trouble. He has played less than 17 minutes in three of the last five games. Against Connecticut, Pittman took three shots, scored five points and fouled out in 15 minutes.
Defenses can sag on Pittman because Texas starts two guards, Dogus Balbay and Justin Mason, who can pass and play good defense but are not good shooters. Together, they average 7 points a game.
``It's tough when guys are sitting back there on me in the lane and not going out there respecting (Balbay) and (Mason),'' Pittman said. ``They're just sitting around me, smothering me.''
Pittman said he's worked hard to develop his passing and a left-handed shot to keep defenders off balance, but too often relies on the same right-handed shot time and time again.
``Dexter has counter moves. He's got to use them,'' Barnes said.
Texas could help make up for Pittman's missing offense with better free-throw shooting. The Longhorns are shooting 62 percent as a team to rank 314th out of 334 Division I teams.
Freshman guard J'Covan Brown is 43 of 46 from the line (94 percent) and would rank among the best in the country if he had a few more attempts. But his minutes have tapered off in recent games and the rest of the team isn't nearly as good.
James is Texas' next-best free throw shooter at 70 percent. Bradley is a woeful 47 percent and Balbay, a point guard who might be expected to get to the line by picking up fouls with penetrating drives, is a 45 percent shooter from the line.
Barnes, who could have shrugged off such inefficiency during the 17-game win streak, is taking notice after Texas made just 18 of 38 free throws in the two losses.
``Mental toughness has something to do with that,'' Barnes said. ``If you truly believe in what you're doing in practice, when you step to the line, you're going to get it done. They don't trust what they're doing.''
Mason insists the Longhorns remain confident they can knock down those shots.
``You have to be confident or you'll continue to miss. You have to be mentally tough shooting free throws. I think with the work that we've put in, it's going to get better,'' Mason said.