December 6, 2008

Justin Mason's development will dictate UT's success

The most important stat line from Thursday night's 68-64 victory over UCLA in front of a sellout crowd of 16,755 at the Erwin Center belonged to Justin Mason.

Six assists. One turnover. Three steals.

For the player whose success will dictate just how far Texas goes in March, that is something to build on.


D.J. Augustin, UT's version of Mariano Rivera the last two years, is gone. With four minutes left in a close game, it was Augustin creating for himself or others and making the difference on last season's Elite Eight team.

With four minutes left against UCLA, Texas was down, 62-60. Mason came up with a key steal and offensive rebound and kept getting the ball to A.J. Abrams, who scored UT's final six points.

"I think Mason is doing a very good job," said UCLA coach Ben Howland. "I really like Mason. I think he's a very good player. He's a better defender than Augustin and does more things defensively.

"Obviously he's not the same kind of offensive player. But he adds a different dimension. And I think Texas is a different kind of team this year because of what they are doing defensively, pressuring and switching. They're very athletic and really getting into people."


Mason actually did his best work with seven minutes to play, when his team probably needed it most. UCLA had just whittled down a 10-point, Texas lead and led 58-55. That's when Mason stole the ball from UCLA freshman Jrue Holiday and went coast-to-coast for one of Texas' few transition opportunities. He found Damion James for a 3-pointer.

The play ignited the crowd. And even though Darren Collison hit a key answer basket for UCLA on the next trip down the floor, it was Mason's play that seemed to lift the Longhorns for the stretch run. That run included a clutch jumper by Gary Johnson with 6:12 left to tie the game at 60-60, and a shot from the key by James with 3:46 left, tying the game at 62-62.

"Damion came with two big rebounds in traffic," Rick Barnes said. "Justin had two steals on the baseline. I like our demeanor. We came through that last timeout in the last three or four minutes and everyone seemed to be calm and relaxed. But I would expect that because - with the exception of one player (Gary Johnson) - these guys have been through a lot of big games."


Augustin averaged 19 points last season. Mason had only five points against the Bruins. But Mason's six assists and one turnover quietly overshadowed Collison, who had 22 points, but had six turnovers to go with five assists.

"The transition has been tough for me a little bit," said Mason, who is averaging 9.1 points and 4.6 rebounds, up from his averages of 7.1 and 4.5 from last season. "But I'm getting into a groove at the point, and I am thinking the game a little bit more. But I think it's good for us to have this transition. It will prepare us for the long run."


Make no mistake about Mason being a gamer. He was huge in Texas' only loss against Notre Dame in the EA Sports Invitational in Maui. Mason was 7-of-12 shooting for 16 points with five rebounds and the all-important assists-to-turnover ratio of 7-to-1.

"Justin is finding his way," Barnes said. "I'm not worried about it at all. We just need players out there, and Justin's a player."


There will be bumps in the road. Right now, Mason is hitting only 44 percent of his free throws (11-of-25) and 25 percent of his 3-pointers (3-of-12). And in the first half of the UCLA game, Barnes wanted Mason to push the tempo, and Mason walked the ball up the court.

"Mace slowed us down tonight," Barnes said. "They wanted us to slow it down, and we did. I'm sure they're happy we played in the 60s."

Mason also opened the game defending Collison, who had the 35 NBA scouts at the Erwin Center drooling of his mid-range game. There is a lot on Mason's plate right now. Distributing, running the offense, knowing when to shoot, playing defense.


Perhaps the most important move Barnes made in the preseason was scrimmaging against Davidson and star point guard Stephon Curry and Gonzaga and star point guard Jeremy Pargo.

Those were great matchups for Mason, who just stared down Collison and still has showdowns with the likes of Michigan State's Kalen Lucas on Dec. 20 in Houston and Kansas' Sherron Collins. Ultimately, Mason will have to be able to match up with a player like North Carolina's Ty Lawson, who devoured Michigan State on Thursday in a 35-point blowout of the Spartans in Detroit.

For now, Mason is doing what Barnes loves - being demanding of himself and striving to improve. His teammates also believe in Mason, who will most likely be the team's point guard next season, when Texas again will have a chance for the Final Four.

"Mace is doing a really good job running the point," said Abrams, the star of UT's win over UCLA with 31 points on 9-of-18 shooting. "It's a lot for him to do. But the thing about Mason is he never backs down from a challenge."

FINAL ANALYSIS: While Abrams will run the point sparingly this season, and Dogus Balbay will have to earn his time on the court, Barnes loves Mason running the offense. That's why it's not unrealistic to think Mason will be his point guard next season as a senior. With that likely being the case, Mason's development on this team is the most critical. You can't win in March without smart, solid point guard play. That's why his turnover to assist ratio against Notre Dame and UCLA (13-to-2) is notable. Mason loves the big stage. He's got to settle down offensively, but that will come. Right now, he's having to think the game a lot, which is slowing down his reaction time. That could last the entire non-conference season. But he's playing solid defense, and that solid on-the-ball defense is also critical right now. Mason is a guy you cheer for because he just doesn't back down from a fight. Ask Alexis Wangmene, who got a couple of Mason's punches in a fight in practice last season. And remember, Barnes won a Big 12 regular-season title in his first season with an NCAA outdoor high jump champ - Ivan Wagner - running the point. So if someone can win big with a guy whose natural position is not the point, it's Barnes. He never lets players doubt themselves because Barnes is too busy demanding things from them.

NEXT GAME: Tuesday vs. Villanova, New York City's Madison Square Garden, Jimmy V Classic, 8 p.m. (ESPN)

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