Anatomy of Stagnation: Longhorns Against Iowa State

Context

After a 17-5 run against Iowa State in the Big 12 conference opener for both teams to stretch a one-point lead at 12-11 to a 29-16 advantage, the Longhorns went through a period of almost three minutes without scoring points of any kind (from 4:25 to 1:41), sandwiched between a Damion James basket and a Gary Johnson put back after an offensive rebound. The Longhorns went 0-5 from the field during that stretch, failing to get to the foul line. Fortunately for the Longhorns, Iowa State scored only six points during that same stretch, which saw the Longhorns compound their problems by committing three fouls. The first foul put Iowa State into the bonus, putting Iowa State on the line after each subsequent whistle against the Horns.

First possession

Following a foul on Clint Chapman that resulted in split free throws by Justin Hamilton, Matt Hill secures the defensive rebound, makes an outlet pass to AJ Abrams, who quickly finds Varez Ward on the perimeter. With no advantage, Ward passes the ball back out to Abrams, who sets up the offense, finding Damion James on the left wing. James quickly hoists an 18-foot jumper in rhythm that rims out off a Connor Atchley screen. Having just made a jumper on the previous possession, it's hard to fault James for this shot, although it was early in the shot clock.

Second possession

Good help defense by Connor Atchley strips Craig Brackens of the ball in the midst of a post move. AJ Abrams comes out of traffic with the ball on the right side of the court. Cutting through the middle, Abrams passes from the left elbow to Damion James beyond the three-point line left side. James takes two dribbles to the middle of the court, taking another jumper from just beyond the free throw line, leaving it short on the front of the rim. Connor Atchley was wide open on the right wing, barely 10 feet away from James, who doesn't see him. Barely six seconds elapsed from the shot clock between the steal by Abrams and the shot by James. Justin Hamilton knocks the ball away from Justin Mason, who nearly secured the offensive rebound. Texas ball.

Third possession

Damion James inbounds from the right side to Justin Mason at the top of the key. Mason passes to AJ Abrams coming off a Matt Hill screen, but Abrams mishandles the pass and turns the ball over.

Fourth possession

AJ Abrams brings the ball up the floor after a made free throw by Diante Garrett. Rick Barnes takes his first timeout of the ballgame, which he would lose if not used by halftime. Good decision by Barnes with roughly three minutes left in the half and the Longhorn offense misfiring on the previous three possessions. Justin Mason brings the ball up the court, finding Abrams on the right wing tightly guarded by Bryan Petersen. Gary Johnson posts up on the right block, but Abrams passes out top to Damion James, who shot fakes, then shoots, looking relatively out of rhythm and leaving the ball short on the front of the rim again.

Fifth possession

Following a Gary Johnson foul, Justin Mason brings the ball up the floor, finding Abrams once again on the right wing. Abrams enters the ball to Gary Johnson, but good defense in the post and good denial by Petersen on the wing force Johnson to catch the ball near the three-point line and close to the baseline. Iowa State immediately sends a double team by Diante Garrett, the man guarding Justin Mason, leaving the non-shooter alone in the opposite corner. Johnson dribbles twice out of the double team, which leaves Johnson, who finds Damion James standing on the edge of the Texas coast, 10 feet beyond the three-point line. Connor Atchley sets a screen at the top of the key as James dribbles left. Stopped by the hedging defender, James finds Atchley at the three-point line, slightly to the right of the top of the circle. The Iowa State defender closes out well, so Atchley dribbles right into a handoff with AJ Abrams, who shoots quickly. Just long off the back of the rim.

Sixth possession

Varez Ward pushes the ball up the court after a nice banker by Diante Garrett, attempting to push the tempo. Ward penetrates right side, getting all the way down to the right block, where he takes a contested and forced five footer that gets a piece of the backboard and the back of the rim. Gary Johnson, on the weak side, gets the rebound and makes the put back, fouled in the process.

Verdict

While watching the game, I thought that James' shots early in the shot clock weren't horrible decisions on his part. With an offense that often struggles in the half court, early shots, if they are reasonably high-percentage looks, aren't negative plays because they come early in the shot clock, therefore lengthening the game and allowing the Longhorns more possessions. In other words, not all bad shots are created equal. A bad shot early in the possession is much less damaging than a bad shot late in the possession since so much more time expires. However, Mike D'Antoni demonstrates that such shots need to be taken with confidence and without fear that the coach will bench a player for a quick shot. Just coming down and jacking up shots isn't the idea, rather, the shot should come within the flow of the offense, which is designed to facilitate such quick shots.

That being said, the Longhorns failed to penetrate to the basket during this stretch, which breaks down the defense, forces rotations, and creates scramble situations for the defense. The first shot for James was a heat check after making his jumper on the previous possession, but the next two probably fall under the category of forced shots. Likewise for the Abrams jumper, when he failed to use a shot fake to give himself an easier look, a consistent problem for Abrams, who seems to believe that he doesn't need a shot fake because he needs so little room to get a shot off. Not true, AJ.

As for the shot by Varez Ward, it was forced, but he still broke down the defense off the dribble, forcing a weakside defender to come over to contest the shot, opening up the offensive glass for Gary Johnson. Basically, Ward took a bad shot, but it wasn't as bad as the shots by James and Abrams because it come off of dribble penetration and gave his teammate a chance for the offensive rebound, which was secured and led to three Longhorn points.

As if the extent of the loss of DJ Augustin needed further illustration, this stretch provides it. Rick Barnes told Augustin last year to hunt his shot if the Longhorns failed to score for three consecutive possessions. In this instance, the Longhorns went five consecutive possessions without making a basket, but had no playmaker to turn to when the drought needed to end. Instead, freshman Varez Ward, not known for his offensive ability coming out of high school, overpenetrates, but draws enough help to allow his teammate to grab the offensive rebound. What the play does illustrate, besides how much losing Augustin hurts, is that dribble penetration is the remedy for many offensive woes.

During the stretch, Iowa State reduced the Longhorn lead from 29-16 to 29-22, a significant move at the end of the half that allowed the Cyclones to keep the game close for most of the remainder of the contest. Had the Longhorns made several of their baskets during this stretch and defended without fouling, they would have taken a significant lead into halftime that may have discouraged any attempts at a comeback in the second half. As a firm believer in the importance of finishing halves well, this was an unacceptable performance over the course of several minutes by the Longhorns and forced them to expend much more energy than they might have had to otherwise.

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