Texas Basketball Report 2.5 -- Time For Change?

Previous TBR's: 2.1 / 2.2 / 2.3 / 2.4

TEXAS AT-A-GLANCE

RECORD 15-5 (4-2) BRACKET TRAJECTORY #4 seed
LAST WEEK 1-1 (78-72 at Baylor, 81-85 vs KSU) KENPOM NATL. RANK #26
LONGHORN MVP Dogus Balbay & Varez Ward
OFF. EFFICIENCY (RANK) 107.4 (#82)
THIS WEEK Wed, 2/04 vs Missouri (18-4, 5-2) /  Sat, 2/7 at Nebraska (13-7, 3-4)
DEF. EFFICIENCY (RANK) 87.3 (#12)
NATL. RANKINGS
#16 AP / #17 Coaches / #26 RPI STRENGTH OF SCHED. Offense #17,  Defense #90, Overal SOS #40

TWO STEPS FORWARD... ONE BACK

Y'all know me by now. Four years blogging Longhorns sports and I've established time and again that I'm a big picture/grand ideas guy. X's and O's, game breakdowns, scouting reports -- of course. Love it all. But if those are the routine, I'm always-always looking for a vision to espouse, a story to tell. Mack Brown's gut check after Aggie 2. The 2008 football season as a prelude to Pasadena. Last year's quest for the #1 seed in Houston. Narratives.

Following Texas' win in Waco last week, I found myself outright giddy as my "Texas wins five straight to set up a late season peak" storyline started to unfold according to script. Concluding that the most daunting hurdle had been cleared, my script called for Texas to ride their momentum to home wins over KSU and Misouri before winning one more on the road in Lincoln... all setting the table for an exciting run at the conference title as the team hit its peak performance.

But, but then... this? A home loss to the Wildcats? That sure as hell wasn't part of the script, and if the loss doesn't totally foreclose the possibility of a postseason peak, the Longhorns both gave back the valuable token won at Baylor and erased my excitement that a breakthrough had been achieved. We're back asking many of the same questions we had following the team's previous losses.

What now? The K-State loss needn't be considered crippling insofar as the team's postseason goals are still in play. However, this Wednesday's battle with Mike Anderson's run-n-gun Missouri Tigers now takes on added import if Texas harbors any hope of a regular season run. And hey, on the bright side, KenPom's system still has Texas favored in its next seven; should the 'Horns pull off that feat they'd certainly be in the Big 12 title mix.

It all starts Wednesday night. If you're holding out hope that this team might take fans for a fun ride, a win at the Erwin Center against Missouri is a must.

 

THE DANCE APPROACHES... WE HAVE NO DRESS

The fundamental problem with my end-of-season peak theory is... well, fundamental. This Texas team has yet to display with any consistency at all a repeatable model to serve as the blueprint heading forward. You can imagine Rick Barnes calling Darrell Royal and asking the legend for some advice. "Dance with the one who brung ya," Royal might say. To which Rick Barnes might sheepishly reply, "And if that's not an option?"

Texas has won some big games playing as a team which overwhelms with size in the frontcourt. The 'Horns have at other times flashed success as a smaller, quick-and-athletic strike force. But... the team has looked miserable playing both styles of ball. Who is this team? What do they do really well? What can they build on? What deficiencies can't be overcome?

If in theory it is not too late for this team to find an elevated groove, the truth is that, 9 times out of 10, if you're asking these kinds of fundamental questions in February... you're too late.

WHERE TO LOAD THE CHIPS

Let's assume it's not too late, though, and discuss whether it makes sense for Rick Barnes to bet his wad on a strategic shift in focus. To get there, I'll first lay out fundamental premises I think we can say with the near certainty, touching both on this particular team as well as a handful of broader concepts related to the conference, Texas basketball program overall, and/or basic strategy. From there, I'll try to make the case for Rick Barnes instigating a conscious changing of gears with this group down the stretch.

OPERATING PREMISES

  1. The team to date hasn't performed/won consistently enough to be at all relevant in March.
  2. The team's strengths overwhelmingly are rooted in the abundance of athleticism and defensive ability.
  3. The team's only true point guard is Dogus Balbay.
  4. Outside Abrams, the team cannot shoot from the perimeter.
  5. Whereas Balbay, Mason, James, and Ward are offensively limited against a set defense, each is substantially more productive and dangerous in space.
  6. Gary Johnson and Dexter Pittman are the only two players who consistently create their own offense in the halfcourt against a set defense.
  7. If Texas could pick a peak identity, the most ideal for postseason success would be one that (a) highlighted its proven strengths and (b) forced opponents to play a style of game with which they're less comfortable.
  8. The odds of winning a Big 12 regular season title by finishing ahead of Kansas (KP projected 12-4) and Oklahoma (KP projected 14-2) are slim.
  9. Given the state of the program, there's no long-term cost should the team fall apart aggressively changing course with hopes of discovering an elevated team identity.
  10. All things considered, seeding concerns border on irrelevant.

What conclusions should we draw from this? For starters, I'd emphasize that everything starts with and flows from (1) and (2). From those two premises we can:

  • Set aside objections that the above is an oversimplification, the very point of theis exercise rooted in an acceptance not only that the status quo's limitations are well identified, but that -- at this stage in the season -- changing course would require a relatively simple plan narrowly focused and centered on amplifying fundamental strengths.
  • Deal with Billyzane's well-reasoned point about Texas and tempo (more on this later).
  • Identify the potential base upon which a Team Identity -- which this team sorely lacks -- could be built.

If you accept that reasoning, the following conclusions seem to me to flow from our list of operating premises.

ARGUMENT FOR SHIFT IN FOCUS

  1. It is worth pursuiing a more fundamental shift in strategy than one would normally implement at this stage of the season. The lack of identity (and consistency) in the status quo, combined with the potential upside of the team (based on the athleticism and defense), create appropriate circumstances for an aggressive attempt at improvement through change.
  2. When things aren't flowing well in the halfcourt offense (30-50% of the time), the production is so bad that Texas should structure itself to avoid games won in the halfcourt. Returning to BZ's point about tempo, the problem I see with it is that it's based on the idea that Texas at its best in the tempo-controlled game has been notably successful this year. My contention is that Texas in that mode has too many too-awful stretches to make the strategy worth counting on and pursuing.
  3. What instead? There is ample athleticism to transform this team into a running, pressing, hell-on-wheels full court defensive team. Ward, Mason, and Balbay are picture perfect press guards, James and Johnson are full court demons, and Hill/Chapman/Atchley can all play an excellent pressing 5.
  4. When the team needs to rest, go big, or play controlled tempo basketball, it can do so in spots, featuring Johnson and Pittman, (hopefully) producing the efficient offensive minutes BZ pointed us to.
  5. It seems likely that every player but Pittman (and perhaps Abrams) would benefit from a change to a full court, pressure defense, open floor style. 20 games into this season, expecting this group to execute consistently in the halfcourt not only looks more and more like wishcasting, but guys like Mason, Ward, and James practically beg to be let loose. So do it. Turn them free in a wide open game and put to best use their athleticism and hunger to run and make plays.
  6. Specifically considering the skill set of Balbay, our lone true point, the shift would provide the space/system in which he could blossom as the primary ball handler and mitigate his primary deficiency -- poor shooting, which allows set defenses to zone and/or sag.
  7. Turning to big picture strategic concerns, all things considered there's no real downside to giving it a try, in part because there's not much upside in the team continuing with the status quo. That is, not only is Rick Barnes' program so strong that a collapse wouldn't at all be a long-term setback, but the best case scenario following the present course (Sweet 16 at best) doesn't provide all that much long-term value.
  8. The companion point is that there is a dramatic jump in long-term program value when we up the stakes to a Final Four run.
  9. The only way I can imagine this team making a Final Four run is as a wide open, full court, pressure defense team. Given the lack of downside... shouldn't Rick Barnes be compelled to gun for the high value upside?
  10. There are two dozen teams who would comfortably play Texas in a moderately paced game; the moment the 'Horns struggled to be anything but their best in that mode, it's game over. On the flipside, there are far fewer teams who have the athletes to play up-and-down the floor with this Texas team, and fewer still who also would find themselves comfortable playing in a full court, up tempo, all-out-pressure-defense game. It could be a style advantage in the postseason. (Note: You will see one such squad Wednesday when Mike Anderson brings his super high paced Missouri squad to Austin. If the style looks familiar, it should: Anderson was the coach of that blazing UAB squad which upset top-seeded Kentucky four years ago -- not with more talent, but with a style to which the 'Cats struggled to adapt.)
  11. Texas' second half scoring outbursts against Baylor and Kansas State came when the team got moving up and down the court. Not only does the style help the Texas offense, but this group of Longhorns can play that style with stronger defense than do most run-n-gun teams. 
  12. And finally, turning this group loose in a full court game built on pressure defense (and the offense it creates) would provide the sorely lacking fundamental identity this team needs. The lack of a take-charge point guard provides the oft-discussed explanation not only for the team's uneven offensive play, but for the fundamental uncertainty about who it is, what it's trying to do, and who's the one to do it. The question before us is whether the problem merits a relatively substantial change in overall approach. To whatever extent one agrees with me that this basic problem defines the status quo and isn't going to go away... is it too much to argue that a relatively drastic shift in approach is what this team needs and requires to have a chance at Great? I say go for it. Let 'em loose, Rick.

What say you? What are your thoughts on the kind of change in philosophy that I'm advocating? Am I overreacting to one loss? If so, describe how the status quo reaches an elevated level. And if not, would my suggestions be yours?

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