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The University of Texas men's basketball team enters this week 14-3 overall and 2-0 in conference play after thoroughly dispatching Big 12 cellar dwellars Texas Tech (83-52) and Oklahoma (66-46) this week. As has already been detailed, this team is ahead of schedule and exceeding expectations, finishing the nonconference season with quality wins over Illinois, North Carolina, and Michigan State, while narrowly losing to Pitt and UConn, both of which Texas could have (and arguably should have) won.
This isn't just optimistic homerism, either. The Longhorns' fundamentals are excellent, slotting them 9th in Ken Pomeroy's ratings, the underlying numbers projecting Texas to finish 24-7 overall, 12-4 in conference play. And that data projection meshes neatly with Wiggo's excellent projection analysis.
Of course, it was right around this time last year that Texas found itself in a full freefall, so Longhorns fans will be forgiven if they're waiting to see how Texas fares against the Big 12's best. Still, there are legitimate reasons to be optimistic that Texas can and will meet those projections. After the jump we focus on the two most important, one on each side of the hardwood.
Offensively, Texas was a more talented team a year ago, but as I said before the season, I liked the chances of this year's squad being a more balanced, consistent offensive unit, and that has largely proven to be true. And the single biggest reason for that is that you cannot zone this Texas team with impunity, as you could last year's.
Heading into this week the Longhorns have connected on 102 of 273 three point shots, a very healthy 37.4 percent clip. But note that Texas started the year atrociously, hitting just 11 of their 45 attempts through three games. Which means that since the fourth game of the season Texas has shot 101-228 from downtown, a ridiculous 44.3 percent. They all count, but bear in mind that Texas struggled early in large part because Cory Joseph wasn't comfortable and J'Covan Brown had yet to get in any kind of a rhythm - he was, at that time, still battling to earn Rick's trust. The sharpshooting numbers of the last 14 games are much more indicative of this team's true ability than the woeful first three.
Last year's squad was a poor three point shooting team and was fatally susceptible to a sagging zone defense that could collapse around Texas' primary offensive weapons in Dexter Pittman and Damion James. You can't do that this year, because Texas has zone busting guards in Brown, Joseph, and Hamilton, plus a more nimble, fluid offense that includes a versatile Gary Johnson anchoring the hi-low offense.
Defensively, from a pure talent perspective there's no way this year's squad should be better than last year's, but they are, and it's entirely due to the astronomical improvement in team defense. Perhaps due to the dischord on the team, and certainly in part due to the poor play from freshmen like Hamilton and Brown, but last year's team played terrible team defense and as a result gave up far too many easy buckets.
By contrast, this year's squad could be the centerpiece of an instructional video on team defense. We hedge properly on screens. We rotate to help. We communicate. Anticipate. It's been a complete revolution, with fantastic results, despite not being a particularly big team. Heading into the season, I worried this team would be forced to embrace zone defense to protect their size problems, but the opposite has been true. We haven't had to zone much at all this year, thanks in part to Thompson playing so big but even more so to the exceptional team defense that defines this team.
Heading into this week the Longhorns rank first in the country in effective field goal percentage defense. Opponents are hitting just 28 percent of their threes (8th nationally) and 40 percent of their twos (4th nationally). So long as we do our jobs clearing misses (the UConn loss shows what happens if we don't), we're very, very difficult to beat.
As we head into the meat of the Big 12 schedule, that last stat will be the one to keep a close eye on. Texas gets its first two tests of the conference season this week as the Aggies visit Austin on Wednesday and UT heads to Lawrence to battle Kansas on Saturday. Texas A&M enters this week ranked 7th nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (41.5 percent) and the Jayhawks aren't terribly far behind (37 percent). There will be nights when our shots just don't fall -- that can't be helped -- but Texas can control its effort and performance on the defensive glass, and if they can continue to get that job done on a nightly basis, they'll be right in the thick of the Big 12 title chase and can finish with that Top 4 seed that they are on pace to earn.