J'Covan Brown will try to lead a young, but talented team back to the NCAA Tournament.
In Part 1 of our preview of the 2011-12 Texas Longhorns basketball season, we took a look at Rick Barnes' four new freshman guards. In Part 2 we introduced you to the two freshman forwards joining the squad, while Part 3 focused on the returning players on the squad. Here in the fourth installment, we pull everything together to look at how the pieces all fit together.
It's always difficult to project how a young team is going to look and develop, but let's break down what we know and don't know to get a sense of how all these pieces fit together.
Texas will play nine players regularly, eight of whom I expect to average double-digit minutes. On the perimeter, Myck Kabongo, J'Covan Brown, and Sheldon McClellan will start, backed up by Julien Lewis and Steling Gibbs. On the interior, Texas will rotate seniors Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman with freshmen Jaylen Bond and Jonathan Holmes, and though ideally Barnes is going to want all four capable of playing 15-20 minutes per game it's not out of the question that the freshmen will be starters at some point, perhaps even to start the season.
Texas would be small playing Holmes and Bond in the frontcourt, but while smaller line ups without a true power forward or center are untenable at the professional level, college teams can and often do succeed playing small. Villanova went 28-5 and earned a No. 1 seed in 2005-06 with a line up four guards and 6-8 Will Sheridan, and went 30-8 with a Final Four berth in 2008-09 with four guards and 6-8 Dante Cunningham. Although Texas will be a better team if Wangmene, Chapman, or both are capable of providing quality play that deserves substantial playing time, size is not the driving factor in determining who needs to be out there.
Although an eight or nine man rotation means Texas will have a reasonable amount of depth in terms of numbers (if not experience), there are definitely foul trouble concerns with this group. Among the guards, Texas could survive a stretch with either Kabongo or J'Covan on the bench with foul trouble, but not both; one of those two needs to be on the floor at all times. Looking inside, foul trouble is a concern both because Wangmene and Chapman have been foul prone in the past (hacking at a rate of about 8.3 fouls per 40 minutes), and the two freshmen are (i) freshmen, and (ii) only 6'7". If all four frontcourt players provide roughly equal value (if in different ways), Texas' foul trouble concerns would be somewhat mitigated, but if one or more of these guys isn't ready or capable of providing solid minutes, depth and foul trouble come in to play in a big way, particularly against teams that can pound the ball into the paint to score.
Many fans fail to grasp that there are different ways a basketball team can be effective offensively. One way to be effective is to score efficiently -- that is, score more points per each shot taken. A second way is to shoot less efficiently overall, but make up ground by hitting more three point shots. A third way is to shoot less efficiently, but give yourself more opportunities to shoot -- with fewer turnovers, more offensive rebounds, or both. A fourth way is to excel at getting to the line, and converting free throw attempts. And so on.
The important thing to understand is that there isn't one single way an offense must perform to be effective on offense, and what matters is whether an offense is highly effective in some areas to compensate for deficiencies in others. For example, the 2002-03 Longhorns offense didn't shoot the ball particularly well, but was the second most effective offense in the country because they grabbed 41.5% of their misses, the second-best rate nationally. The 2007-08 Texas offense didn't shoot the ball all that well, either, and though they weren't quite as strong an offensive rebounding team, they were the third most effective offense in the country in part because they led the nation with the lowest turnover percentage.
Understanding that concept is essential to evaluating where and how this year's Texas offense can excel and find success. Although Texas' overall youth/inexperience and its undersized/questionable frontcourt may well result in an offense that does not score efficiently in its set halfcourt offense, there are things this group might do quite well that can help produce effective offense differently. Most importantly, Texas will feature two guards capable of breaking down a defense one-on-one. Barnes will have this group running roughly the same flex offense that he installed last season, but even if this team struggles to execute in that offense, in Myck Kabongo and J'Covan Brown the Longhorns will have a pair of primary ballhandlers who can beat a man one-on-one, disrupt a set team defense, and create scoring opportunities either for themselves or a teammate.
The impact of that capability extends widely to the offense's potential to be effective. Terrific guards whose penetration must be stopped with help defense can produce greater opportunities for open three point looks for teammates. Likewise, where a forward has to step up to help a perimeter defender who's been beat on the dribble, frontcourt players are left open near the rim. Along the same lines, scrambling to stop penetration and the shot it produces often results in poor positioning to secure defensive rebounds/greater opportunity for offensive boards. Effective penetration also tends to lead to trips to more trips to the free throw line.
That one elite ability (two guards who can breakdown a defense), then, could help Texas excel by way of more three pointers, more offensive rebounding, and more trips to the free throw line. It would help mitigate the size limitations of our frontcout, and provide scoring opportunities that our young and inexperienced team otherwise might struggle to create and convert with consistency.
Texas also has one other potential strength that I want to mention briefly in this overview. Although as the season gets underway we'll dissect in greater detail the set offense that this group will be attempting to run, for now I want to highlight the other way this group might mitigate the impact of any struggles it has in the execution of its halfcourt sets: it can push the tempo and try to score in transition. Not only is this roster filled with tons of speed and athleticism, but freshmen tend to be much more comfortable and adept open court players than halfcourt technicians. Texas has the ball handlers/distributors to facilitate up-tempo opportunities, and a roster absolutely loaded with big-time finishing ability. Jaylen Bond, Sheldon McClellan, and Julien Lewis are all terrific open court players, and pretty much to a man Texas has a roster it can get out and run with if it so desires.
In sum, there are plenty of reasons to expect the limitations of this group to produce raw and choppy offense, particularly as these young players learn how to execute set offense in the halfcourt. Even so, that isn't the only path to offensive success, and we have assets and team attributes that will help us excel in other ways. Guards who can break down team defense and distribute the ball are in many ways the most precious commodity in college basketball, and that, thankfully, is the one area where Texas looks particularly dangerous.
In case you couldn't tell, I'm actually pretty excited and optimistic about our potential to score buckets. Unfortunately, that optimism doesn't extend to our prospects as a defensive team, where I'm fearful our youth and frontcourt issues will be problematic. For all the squawking about the offense, if you look back closely at all of Rick Barnes' Texas squads, more often than not the team has been more effective on offense than defense, and the single biggest deficiency that has plagued our teams has been average or below average defensive rebounding.
The 2005-06 Longhorns finished 5th nationally in percentage of opponents' missed shots rebounded, the one and only Barnes Texas team to finish inside the Top 70 in defensive rebounding percentage (DR%). UT finished 80th in DR% in 2009-10 and 71st last year, and have finished outside the Top 100 in every other season, including 160th in 2008-09, 209th in 2006-07, and 219th in 2007-08. Defensive rebounding has been a consistent weakness of our teams and unfortunately there is little reason to feel good about this year being different.
There are trade offs in just about everything you do or don't do in basketball, and defensive rebounding isn't the be-all, end-all, as is clear from the success many of our teams have had notwithstanding average (or worse) numbers clearing opponent misses. Nevertheless, it's hard not to worry that this team will be at least as flawed as the freshman-filled 2006-07 team, which was similarly wanting in frontcout size. It's easy to imagine this team will struggle defensively with big teams that can score in the paint, and it's hard not to imagine us being an average or worse defensive rebounding team throughout the season. The one silver lining is that defensive rebounding at the collegiate level is not about size and strength to nearly the degree it is at the professional level -- athleticism, quickness, reach/length, timing, instincts, positioning, and pure effort are all important factors beyond being big and tall that can make a good defensive rebounding player/team.
Rebounding is one thing, but big and tall does matter quite a bit with respect to playing defense. All three of the defensive options available to Barnes for this team are less than ideal: (1) Barnes can help our frontcourt defense by playing zone, and hope to keep opponents from crashing the glass by deploying aggressive outlet passes and transition game that must be respected. (2) Texas could run and press, trying to create turnovers and limit its exposure in halfcourt defense, while hoping it has the depth to sustain the effort and avoid foul trouble. (3) Finally, of course, Barnes can have this team play straight-up man defense, hoping our forwards can provide adequate defense without fouling themselves off the floor, which as we've discussed, is hardly a given with the undersized freshmen and the track records of Wangmene and Chapman.
The first strategy (zone) is attractive for a number of reasons, and particularly for a zone's capacity to mitigate some of our frontcourt size and depth issues. But while Texas does have the requisite length among its perimeter players, playing zone effectively (i) requires a heavy, sustained commitment that history suggests Barnes is unlikely to make, and even if he did, (ii) could substantially weaken us with respect to defensive rebounds, which can be difficult to clean up while playing zone.
Likewise, the second approach (run and press) has its appeal, as Texas in many ways has the ideal personnel to deploy an effective full-court press defense, but first of all, Barnes has never committed a team to a Mike Anderson-style press, and more importantly, even if he wanted to we only the depth to do so if everyone on the roster lives up fully to our more hopeful projections of what they're capable of contributing. If even one player isn't ready or able to give us 10+ quality minutes, we likely won't have the depth necessary to sustain that kind of pressure. If two or more players aren't ready or able to play meaningful minutes, a press is totally out of the question.
That leaves us with straight up man-to-man defense, and it'll be an upset if we open the season doing anything else. How effectively we're able to play man will depend on (1) how developed our two freshmen forwards are both in terms of body strength and defensive skill, (2) whether Wangmene and Chapman have taken a big step forward in both effectiveness and avoiding fouls, and (3) our ability to play exceptionally sound help-and-recover team defense.
Out on the perimeter our man defense can be strong, as Brown is capable of playing quality defense when he concentrates, Lewis has the potential to be an above-average defender from day one, McClellan has the ability to be a real asset when he moves his feet and stays alert, and Kabongo's quickness offsets his lack of strength. We'll need to navigate a delicate balance between the need to send help to the defensive glass and the importance of transitioning quickly into offense. Not enough of the former will result in too many second chances for opponents, while each missed opportunity to score in the open court means executing halfcourt offense against a set defense. It's easy to see why I think it's so important that Wangmene -- who I think can be a very strong rebounder -- has developed his overall game into a player who can give us 15-20 strong minutes, and for McClellan to provide rebounding help much like Jordan Hamilton was able to the past two seasons.
Add it all up and what do you get? I'll hold off on offering too much of a detailed projection because there's simply no substitute for seeing basketball players in the gym with your own eyes. I need to see how fast and how quick Kabongo is with the ball in his hands. I need to see how strong Jaylen Bond's upper body is, and whether McClellan has quick feet and a good first step. I need to see whether Chapman looks physically capable of providing defense and rebounding, and whether Wanmene's eyes and hands indicate that the game has slowed down for him.
Right now, here's what I think I know: Every game against a subpar opponent will be important for development. If we're able to get by Oregon State in East Rutheford, we'll get a great early season barometer of how far we have to go when we play Vanderbilt. We're not going to learn much from the walloping we'll take at North Carolina, but we'll find out something useful when we take on a big, but not elite, UCLA team in Pauley Pavilion.
And we'll find out in our first three games in January whether we're going to be competitive for an NCAA Tournament bid, when we open Big 12 conference play at Iowa State, followed by Oklahoma State and Texas A&M at home. This team will improve all the way to the very end, but if we can't be competitive to steal a road win in Ames against a good but not great Iowa State squad, and if we can't hold serve at home against A&M and Oklahoma State, there's just not much chance that we're going to get to 9 conference wins. A 2-1 or 3-0 start is a great sign that Rick Barnes' remarkable tournament streak will continue, but losing two or all three of those games will be a good sign that we're not going to get there.
Personally, I'm very excited to see this team and watch it develop. I'm also optimistic. I think this team is going to be a dangerous, if raw and flawed, group by January. I think many are undervaluing the asset of having two elite primary ball handlers who can break down defenses and create offense for themsevles on their teammates. I think Sheldon McClellan is a better pure scorer than Jordan Hamilton, and that he has the potential to provide us with some of the rebounding we clearly will need. And finally, I'm excited by how many players on this team stand out as outstanding open court players. This team can run, this team is flush with guys who can really finish around the rim, and when this Texas squad is going well, I think opponents might find this group hard to keep up with.
We'll see, but it's going to be fun. Season tips in six days...