Texas Longhorns Basketball: Inside the Numbers, Week 1

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Basketball is back. And so is Burnt Orange Nation's wordiest column.

I never know what to expect from freshman. I don't follow recruiting all that closely, and anyway I am of the opinion that much of the information about specific recruits isn't worth very much. Recruiting analysts don't see players play that many times before making an evaluation, as travel makes it difficult. We don't have detailed analytics on high school players to make it any easier, and even if we did we would have to deal with drastic differences in levels of competition from location to location.

Still, while I say all that, as a whole the recruiting community does a decent job of identifying which players will likely do the best in college, considering just how tough it is to make the sorts of projections that they make. And given the projections for Isaiah Taylor, I didn't have high hopes that he would be an impact player this season.

And now, after two games, I have to wonder just how the recruiting services made their evaluation of Taylor. He is a far better player coming right out of the gate than his three star ratings would indicate. Is this simply the case of a player that the services didn't get to see very much of, and thus ranked lower than they should have? (A similar thing happened to Ioannis Papapetrou.)

I will tell you what I like about Taylor. To be successful, guards have to be able to protect the ball. While I am sure Taylor will have ups and downs this year, through the first two games he has shown that he mostly is a good steward of the rock. He has the ability to take off down the court with terrific speed, and yet he does it all under control.

Ball security is necessary to survive. To thrive in the college game a guard has to either be able to get to the rim and score there, or he has to be able to shoot. We cannot say much about Taylor's shooting ability yet, but through his first two games he has shown that he can take the ball to the rack. 12 of Taylor's 19 shots have come at the rim; eight of these came in transition, and four came later in a possession against a set half-court defense.

These are still very small sample sizes, and we will have to wait longer for a richer data set, but the early returns look good. Peter was right. I like Isaiah Taylor.

The Week In Review

Success in basketball comes down to four simple things:

1. Maximize the number of shots you get per possession.

2. Minimize the number of shots your opponent gets per possession.

3. Be as efficient with your shots as possible.

4. Make your opponent as inefficient with their shots as possible.

This column looks at these four things, and the factors that affect them.

All of the background information on the statistics is presented here, here, and here.

TEXAS vs MERCER

CATEGORY

TEXAS

MERCER

DIFFERENCE

FGA

59

63

-4

FTA

28

21

7

FGA + 0.475 x FTA

72.3

73.0

-0.7

Off Rebs

13

13

0

TOs

13

13

0

ORB - TO

0

0

0

TS%

0.526

0.500

0.025

ORB%

35%

33%

TO%

18%

18%

Points/100

105

100

One of the key characteristics of many of Rick Barnes' teams is that they generally win by creating a substantial advantage over opponents in the total number of shots attempted. This is because most of Barnes' teams do two things on offense very well: they crash the glass, and they take care of the rock. In recent years, when Texas hasn't built a substantial advantage over an opponent in the number of shots attempted, the result was often a loss. Texas' season opener against Mercer did not play out this way.

When I think through box score, I start by looking at two things: how many shots each team took (where "shots" refers to the composite number of FGA + 0.475xFTA), and what each team did with those shots. In the Texas-Mercer match-up last Friday, both teams took essentially the same number of shots.

This shouldn't be surprising, as both teams also grabbed the same number of offensive rebounds and had the same number of turnovers. Extra shots come from these two categories, for the most part, which is why turnovers and rebounds are important. On the whole, both teams were more or less average on the offensive glass (as measured by offensive rebounding percentage), and both teams protected the ball well (as shown by their low turnover percentages).

For Texas, Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix both were solid with the ball. Felix struggled at times with turnovers last season, but that hasn't been an issue for him in the first two games of the year.

We also have to give some credit to both Cameron Ridley and Connor Lammert, who hit the boards on both ends of the floor. Ridley was tough on the glass, grabbing 16 percent of the available offensive rebounds and 26 percent of the possible defensive rebounds while in the game.

Texas won this game on the strength of its shooting, and by holding down Mercer's shooting. We measure this using true shooting percentage (TS%). While a true shooting percentage of 0.526 isn't going to remind anyone of the 2013 Michigan Wolverines, it is still a solid result.

After every game, I like to calculate a statistic that I call Points Above Median (PAM), which measures how big of an impact, either positive or negative, each player's scoring had on the team true shooting percentage. I focus on how each player improves (or hurts) the team, because that is what really matters.

For Texas, Damarcus Croaker led the way with a PAM of 4.1; this is what happens when you come in off the bench, play a few minutes, drill two three pointers, and sit down.

Connor Lammert and Jonathan Holmes chipped in PAMs of 3.2 and 2.4 respectively. Lammert went 3-3 on shots at the rim, two of which came off of offensive rebounds, and went 1-2 from three point range. Holmes did most of his damage from beyond the arc, going 2-3 from downtown.

The Texas defense did a respectable job, holding Mercer to 1.00 points per possession and a true shooting percentage of 0.500. Langston Hall gave Texas the most trouble, posting a PAM of 4.8 while going 5-10 from three point range. If there was a worrisome aspect for the Texas defense, it was in how many three point attempts the Texas Longhorns gave up. Rick Barnes' team played much of the game in zone defense, and nearly half of Mercer's shot attempts were from long distance.


Texas, Zone Defense, and Problems with the Three

Through the first two games, Texas has spent a substantial amount of time playing zone defense. In both games, Texas fell behind opponents while playing zone, giving up a lot of open looks from three. Then the Longhorns switched to a man-to-man defense, slowed down their opponent's offense, and staged a comeback.

In some cases, Texas gave up open threes in the zone because of specific defensive breakdowns by individual players, but in other cases Texas gave up these shots because it is just very difficult to guard the entire perimeter in a zone defense.

Successful attacks on a zone defense usually aim to  force a defender to be in two spots at once. There are a lot of ways to create these sorts of situations. Some teams do it by penetrating the seams of a defense off the dribble, forcing two defenders to collapse on the seam, and then kicking the ball to an open player. By repeating this pattern a couple of times, the defense is usually toast.

Other teams, like Mercer, attack a zone simply through spacing,  ball movement, and reversing the ball from side to side. Below I show an example taken from a possession where Mercer set things up in such a way so as to give Texas no reasonable way to cover everything in play.

One of the basic issues that any zone defense has to account for is what happens after a ball-reversing skip pass. In Texas' 2-3 zone, the weak-side forward creeps up so that he can help the two guards immediately after a skip pass. After that skip pass, we find ourselves in the situation below, where a defender is closing out on a guard just after a skip pass has been made. This is a bad situation, as a second player is free in the corner.

Mercer3_medium

You are probably wondering why the guard, Javan Felix, isn't assigned to close out on this player. With the offense aligned the way that it is, that would probably be better for the defense. But these slide rules also have to cover other situations. If a third offensive player comes up top, Felix will have to guard him, and the forward will once again need to be responsible for this ball reversing skip pass. It is probably easier to teach this forward to always come up on the reversal than it is to teach him to evaluate the spacing of several other players around him to make the optimal choice. These slides can't be analyzed on the fly, as that would be too slow. They simply have to be programmed reactions. There isn't any time to think on defense.

But as the forward closes out, the ball is quickly passed to the open man in the corner, who gets a wide open look from three.

Mercer4_medium

Now, you may argue that this is a poorly conceived way to play a zone defense, with the forward having to cover two players at once, but it is a fundamental problem faced by every zone. A zone structured with different slide rules after a skip pass would simply create a two on one match-up somewhere else on the floor.

One of the biggest problems with a zone defense that a well-conceived attack can always put it in a bad spot, often with relatively little work. Unless all five defenders are very big and very athletic (like with Syracuse, one of the few top programs that plays zone as a primary defense), the offense is often going to find shots like this.

Compounding the problem with playing a zone is that it makes it easier to for the offense to get second chance shots. There aren't clear box out responsibilities, which is why teams like Syracuse struggle to rebound year after year, despite regularly trotting out one of the taller lineups in the nation.

So why exactly has Rick Barnes played so much zone in the first two games? As you are probably aware, the NCAA is encouraging officials to call games more tightly this year, which will surely lead to more fouling. All summer long within college basketball circles, there have been discussions about how the new approach to calling fouls was going to drive coaches to play more zone, because in general zone defenses foul a lot less than man-to-man defenses. Rick Barnes probably wants to keep his big guys out of trouble. That is understandable.

But this switch is likely an overreaction. The problem with playing zone is that, while it does cut down on fouls, it also gives opponents clean looks from three and leads to offensive rebounds. Personally, I would rather give up a few more free throws and deal with a little foul trouble at the end of games than give up second chance points and open shots from beyond the arc.

Zone defense has a place in the college game. It is a useful way to steal a few minutes here and there to protect a big man in foul trouble, and it is a nice way to throw a change of pace at the offense, just to see how it will respond. Zone defense is sometimes used on out of bounds plays to make it harder for teams to set screens to get an easy layup. And teams that zone press often fall back into a zone defense, as it avoids the problem of having to match up after the offense breaks the press.

But outside of those situations, it is hard to make a zone defense successful in the modern NCAA game. There are just too many guys who can shoot, and too many teams that will beat up zones on the glass.

I don't want to say it cannot be done. But I think there is a good reason that when you look around college basketball you see very few teams that primarily play zone defense.

TEXAS vs SOUTH ALABAMA

CATEGORY

TEXAS

S. ALA

DIFFERENCE

FGA

68

59

9

FTA

19

16

3

FGA + 0.475 x FTA

77.0

66.6

10.4

Off Rebs

16

10

6

TOs

12

15

-3

ORB - TO

4

-5

9

TS%

0.545

0.578

-0.033

ORB%

44%

29%

TO%

16%

21%

Points/100

115

108

Speaking of problems in zone defense, Texas had a few in this game. During the first half of play South Alabama hit ten three pointers, forcing Texas to spend the rest of the game battling back from a huge deficit.

Whenever one team gets more shots than the other team and also has a higher true shooting percentage, that team wins the game 100 percent of the time. It is just a basic mathematical fact. But in some games, like in the Texas game against South Alabama on Tuesday, one team gets off more shots, while the other makes better use of the shots that it takes.

So who wins in these games? The rule of thumb is that a 0.01 differential in TS% is worth approximately 1.3 extra shots. This rule seems to fail me about one game per season (it is based on an approximation, and the conditions under which that approximation was developed do not cover every single game), but this was not such a game.

Against South Alabama, Texas' 10.4 extra "shots" were worth more than the Jaguar TS% advantage of 0.033.

For the second game in a row, the Longhorns took care of the ball, Only turning it over in 16 percent of their possessions. Felix in particular was excellent in this regard, only turning it over in 11 percent of the possessions that ended with the ball in his hands.

Texas also earned a substantial shot advantage on the boards, rebounding 44 percent of its own misses, and holding the Jaguars to a 29 percent offensive rebounding percentage. The Texas big men did good work, as did Demarcus Holland (this Demarcus, Damarcus thing is just going to kill me this year) who after two games is among Texas' better rebounders.

One of the most notable things about this game was, during the comeback, the Longhorns really pushed the tempo. Shots in transition generally are easier than ones in the half court, and this game was no exception. 35 percent of Texas' shots came in transition, and the Longhorns effective field goal percentage on these shots was 65 percent. In the half-court, Texas' eFG% was a more pedestrian 47 percent.

The Longhorns ran whenever they could. 61 percent of Texas' initial shot attempts after a defensive rebound came within the first ten seconds of a possession; the national average for this is around 40 percent. Even after made baskets, Barnes' team pushed up the floor, with 38 percent of the initial shots in these situations coming in transition, compared with a D-I average of around 15 percent.

Getting up and down the floor in particular helped Javan Felix. 10 of Felix's 15 shots came in transition, with six of these ten ending up as layups. At times, I have been critical of Felix, and while he was not great in this game (his PAM was a tiny bit below zero), when we also consider his low turnover total and the good job he did as a playmaker, he was a net positive for the Texas offense.

But I have not yet talked about Jonathan Holmes, because I have been saving the best for last. Holmes shot the hell out of the ball, posting a PAM of 6.2, in large part because he went 4-7 from three point range. When Holmes and Lammert hit threes, the Texas offense is much more dangerous.

And when good perimeter shooters are paired with quick penetrating guards, things tend to work out on offense. So long as the shots continue to fall, and the guards continue to penetrate, the Texas offense will be OK.

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