The Big Men are the Key for the Texas Longhorns Basketball Season

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Texas needs its four big men to put together a strong season.

The core of Rick Barnes' highly rated 2012 freshman class was three big men from Texas. Cameron Ridley, a high school All-American, was the headliner. Lanky center Prince Ibeh was another top 100 rated player. And Connor Lammert was regarded as a skilled big man with a jump shot whose game would complement his two fellow freshman bigs.

During their freshman season, things didn't work out as hoped. Ridley struggled on offense, with a game nowhere near what Texas fans expected from one of the best high school basketball players in the country. Ibeh played well, particularly on defense, but often had a hard time staying on the floor with foul trouble. Connor Lammert played the most, but was often physically overpowered by more experienced opponents.

This post looks in depth at the play of the three Texas sophomore big men, along with junior post player Jonathan Holmes.

Evaluating the four Texas post players on team defense

From my perspective, big men typically have a greater impact at the defensive end of the floor then they do on offense. So for this reason, I start by looking at the defensive contributions of each of the four returning Texas inside players.

The table below shows the Texas team defensive performance when each of the four returning Texas big men were on the floor a season ago. My notes on each player follow.

Pos

PPP

opp eFG%

opp ORB%

opp FTA/FGA

% opp FGA at rim

opp FG% at rim

Cameron Ridley

914

0.94

42.9%

35.3%

0.295

29.0%

56.0%

Jonathan Holmes

984

0.95

43.1%

32.7%

0.394

30.1%

58.1%

Connor Lammert

1203

0.99

44.4%

35.8%

0.428

31.6%

57.1%

Prince Ibeh

564

0.90

39.6%

32.7%

0.502

26.9%

48.8%

Team

2326

0.96

43.0%

34.0%

0.427

30.9%

57.1%

Prince Ibeh. The defense was at its best last season while Prince Ibeh was on the floor. This result is not at all surprising -- Ibeh blocked an estimated 12 percent of opponent two-point attempts while in the game last season, which would have been one of the 15 highest rates of any player in Division I, had he played enough minutes to qualify in kenpom.com's rankings.

Opponent effective field goal percentage (eFG%) was less than 40 percent with Ibeh in the game last year. This was largely due to two factors. Opponents only made 48.8 percent of their shots at the rim with Ibeh in the game, and only attempted 27 percent of their shots from in close range.

One curiosity about Ibeh's numbers is that, while opponents didn't convert a very high percentage of their shots at the rim against Ibeh, this wasn't because he blocked a bunch of shots there. Of Ibeh's 40 blocked shots last season, only 9 were logged on opponent layup or dunk attempts. Compare that with Cameron Ridley, who recorded 23 of his 47 blocked shots on attempts at the rim (data from hoop-math.com).

The downside when Ibeh was in the game was the fouling rate went up. This isn't surprising either, as Ibeh committed 7.5 fouls per 40 minutes. This is a factor that certainly limited his ability to play more minutes.

Connor Lammert. The Texas defense was at its weakest when Connor Lammert played. While Lammert was on the floor, Texas allowed 0.99 points per possession. Lammert's presence on the floor didn't mean the offense was better, either.

While Lammert was in the game, Texas scored 0.95 points per possession, slightly less than the team average. While I don't believe this means that Lammert is hurting the offense (he was among Texas' best offensive players last season), it does suggest that Lammert's offensive impact wasn't significant enough to compensate for his problems on defense.

It is worth taking the time to understand just what those problems were, and when they occurred. Texas' biggest defensive problems came when Connor Lammert was asked to play center, with Ibeh and Ridley sitting on the bench. When Lammert was put in line ups without either Ibeh or Ridley, Texas allowed a bit more than 1.00 point per possession, with opponents converting on 63 percent of their layups and dunks. When Lammert was paired in a bigger lineup with Ibeh, Texas allowed 0.89 points per possession. This line up shut down opponents at the rim, with opponents making only 43 percent of their layups and dunks.

Curiously, the Lammert and Ridley pairing gave up 1.02 points per possession, in part because opponents were allowed to rebound 40 percent of their own misses. It is odd to me that this particular pairing had so much trouble on the boards. I don't know if this is just a statistical fluke, or if it indicates a true problem.

When it comes to individual low post defense, my qualitative opinion is that Lammert's defense is decent. The problem is that in the modern game low post defense is only a portion of what a big man is asked to do. The difference between a good low post defender and a poor one will only show up in a few games each season, whereas the ability of a big man to defend well in help rotations matters in every game. Lammert's help defense isn't as strong as that of his teammates, and he does not protect the rim or rebound particularly well.

Cameron Ridley. When Ridley was on the floor, the Texas defense fell somewhere in between what happened when Ibeh played and when Lammert played. As mentioned above, the pairing of Ridley and Lammert did not fare well on defense last season. The pairing of Ridley and Jonathan Holmes did, with opponents scoring 0.88 points per possession when these two were on the floor. This grouping also rebounded much better, holding opponents to a 31 percent offensive rebounding percentage.

We need to be cautious when interpreting these numbers. To cite one example, while the Ridley-Holmes pair did well last year, this doesn't mean the result is necessarily predictive for the future. It is entirely possible that factors that have nothing to these two players were major contributors to the success of this duo. Likewise, it would be a bad idea to over-interpret the troubles of the Ridley-Lammert pairing. These numbers tell us precisely what happened in the past, but they are not destiny and do not determine the future. And they don't tell us why something happened.

But while we don't want to over-interpret things, the Texas defense generally did rebound better when Holmes played, which is to be expected simply because Holmes was Texas' best defensive rebounder.

Jonathan Holmes. We have indirectly dealt with Holmes' effect on the Texas defense in the preceding paragraphs. To summarize, when Holmes played, the Texas defense rebounded better. Additionally, the Ibeh-Holmes and Ridley-Holmes pairings were outstanding at limiting opponent chances at the rim, allowing 20 percent and 25 percent of opponent chances to occur at the basket, respectively.

The Lammert-Holmes paring gave up 37 percent of opponent attempts at the rim, and allowed opponents to convert 60 percent of these attempts. This, combined with some weak rebounding, accounts for why the Lammert-Holmes pairing was the worst defensive pairing of the four.

Considering Offense, and Cameron Ridley

If we want to throw offense into the mix, the Ibeh-Lammert, Ibeh-Holmes, and Lammert-Holmes pairings were on the floor when the Texas offense was at its best, with 1.00, 0.99, and 0.97 points per possession respectively. This analysis reveals something we already knew -- Cameron Ridley had a difficult year on offense a season ago.

The Texas offense only scored 0.87 points per possession when Ridley played. While this is not all the big guy's fault -- the Longhorn offense had a lot of trouble last year -- we all know that Ridley did little to help the struggling O.

One notable problem for Cameron Ridley last season was his tendency to turn the ball over. As a freshman, Ridley turned the ball over in 25 percent of the possessions that ended with the rock in his hands. This is an unusually high percentage for a big man. Part of the struggle was Ridley's propensity to pick up offensive fouls. The Texas offense turned the ball over in 24 percent of its possessions while Ridley was in the game; this is the highest percentage for any regular Texas player last season.

Ridley's back to the basket game is still a work in progress, and it shows up in his shooting percentages. His effective field goal percentage was 46.2 percent, the lowest percentage by far of any of the Texas big men. Ridley attempted about half of his shot attempts as layups and dunks, and he converted on these 62 percent of the time. Of these made baskets at the rim, 95 percent came either off of an assist by a teammate, or a put back of an offensive rebound.

While such a high percentage of shots at the rim coming off of either assists or offensive rebounds is not uncommon for a college big man, it does point to a problem with the way in which Ridley was used by Rick Barnes last season. Ridley's low post game was not well developed. This is fine, and is very typical for a freshman big man. Prince Ibeh's low post game was not all that well developed either. But Texas didn't dump the ball into the low post to Ibeh as often as it did to Ridley.

Just under half of Ridley's shot attempts were two point jump shots, and he converted on these less than 30 percent of the time. Contrast this percentage with Ibeh, who only took 14 percent of his attempts away from the rim. Or Connor Lammert, who logged 32 percent of his attempts on two point jump shots, and made 49 percent of these attempts, which is an excellent percentage.

The basic fact of the matter is, when Texas threw the ball in to Ridley in the low post, bad things often happened. Because I am a glutton for punishment, I went back and watched a large percentage of Ridley's low post touches from last season. My basic observations are that Ridley does a very good job sealing his defender and establishing what is often very deep low post position, but once he catches the ball the trouble starts. Rather frequently, Ridley catches the ball and immediately puts the ball on the floor, before taking an unproductive turnaround shot. This quick dribble wastes his hard work at establishing deep low post position.

This sort of low post play is a common issue for young big men, particularly ones who at a previous level were just substantially bigger and stronger than their opponents, and are now facing similar-sized players for the first time. When you are bigger and stronger then everyone you play against, you can get away with a drop-step based low post game, and pretty much do whatever you want. Ridlley, with those quick dribbles, looks like a player who has long bullied his opponents with the drop step, and now cannot. What was once a quick dribble-drop step move is now is just a wasted dribble, with the defender preventing the drop step.

For those of us not named Shaquille O'Neal, we all eventually reach a level of play where we can no longer overpower defenders with the drop step. For me, this happened when I was 16. For Ridley, it is happening now. At this point in life, we all need to figure out a new way to play. Ridley isn't the first, or last, player who has to go through this transition.

Incidentally, whenever I find out a friend or colleague of mine is teaching their youth team's low post players drop step moves, I have to strongly resist the urge to scold them. I usually ask them how confident they are that the player will be 6-8 as a high schooler. Because if they aren't going to be, those moves will be useful about once or twice a season. This was the future my AAU coach was worried about when he was screaming at a skinny 12-year old, "Goddammit Haley, square up and face the f------ basket." It was sound advice. Ridley should heed it now.

When we think of some of the great low post scorers from recent history -- players like Kevin McHale, Hakeem Olajuwon, Jack Sikma, and Tim Duncan -- their repertoire consisted (or in Duncan's case consists) largely of moves made after facing the basket. On occasions where a player like Olajuwon would break this rule, it was the rule breaking of a master with the total understanding of what he was doing.

For the rest of us mortals, we probably ought to stick to the basics. They will take us far. The drop step is a sometimes thing.

Outlook

Any chance for the 2013-2014 Texas Longhorns to reach their potential starts with the four big guys. Prince Ibeh has the potential to be an impact player on the defensive end of the floor, provided he can avoid fouls enough to stay on the court.

Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert both came to Austin with reputations as skilled offensive players with perimeter jump shots. If they can start to hit some of those jump shots, it can transform the Texas offense, opening things up for the perimeter players, as well as the big men inside.

Cameron Ridley was blessed with physical gifts that few have. His size, strength, and agility form an unusual combination. The challenge for Ridley is to put all of these tools together within the framework of a coherent low post game. It isn't easy, but all the raw materials are there. He will figure it out eventually. I just worry that, for Texas' sake, it won't click until he is 25 and playing professionally.

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