On Thursday and Friday, the Texas Longhorns played two games, both as a part of the Big 12 tournament. In the first, they appeared nearly unbeatable, while in the second, they seemed hopeless. Two games, only 24 hours apart, produced vastly different results.
The irony of Texas' two games in the Big 12 tournament is that the offense was actually better in the game that Texas lost. In Texas' blowout win over West Virginia, the Horns scored 1.05 points per possession on offense. In the loss to Baylor, the Texas offense was better, at 1.10 points per trip.
These games were won and lost at the other end of the floor. Against a stout and energetic Texas D, the Mountaineers offense was stuck in the mud, with 49 points in 63 possessions, or 0.78 points per trip. The Bears, on the other hand, seemingly could not be stopped. Baylor tore up the Texas defense, scoring 1.37 points per possession.
So what on earth happened?
Regular Burnt Orange Nation readers know how much emphasis I put on team "true shooting percentage." True shooting percentage is a statistic that combines shots from the floor and free throw shooting in a logical way; it essentially measures how much value a team gets out of the shots that it takes. On Thursday night, West Virginia had a horrible true shooting percentage of 0.358. Baylor's true shooting percentage Friday night was 0.595. That is a substantial difference.
What went right against West Virginia?
Before I spend a lot of time writing about the Texas defense, I first have to acknowledge that Bob Huggins' team was a willing collaborator in its demise. The Mountaineers shot the ball about as poorly as you can. WVU was 6-20 from three, 8-29 on two point jumpers, and a horrifying 6-17 at the rim.
But the Longhorns deserve some credit as well. Texas contained Juwan Staten's dribble penetration, keeping one of the best players in the league away from the basket and off of the free throw line. Staten the jump shooter is a far less effective player than Staten the penetrator and creator.
I often use a statistic called Points Above Median (PAM), which measures how many "extra" points a player scores relative to the number of shots he takes. PAM helps to reveal what a particular team or player does best. Against Texas Thursday night, Staten had a PAM of -8.4. Seven of Staten's 11 shots were logged as two point jumpers in the play-by-play data, and the Mountaineer guard missed all seven of these attempts.
The Longhorns were able to take Staten out of the game while simultaneously limiting West Virgina sharpshooter Eron Harris. On the season, Harris has hit over 40 percent of his 204 threes. Texas limited him to only three shots from beyond the arc; he was 1-3.
Texas contained both Staten and Harris, and did it without fouling. West Virgina only took a total of five free throws.
What went wrong against Baylor?
Friday night's game against the Baylor Bears couldn't have been more different. Scott Drew's team shot 30 free throws and murdered Texas from three, going 12-24 from long range.
The Texas defensive interior was still stout -- this is a given with this team at this point -- as Baylor only got 11 of its 58 shots on layups and dunks. But Baylor didn't need to score inside, with Brady Heslip and Kenny Chery bombing from three. Heslip was 6-11 from three, posting a PAM of 10.7.
In Baylor's two regular season losses, Heslip was 0-4 and 2-4 from three. During those two games, the Texas defense did an outstanding job of limiting clean looks for Heslip.
But the Texas defense on Friday against the Canadian sharp shooter was less robust. Giving 11 looks to Heslip is begging for trouble. More concerning is that only one of those shots came in transition, when identifying shooters quickly is difficult. Texas was giving open looks to Heslip in the half court, where he should in theory be easier to contain (and where the Longhorns have previously contained him). And Heslip made the Horns pay.
Texas' game plan against Baylor didn't seem substantially different from what it has been previously. When in man-to-man defense, a Texas perimeter player was assigned to chase Heslip, and shadow him no matter what. But unlike previous games, Heslip was able to get free; Felix Island seemed more like a peninsula.
Rather than crowding Heslip closely, and refusing to allow him to shoot, the Texas defenders seemed content to merely chase Heslip. With a player like Heslip, who is such a good shooter but little threat off the dribble, the only appropriate defense is to crowd him so closely that he has to dribble. But Texas, and specifically Javan Felix, didn't do this.
What does this all mean?
The search for meaning on a basketball court can often be unsatisfying. It is particularly so when the three point shot is involved.
Texas beat West Virgina in part because the Horns limited chances for Eron Harris. And Rick Barnes' squad lost to Baylor in large part because it gave up too many good looks to Heslip. How we chose to generalize this information as Texas prepares for the tournament is an individual choice; personally I am hesitant to do so.
Against West Virgina, the Longhorns came into the game with a clear game plan, and they executed it. Against Baylor, Texas did not execute the plan on D.
We can speculate as to why this might be. Perhaps the extra practice time to prepare for West Virginia helped, while essentially having no time to practice prior to the Baylor game made a difference.
But I am skeptical of this explanation for why the Texas Longhorns specifically failed against Heslip. Sometimes there isn't a good explanation for why you don't do the things that you know you are supposed to do.
So as Texas prepares for the next phase of the post season, I cannot tell you what to think. I cannot tell you if the Texas defense that completely neutered a powerful West Virginia offense is what we will see. Or if the Texas defense that simply failed to shadow Heslip closely enough will again show up.
We will just have to let things play out on the court.