Forget which conference is “the best in the country,” I hereby name the Big 12 our nation’s most entertaining league. Where else can you find rampant parity, a brisk pace, and a rather surprising lack of strong defenses? If you like scoring, this is the conference for you.
An average 40 minute Big 12 game has 68 possessions, up from 65.5 a season ago. And Big 12 offenses are more efficient this season, averaging 1.07 points per possession in conference games, compared with 1.02 last year. None of the seven major conferences score more points per possession, or play at a faster pace, than the Big 12.
In the middle of this offensive explosion, the Texas Longhorns currently have the league's number one defense. Texas is holding Big 12 opponents to 1.01 points per possession, the lowest total in the conference.
The strength of the Texas defense has been how the Longhorns defend opponents inside the arc. Rick Barnes' team is holding opponents to 44 percent shooting on two point attempts, also the lowest percentage in the conference.
While the Texas transition defense has been unspectacular, the defense in half-court situations has been outstanding. In non-transition shot attempts(*), the Texas defense is holding opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 44 percent over the course of the entire season. This is the 39th lowest total among D-I defenses; within the Big 12 only Kansas State is better.
Texas' success in half-court defense is primarily due to how well the Longhorns defend the rim. Texas does this in two ways. First, as any regular viewer of the Longhorns will tell you, Texas blocks and contests a lot of shots. As a result, Texas opponents are only converting 52 percent of their layups and dunks in half-court situations, which is the 70th lowest total among the 351 teams in D-I. In addition to blocking shots close to the bucket, Texas is also excellent when it comes to preventing them entirely. Only 26 percent of opponent attempts in non-transition situations have been logged as layups or dunks against the Texas D. This is the 30th lowest percentage in the nation.
The combination of these two effects is very powerful. If we multiply these two percentages together, taking the product of FG% at the rim and the fraction of attempts taken at the rim, we get a number that for lack of a better term I will call the At-Rim Impact Factor (ARIM). This number measures how much these two aspects of defense combine to influence effective field goal percentage. Texas' non-transition ARIM is the 13th lowest in all of Division I, meaning that Longhorn opponents get very little useful offense at the rim in half-court settings.
(*Transition attempts are defined here as those that occur within the first 10 seconds of possessions that start with a steal, a defensive rebound, or a made basket. They only include the first shot of a possession.)
Limiting dribble penetration
Much of Texas' success in preventing shots at the rim comes from the way the Longhorns limit the ability of penetrating guards to get to the basket. In the last week, the Texas Longhorns have faced two outstanding penetrating guards in Oklahoma State's Markel Brown and West Virginia's Juwan Staten. Both players like to attack the basket off the dribble, both in half-court settings as well as in transition.
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. In the cases of both Brown and Staten, PAM tells us that these two players are at their best when they can attack the rim, either finishing, or drawing fouls to get to the free throw line.
On the season, Brown has earned a per game PAM of 1.5 on attempts at the rim and 1.8 on free throws. Against Texas last Tuesday night, Brown was held to a PAM of -0.1 on shots at the rim, although he did manage 4 points above median at the free throw line. Brown's total PAM for the game was -0.5, well below his per game average of 3.2.
Texas did an even better job of containing Staten, holding the guard to a PAM of -3.6 (his season average is 2.9 per game).
Texas contained both of these outstanding guards by limiting dribble penetration. Brown ended up going 1-2 on shots at the rim against Texas, while Staten faired slightly better, making 3-4 on layups -- though his impact at the rim was limited significantly. Over the course of the season, Staten has gotten just under half of his field goal attempts at the rim; against Texas 12 of Staten's 16 attempts were two point jump shots (he was 3-12 on these attempts).
Texas' success in preventing dribble penetration is illustrated well by the example below taken from last Tuesday's game against Oklahoma State. The series of images below is taken from a possession early in the first half. It was a possession where Oklahoma State ultimately scored (on a contested off the dribble three point attempt), but it is a possession that illustrates just how well the Texas defense is defending dribble penetration.
This possession started off with Oklahoma State pushing the ball up the floor, looking for a transition scoring oppurtunity. With no such chance presenting itself, the Cowboys reversed the ball to Markel Brown and prepared to set a ball screen. This is where we pick things up in the image below. Note that we have an odd match-up on the floor, with Javan Felix initially guarding Le'Bryan Nash, who is preparing to set a ball screen for Brown. This is likely the result of scrambling back in transition.
Another thing in the image above that is important to highlight is how Texas is defending Phil Forte. Forte is among the most dangerous three point shooters in the conference, averaging a PAM of 2.6 per game on three point attempts. Forte was never able to get going against Texas, in part due to good defense, and in part because of foul trouble. Isaiah Taylor initially is assigned to guard Forte, and he will stay close to him during this entire possession. He won't be a part of Texas' help defense here; the Horns will manage to prevent penetration with only one on ball defender and three others helping.
After Nash sets the ball screen on Demarcus Holland, Felix and Holland switch.
In the next image, Felix has absorbed Brown, and contained him. Brown will swing the ball back to Nash.
After Nash catches the ball, we get to the next image in the series. We see here that Nash now has a driving lane, as Holland is recovering defensively after the switch. Note that Connor Lammert is ready to cut off penetration, while Ridley is protecting the basket. Both of these defenders have collapsed into helping positions, despite the fact that they are defending players on the strong side of the floor. This is a defensive tactic that is specifically designed to combat dribble penetration. Note also that Isaiah Taylor is still not a part of the helping defense, and is still focused exclusively on Forte, even though Forte is now several passes away from the ball..
Nash drives the basket, but never makes into the paint. Lammert helps out, as we see below, while Holland recovers defensively.
In the next image, we see Nash has now picked up the ball, and Holland is again in good defensive position. Note that Lammert did not stick around, but has recovered to his man. Nash will pass to Kamari Murphy, along the baseline.
After Nash passes to Murphy, we reach the situation captured in the image below. Texas center Cameron Ridley is guarding Murphy, who is attacking off the dribble. One of the ways that Ridley has improved significantly this season is in his ability to defend an attacking offensive player. A year ago, this would have been trouble, but this season Ridley has done well in cases where he is forced to defend a ball handler away from the rim.
But it is more than just good defense by Ridley in the image above. We see again that Ridley has a lot of help, with both Holland and Lammert cutting off the gaps, providing little room for Murphy to penetrate.
Ridley slides his feet and contains Murphy, who picks up his dribble. This brings us to the image below.
Skipping two seconds ahead, after Murphy's penetration has been stopped, the ball is passed back out to Brown. The Cowboys again prepare to set up a ball screen, as shown in the image below.
As the screen is set, we see below that Lammert is in helping position, while Felix is fighting under the screen. This is probably not exactly what Barnes wants, as by fighting under the screen, Felix will provide a small window of opportunity for Brown to shoot a three. This is a minor breakdown in an outstanding defensive possession.
As Brown comes off the screen, he sees his opportunity, and shoots. Felix closes, and is there to contest the shot, but the shot goes in. This is a difficult shot, taken off the dribble and contested by the defense. Brown is a very good player, though, and he makes the shot. Perhaps if Felix had fought over the screen, Brown wouldn't have gotten this shot up at all.
Still, while Felix did provide the opening for this shot, over the course of a game contested threes off the dribble aren't very likely to hurt. While Brown is a dangerous outside shooter, more than 70 percent of his made threes come off of assists, meaning that they are usually higher percentage catch-and-shoot looks. Shooting a three off the dribble just isn't as easy. This would turn out to be Brown's only made three of the game.
The Texas Longhorns face their most difficult week of the season, with road games at Iowa State and Kansas. Tuesday night, the Cyclones will provide the latest challenge for the Texas defense, which will again have to find a way to contain dribble penetration against a team with multiple players who can attack off the dribble, and multiple players who shoot the three. It will be interesting to see how Texas handles this challenge.