Prior to the start of last season, I was fairly optimistic about the direction of Texas basketball. In particular, I was pleased by the fact that Rick Barnes was bringing in a recruiting class loaded with size. My optimism led me to write this:
When I was a shy and scrawny 12 year old in the middle of a growth spurt, my basketball coach pulled me aside one day before practice. He had me stand underneath the basket as he walked around the edge of the paint. "Jeffrey," he said, "this is your territory. Nobody f---s around in your territory." Over the years, he would occasionally repeat these words, or write them down on the small white board he used to diagram plays. "Nobody f---s around in your territory" remains some of the best advice I have received in my life.This Texas team is going to be much different from the one that we watched last season. This is a team capable of following through on that simple directive, "Nobody f---s around in your territory." ... The best teams are typically the best because they control the space immediately in front of the basket.
I was a season too early with that proclamation, but it is starting to come true. While it is not particularly remarkable that Texas beat Kansas on Saturday -- road upsets are common in college hoops -- what is remarkable is the way in which it happened. Texas didn't beat Kansas with a hot shooting afternoon from long distance; the Horns were only 3-10 from beyond the arc on Saturday. Texas beat Kansas by owning the paint, confronting the strength of Kansas head on. There aren't many teams across the country that can do that.
Against Kansas, the Texas front line took charge. All season the Longhorns have been among the best rim protecting teams in the nation, blocking 18 percent of opponent two point attempts (per kenpom.com the third highest rate in the country). Against Kansas, the Horns blocked 12 shot attempts, or approximately 24 percent of the Kansas twos. The Jayhawks tried to take it to Texas inside, and they just couldn't do it.
The net result of this was that the high-powered Jayhawk offense was held to a subpar 1.0 points per possession, while the Texas offense scored 1.17 points per trip behind superb play by Isaiah Taylor and Jonathan Holmes.
Defending Andrew Wiggins
The best-known Jayhawk is freshman phenom Andrew Wiggins. Son of former NBA player Mitchell Wiggins, the young Canadian has been putting on a show in recent weeks. Since the start of conference play Wiggins has gone off, scoring in double figures in five of seven games prior to Saturday's contest. In the three games proceeding the matchup in Austin, Wiggins scored 17, 27, and 29 points.
Regular readers of this column know that I am fond of a number I call Points Above Median (PAM), which measures how many "extra" points a player scores relative to the number of shots he takes. A player with a large PAM total improves his teams points per shot attempt more than a player with a small PAM value. PAM is a powerful way of telling what a player does to help his team, and where he scores most efficiently.
In Wiggins' case, he does two things extremely well: he gets to the rim and gets to the free throw line. Wiggins had 39 points above median at the free throw line coming into the Texas game, and has 22 points above median at the rim. Like nearly every other player on the planet, Wiggins struggles when forced to take mid-range shots. Coming into Saturday, his PAM on two point jump shots was -14.
The Texas defense stifled Wiggins, holding him to 1-10 shooting on two point shot attempts, 1-2 on threes, and 2-2 at the free throw line. This was good for a PAM of -5.4. At times Wiggins was his own best defender, going 0-3 on shots at the rim, including one ugly missed layup in transition. But the Texas D also limited high value looks for the Kansas freshman; Wiggins was 1-7 on two point jump shots.
Texas did this by completely taking away dribble penetration opportunities for Wiggins. Wiggins never got to the basket off the dribble against a set half court D in the game. Two early possessions show how the Texas D held him down.
Over the course of the game, the Longhorns mixed man-to-man and zone defense. In our first example, we show Wiggins attacking the Texas zone. In the image below, Wiggins is preparing to drive against the Texas zone. Isaiah Taylor is the on-ball defender. Note in the image below how compact the Texas defense is; all four help defenders are either inside the paint, or only inches away.
Wiggins drives to his right, and the Texas defense rotates, building a wall around the lane. In the image below, we see this wall. Wiggins pulls up for a mid-range attempt, which he misses. This is the sort of shot Texas wants him to take, as he makes these sorts of mid-range jumpers less than 40 percent of the time.
Several possessions later, Texas is in man-to-man defense. Wiggins has the ball on the far wing, with Demarcus Holland defending. In the image below, note where Texas' off-ball defenders are. Already three players are closing off the paint.
However, Wiggins makes a nice move and appears to have Holland beat, as we see in the photo below. Great players make great moves, and Wiggins seems well on his way towards collapsing the Texas defense, and either creating a shot for a teammate or drawing a foul.
But not so fast. Holland is an outstanding on-ball defender for many reasons, but one of the biggest is that he never gives up on a play. Even when he is beat, he is not beat. In the image below, we see that Holland is starting to recover on Wiggins.
Meanwhile, there are other obstacles in the path, should Wiggins get past Holland. Damarcus Croaker is in solid defensive position, helping very far off his man. This is a strategic bet made by the coaching staff. Texas has collapsed the defense tightly into the paint, which will potentially create drive-and-kick opportunities for Kansas. But the bet that Rick Barnes' staff has perhaps made here is that that is less of a worry than Wiggins driving the basket and drawing fouls.
The numbers basically back this up. Coming into the game, Wiggins had only assisted on seven of his teammates three point baskets. When he attacks, he is looking to score. And while drive and kick threes are dangerous, dunks and free throws are even more trouble. Coming into the game, Wiggins' PAM on free throws (39.4) exceeded the entire Jayhawk three point shooting output (PAM of 38.5). By pulling Croaker so far into the paint, Barnes is making the bet that I would advise, were I advising him. (I am not. Hey, Rick, if you read this just know that my consulting fees are very reasonable.)
The other important thing about the photo above is that even if Wiggins does beat both Holland and Croaker, Prince Ibeh is standing directly in front of the rim. Multiple layers of defenders are important when trying to stop a great player. Here, Wiggins is essentially going to have to go one-on-three to work his way to the rim. And that third guy -- Prince Ibeh -- is a hell of a barrier.
Instead, Wiggins ends up shooting a step back 15 foot jumper, as shown in the image below. This is just an awful shot. Note also that Croaker has already started to recover to his man, so even if Wiggins were to have passed, rather than shot, Croaker would likely have recovered in time to prevent an open look from three.
Simply put, this is just beautiful defense. Holland is terrific, and on an incredible run of shutting down the best offensive players in the conference. In addition to his considerable physical gifts, he never quits on a play. Meanwhile, the rest of the Texas team is dialed in defensively, helping and recovering as a single unit.
Isaiah Taylor torches the Jayhawks
Taylor went off on Saturday, posting a PAM of 5.9. He was attacking in transition, where he is very difficult to stop.
Attacking transition against Kansas is particularly important, as the Jayhawks have one of the better rim defenders in the nation in freshman center Joe Embiid. The image below shows just how going in transition neutralizes Embiid's ability to impact the game. In this image, Taylor is in the center of the shot. He has a full head of steam, and has just broken down his defender. All Embiid can do is watch.
And as Embiid watched, he saw some of his teammates letting him down on D. Taylor ended up getting a layup while two Jayhawks did little to interfere.
Texas plays two road games this week, facing TCU for the first time, before travelling to Manhattan for a rematch against Kansas State.