A Statistical Recap of the 2014 Longhorns Basketball Season: The Texas Defense

Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Measuring the Texas defense against its Big 12 opponents, we learn what it does well, and where it could improve.

Yesterday, I took a look at the Texas offense using waterfall charts, comparing it with the rest of the Big 12. Today I take a similar look at the defense, before describing some of the key areas of improvement for Texas on both ends of the floor.

The Texas Defense

The waterfall chart for the Texas defense is show below. As in the previous piece, red bars indicate categories that lower points per possession, whereas green bars indicate categories that raise points per possession. For a defense, red is good and green is bad.

Waterfall chart for the 2014 Texas defense in Big 12 regular season games.

Texasd_2014_medium

2FG%: The heart of what makes the Texas defense good is its ability to lower opponent two point field goal percentage. The Longhorns finished second in the Big 12, and 11th nationally, in this category. Rick Barnes' team did this by being exceptional at two things:

  1. The Longhorns block a lot of shots. During Big 12 play, Texas blocked an estimate 14 percent of opponent two point attempts, which ranked second in the conference. Over the entire season, Rick Barnes' team ranked in the top ten nationally in shot blocking percentage. With a front line that rotates Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh at center, as well as Jonathan Holmes playing heavy minutes along side the two Texas centers, Rick Barnes never has to worry about rim protection.
  2. The 2013-2014 Texas Longhorns were exceptional at preventing opponents from getting to the basket. One topic that I wrote about frequently this season was that the Longhorns played an extremely compact style of help defense this year designed to clog the paint. For example, Texas' victory over Kansas this season was an example of the value of keeping the ball out of the lane. As a result, Texas opponents only attempted 28 percent of their shots at the rim, which ranked in the top 25 nationally.

Among the seven statistics that I am using in this article, two point field goal percentage is perhaps the most important. Nothing else can have as big of an effect on total defensive efficiency. For evidence that it is important to be good at this, a rather significant part of Kansas' dominance over the last decade has been that the Jayhawks have led the Big 12 in two point field goal percentage defense in eight out of the last ten seasons. Or consider that four out of the last seven national title winners -- including Connecticut this year -- have ranked in the top ten nationally in this category. You have to go all the way back to the 2007 Florida Gators to find a champion that didn't rank in the top 50 in two point field goal percentage defense, the only such title winner in the last ten years.

    3FG%: Early in the season, the Texas Longhorns were giving up entirely too many open three pointers. But during conference play, this wasn't an issue, as opponents made 33 percent from beyond the arc, a total that was below league average. There is a lot of randomness involved in three point shooting percentages, particularly defensive three point shooting percentages, so I don't want to make too much of this number.

    FT%: Texas' opponents shot right around league average from the free throw line.

    3FGA/FGA: One of the consequences of plugging up the lane on defense (either in man-to-man or zone) is that you will give up a few more three point attempts. In league play Texas opponents took 35 percent of their attempts from long range. This isn't different enough from the league average of 33 percent to make much difference.

    Opponent ORB%: Last season, defensive rebounding was a weakness for Texas. This year it was a strength. Cameron Ridley, Jonathan Holmes, and Connor Lammert all improved their defensive rebounding, while perimeter players like Demarcus Holland, Isaiah Taylor, Kendal Yancy, and Martez Walker all went to the defensive glass. There was no excuse for a team with as much size as Texas to be as bad as it was last season on the defensive boards. This season there were no reasons to make excuses, as Texas took care of business.

    TO%: This is the greatest area of weakness for the Texas defense. In a league where turnovers were rare, turnovers against the Longhorn D were particularly scarce. During conference play, Longhorn opponents turned the ball over in fewer than 15 percent of possessions, the lowest rate in the Big 12. This is another consequence of playing such a compact defense.

    It is certainly possible to have an effective defense without forcing a bunch of turnovers -- Final Four teams like Wisconsin and Kentucky this season come to mind -- but it does mean that you have to make this shortcoming up in a different category. In Texas' case, the turnover rate was so low that it was going to be very hard to make up for it entirely, even when the Texas defense did everything else at a high level.

    A modest improvement in forcing turnovers next season provides the most significant way to improve the Texas defense.

    FTR: While the last couple Texas teams have struggled to defend without fouling, this season's version did not. Texas was right around average in opponent free throw rate.

    What are the key areas for improvement for the Texas Longhorns?

    For the Texas offense, improvement could potentially come in three separate areas:

    1. Improved perimeter shooting. This is the biggest problem for the Texas offense. Shooting somewhat above to the NCAA median level of 34 percent from three point range (and ultimately taking a few more threes -- more on that below) would fix most of the remaining trouble with the Texas offense. And here there is some hope. Javan Felix appears on his way to becoming a player that is pretty dangerous from three point range, after a freshman season where he struggled with his shot. And both Martez Walker and Damarcus Croaker show potential to become serious threats from long distance.
    2. Taking better shots. In a way, this item is related to the previous one. Texas takes too many mid-range shots. In particular the Texas guards -- most notably Javan Felix -- take too many off the dribble mid-range jump shots; these are probably the lowest value shots in all of basketball. One of the quickest ways to reduce these shot attempts is to find ways to shoot more catch and shoot threes, essentially trading two point jump shots in for higher value shots beyond the arc. Better three point shooting generally will create a better environment for making this happen.
    3. Reducing turnovers even further. The best offenses under Rick Barnes have often been ones that rarely turn the ball over. This season we saw Javan Felix transform from a turnover prone freshman into a sophmore who almost never committed turnovers. As a freshman Isaiah Taylor was already pretty good protecting the ball, but continued improvement is both possible and likely. When I think of Taylor's potential, I picture a player something like West Virginia's Juwan Staten. For Staten everything starts with the fact that he makes very few mistakes with the rock.

    For the defense, the greatest area for improvement would be to force one or two extra turnovers per game. This would help the Longhorns improve an already strong defense to become one of the best in the conference (and country).

    The future for Texas Longhorns hoops looks reasonably bright -- with or without Myles Turner -- as over the next two seasons Rick Barnes' squad will shift from a young team to an experienced group. Recent college hoops history shows (and frankly we should already know) that experience is really important; a 21-year old typically is better than all but the very best 18-year olds.

    So many of the needed improvements for Texas can and should come with time, as the players currently in the program develop and mature.

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