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Texas Basketball Report 8.1: Longhorns Offense Thriving In The Halfcourt

This isn't your grandfather's dribble-drive offense...

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Basketball Report tips off for its 8th season with a look at the Longhorns halfcourt offense without Isaiah Taylor.

Not long after the close of the disappointing 2009-10 basketball season -- one that saw the Longhorns collapse down the stretch, falling from the program's first-ever No. 1 national ranking to one-and-done #8 seed in the Tournament -- Rick Barnes set about making a fundamental change. He wanted his Longhorns teams to shift away from the dribble-drive offense reliant on exceptional individual playmakers towards a more structured halfcourt offense that systematically created high percentage shots for players with movement, screens, and cuts.

The 2010-11 Longhorns were well suited for the new offensive approach, with an abundance of savvy ball handlers and distance shooters, including a matured Jordan Hamilton. Barnes was able to lean heavily on J'Covan Brown the following season, but after his departure the offense was a disaster in 2012-13, which saw Texas miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time during Barnes tenure and taught the Longhorns head coach that the different approach to offense required a different approach to recruiting, as well.

The roster purge that followed meant Texas entered last season the youngest team in the country, but they fared surprisingly well, thriving on superior team defense and solid offense aided by a point guard who got the Horns into transition and could break down the defense in the halfcourt.

Barnes continued to develop the halfcourt offense with this group and even before Taylor's unfortunate injury on Thursday evening, there were clear signs that this group had made significant strides in its halfcourt execution. Playing in their first game without Taylor and his ability to break down the defense, those improvements became even more apparent as the team turned to executing halfcourt sets to gain advantage over their opponent. It wasn't a great shooting night for the Longhorns, but the number of quality looks they generated through set offense was truly impressive.

Let's take a look at two of the best from the evening, a pair of high-low sets utilizing Jonathan Holmes in a couple different ways -- once taking advantage of a size mismatch in man-to-man defense, and a second time as a passer from the high post against zone.

Snap Shots: Texas High-Low Offense vs Man

1.  In this opening shot, we pick up the action just after Felix has passed the ball to Yancy on the wing and cut away from the ball, over the screen of Myles Turner at the top of the key. The pass to the wing is also the trigger for Jonathan Holmes and Prince Ibeh, who are stacked in the low block on the ball side.

Texas Longhorns High-Low Offense

2.  Jonathan Holmes makes an outstanding push cut to generate separation at the same time that Yancy reverses the ball back to the top of the key, to Turner, following his release off setting the screen. This shot perfectly captures what the play is designed to create and that Cuonzo Martin is desperately trying to get his post defender to thwart: an open passing lane from the top of the key to the cutting Holmes in the key.

Texas Longhorns High-Low Offense

3.  Turner delivers the pass through the open lane to Holmes, who catches it with two feet in the lane against a defender giving four inches. In other words: game over. The play has delivered precisely what it was designed to produce, and Holmes scores easily on an up-and-under.

Texas Longhorns High-Low Offense

Watch the play on video:

Beautiful. Now let's take a look at our surprisingly adept zone offense, which has looked better in the early going this season than it has in any time I can remember during Barnes' tenure.

Snap Shots: Texas High-Low Offense vs Zone

1.  In the opening shot we see Felix bringing the ball up the court as the rest of the team gets set in our zone offense. Where previous teams passed the ball around the perimeter against the zone -- a largely fruitless exercise unless you're really reversing the ball quickly -- this group immediately reacts to a zone defense the way you're supposed to: by looking to attack its center.   In this particular sequence, we have Yancy and Holland manning the wings, with Holmes offering a high post target in the middle and Ibeh setting up in the low post. I was really struck throughout this sequence how ready and coordinated everyone is. You can see it in each frame, starting here, where everyone is properly positioned to maintain passing lanes and is actively engaged with what's happening and what's to come.

Texas Longhorns High-Low Offense

2.  As Felix swings the ball to the wing and Holland receives the pass, note the triangulation we've established with Ibeh, Holmes, and the ball (Holland), with just two defenders on the play side of the rim. That's an advantage a proper attack can exploit.  Again, note the readiness of Holmes (square to the ball, hands ready to receive) and Ibeh (court spacing, body positioning).

Texas Longhorns High-Low Offense

3.  A frame later you can see the beginning of the first of two key passes in this sequence, as Holland extends himself into the passing lane and prepares to deliver -- Hallelujah! -- a bounce pass to Holmes. I almost fainted with surprise/joy. (Also, too: note the readiness. It's a small thing, but what it represents is huge.)

Texas Longhorns High-Low Offense

4.  As Holmes receives the pass, you can see why getting the ball into the middle of the zone is such a lethal way to attack it. Cal is in trouble unless it can manage to rotate exceptionally quickly and/or smother Holmes before he can do any damage.  Texas is going to make that difficult, though, because... well, everyone is ready. Holmes has no sooner received the ball than he's already pivoting into his next move. Ibeh is stepping into the passing lane and vacant space on the low block, and Yancy is positioning himself for the open three should Cal over-commit its rotation to the ball side.

Texas Longhorns High-Low Offense

5.  For the cherry on top, Holmes delivers the ball to Ibeh with... another bounce pass!  Two in one play!  I've died and gone to heaven. A chest pass or lob risks getting deflected, but a bounce pass is virtually guaranteed to beyond the reach of the Cal defenders, and once again Texas' offensive set has delivered the ball to a tall fellow with two feet in the key and advantageous position. Game over?

Texas Longhorns High-Low Offense

6.  Oh, yes. Game over.

Texas Longhorns High-Low Offense

Watch a video clip of the play:

It's the commitment to attacking the middle of the zone that's key, and I'll offer a second clip from the Cal game to illustrate the point. No snap shots this time, but just watch as Yancy receives the ball on the wing, attacks the lane to the middle of the zone, and then takes advantage of the problems it creates for Cal's defense by finding the open man on the three point line.

Bam. That's how it's done.

What'd you think about that three-pointer, Zay?  You a fan of how the offense looks without you?

I guess so...

Conclusion

Standard early-season caveats apply, but this group is much less Taylor-dependent than previous Barnes teams have been on their elite penetrators.  In all four games, we've seen this team demonstrate a comfort level with and commitment to halfcourt sets that -- in my estimation, anyways -- is unprecedented in the Barnes era. Part of it seems to be the attitude and approach of this group of kids, part of it seems to be better coaching and instruction from Barnes and his staff, and part of it, I suspect, owes to the abundance of big guys on this roster who can really pass the basketball. It's a lot easier to run a high-low offense when your line up features guys like Holmes, Turner, and Lammert.

In sum, then: is it unfortunate we're losing Taylor for an extended period of time? No question about it. Are we likely to be as devastated by it as we might be if we were dependent on his penetration for offense? Not this time. And that feels really, really good.

Hook 'em