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What Went Wrong with the Texas Longhorns' Basketball Season?

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The story of what went wrong is not complicated.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

What went wrong? That is always the question after a season like this one.

The Texas Longhorns came into the season with high hopes. The expectations -- and to be clear they were justified at the time -- were that Rick Barnes' team would contend for both the Big 12 conference title and then chase after a spot in the Final Four.

Obviously, it didn't happen. It didn't even come close to happening. Which brings me back to the question: what went wrong?

Basketball analytical methods are exceptionally good at diagnosing problems at a team level; things get harder when we look at individual players, but at a team level the existing basketball analysis toolbox is terrific. With these methods we can look at teams with extraordinary detail, and quantify how a variety of different factors led to wins and losses.

For Texas, the available numbers lead us pretty quickly to a small number of factors that sunk the Horns.

Problems on offense

Historically, Rick Barnes' teams have had a simple formula for offensive success: protect the ball and crash the offensive glass. This generally meant that, while Texas' offense was not always elegant, it was typically rather effective.

And in years where these two factors combined with strong outside shooting, as happened virtually every year for the Longhorns from the 1999-2000 season through Rick Barnes' last Elite Eight run in 2008, Texas' offenses were exceptional. Starting from the 2001-2002 season, Texas' offensive ranking nationally per kenpom.com was: 15, 1, 16, 36, 8, 6, and 3.

That is a heck of a run on offense. Texas would again shoot the ball well from the perimeter during the 2010-2011 season, when Texas had the 20th best offense in the country.

For the last four seasons, Rick Barnes' squad has not shot the ball well from three point range. This is a well-known problem to Texas fans. But it isn't necessarily one that has to doom an offense. The Texas offense still could have been more productive this season, even with what amounted to more or less average shooting from the floor. Because the Rick Barnes formula of crashing the glass and protecting the ball still is strong enough to make things work.

The Longhorns got the offensive rebounding portion of the equation right, tracking down 38 percent of their own misses, which was the 11th highest rate nationally.

But the turnovers were a problem. Texas turned the ball in one out of every five possessions, which was a worse than average rate for Division I. When combined with fairly pedestrian shooting, a sub-par turnover rate becomes fundamentally limiting for an offense.

So where did those turnovers come from? It turns out, the blame can be spread pretty broadly across the team. Texas' two primary ball handlers -- Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix -- both turned the ball over at somewhat high rates. Taylor logged a turnover in 20 percent of all possessions that ended with the ball in his hands (3.3 TOs per 40 min), while Felix's rate was similar, at 21 percent (2.7 TOs per 40 min).

These turnover rates aren't total disasters, but to be clear Rick Barnes needed his two primary guards to take better care of the ball than they did in order to realize the potential of this team.

High turnover rates for both Taylor and Felix surprising, at least to me. As a freshman, Taylor's rate was a little lower at 18 percent, and given Rick Barnes' history with guards we would have expected this rate to drop even further this season. Felix was an even bigger surprise. As a sophomore, Felix's turnover rate was exceptionally low, at 13 percent, which is much better than the 21 percent he logged this season.

But the blame for turnover problems can be spread more broadly. Demarcus Holland has struggled with turnovers throughout his career. This season, as happened during his freshman year, he was asked to function as a primary ball handler for the team for a portion of the season. Holland's turnover rate this season was high, at 27 percent (2.7 TOs per 40 min).

Not all of the turnover problems were caused by Texas' guards. Texas center Cameron Ridley turned the ball over in 20 percent of the possessions that ended with the ball in his hands (2.8 TOs per 40 min). While a 20 percent turnover rate is not uncommon for a college guard who is handling the ball a lot, such a high rate is problematic for a big man. Big guys just aren't typically exposed to as much turnover risk as guards are, so when we see a center with a 20 percent turnover rate it suggests a serious problem.

Early in the season, I spent some time digging into Ridley's turnover troubles. Cameron Ridley has things that he does exceptionally well, such as crashing the offensive glass and sealing defenders deep in the paint for easy scores. As I have written before, Ridley with the ball and two feet in the paint is the defense's worst nightmare.

But when Ridley catches the ball outside of the lane, the situation is rather different. His typical move in this situation is to attempt to back his defender down with the dribble, before taking a turnaround shot or a jump hook. The slow and dribble-heavy nature of Ridley's post game exposes him to all sorts of trouble. His turnover rate was a direct consequence of his approach on the low block.

The net effect of all of these turnovers was clear; the Texas offense cost itself around 2-3 points per 100 possessions in lost chances due to turnovers compared with an average college basketball team. Some of those points might have come in handy in tight losses against Iowa State, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State.

I cannot express just how surprised I am that turnover problems sunk this team's offense. Outside of the disastrous 2012-2013 season, when an ill-prepared Felix was thrown to the wolves, Barnes' Texas teams have always taken care of the ball. After a solid year of ball handling last season, I was expecting more of the same this year.

The defense was good, but not great. And it needed to be great.

On the defensive end of the floor, Texas has experienced a problematic trend over the last few seasons. While Rick Barnes' defenses have never been the sort to force a bunch of turnovers -- focusing instead on other things -- Texas' opponent turnover rate has been steadily decreasing over the last four years.

In the 2011-2012 season the Texas Longhorns forced an NCAA median turnover rate of 20 percent. Over the next three seasons, that rate would drop each year. This season Texas opponents turned the ball over in only 14 percent of their possessions. Only one team in D-I basketball, the Quinnipiac Bobcats, forced a  lower turnover rate than this.

While it is possible to build an outstanding defense that doesn't force many turnovers, you still need to create some. By forcing one of the lowest rate of turnovers nationally, Texas dug itself an enormous hole on defense. It speaks to the greatness of the Longhorns' defensive interior -- specifically to Myles Turner, Prince Ibeh, and Cameron Ridley -- that the Texas was able to largely overcome this giant handicap and finish the season ranked among the top 20 defenses nationally per kenpom.com.

But the Texas Longhorns, if they were going to live up to their preseason expectations, could not afford to be the 17th best defense in the nation. They needed to be one of the very best. Forcing something closer to the NCAA median turnover rate -- say something in the 18-19 percent range -- would have improved Texas' defense by 4-5 points per 100 possessions, which would have made the Longhorns one of the five or so best defenses in the nation.

This would have been more than sufficient to win Texas several more conference games, vaulting the Horns up the league standings. It would have completely changed the way that we view this season.

Beyond Texas' failure to force turnovers, it does not help that opponents converted on nearly 39 percent of their three point attempts against Texas from the start of conference play through the end of the NCAA tournament.

The Texas Longhorn defense did a commendable job in its final game of the year, limiting clean looks for Butler from three point range. Butler was held to 4-13 from long range in that final game. But performances like this were far too infrequent during the season.

A more typical result played out when Texas' Big 12 tournament ended under a barrage of Iowa State three pointers. The Cyclones hit 10-22 from three, knocking the Longhorns out of the event.

The Texas Longhorns spent much of the first half of the Big 12 season playing zone defense, and gave up open threes as a result. When the Longhorns switched to man-to-man defense around the halfway point of the conference season, the three point defensive results didn't get much better.

I think we can at least partly attribute Texas' three point defensive problems to two factors (outside of plain old bad luck):

1. Texas defenders often were slow to close out on shooters out of Texas' highly collapsed defense.

2. Defensive breakdowns against ball screens were frequent, and these breakdowns commonly resulted in drive and kick chances that found wide open shooters on the perimeter. Many of these breakdowns looked like they were caused by players who were confused about the pick and roll coverage, and were not on the same page regarding defensive tactics.

I have documented some examples of both of these problems here and here. You can go back and read these previous articles for a more detailed look at the defensive problems that led to so many open threes.

The net result is that being hurt this badly from three point range cost the Longhorn defense about 4 points per 100 possessions from the start of conference play on, when compared with an average team.

So where does this leave us?

The 2014-2015 Texas basketball season collapsed under the weight of a handful of problems: an excessively high turnover rate, a failure to create defensive turnovers, and opponent three point shooting. These three factors, more than anything else, led to the disappointment of the season, and may now end up costing Rick Barnes his job.