Oh, man. Things haven't been going very well for the Texas Longhorns these days, but there are still some games to play and still a little bit of time to turn the season around. The Longhorns head to Norman on Saturday to face the Oklahoma Sooners (16-9; 6-7), a team that has faced its own struggles in recent weeks.
I will get to the game preview below, but first I want to take a detour. I think, when faced with the results of the season so far, Texas fans can reasonably ask, “What in the hell is going on?”
We have written and discussed the Texas offensive struggles extensively this season. The Texas offense has had its problems, but honestly, coming into the season it was reasonable to expect that the offense wasn't going to be very good.
The really surprising thing is what is happening right now on the other end of the floor. The Longhorns' best chances this year were tied to playing outstanding defense, and then finding enough offense to make it work. This hypothetical team would have won a few extra games, and right now would be sitting a bit higher in the Big 12 standings and likely coasting into the NCAA tournament. Through most of the non-conference schedule, Shaka Smart's team looked to be on track to achieve something like this.
But it hasn't happened, and a big part of the reason is the Texas defense hasn't lived up to these expectations. Early in the season we saw signs that it was on track to be great. But despite carrying a kenpom.com adjusted rating that still is pretty high (but dropping rapidly) the Longhorns defense isn't great.
Through the Big 12 thus far, Texas opponents are scoring 1.07 points per possession against the Longhorn D. This number is identical to the average number of points scored in Big 12 conference games this season; this makes the Texas defense more or less perfectly average among its Big 12 peers. Average defense and bad offense is not a winning formula.
What the hell is going on with the Texas defense?
If we confine ourselves to what has happened in Big 12 conference games, the problems with the Texas defense become crystal clear. The biggest problem is that it isn't good at anything that is all that important.
In general, there are seven statistical categories that largely define an offensive or defensive performance; this assertion is based on the fact that with these seven measures you can make highly accurate predictions of the points per possessions scored or allowed by a particular team. The only one of these seven categories where the Longhorn defense has performed well in conference play is in the frequency at which it puts opponents on the free-throw line.
While not fouling is good, it doesn't usually have a big enough effect to be something that I would recommend basing a defense on; it is nothing more than a good start. If you paired Texas' low fouling rate with an ability to reduce opponent two-point shooting percentages, to reduce three-point shooting percentage, to increase opponent turnovers, or to be great (rather than average) on the defensive glass, then you would be on to something. Texas isn't doing any of these things.
Probably the most surprising thing about the Texas defense is how easy opponents are scoring on the Longhorns both inside the arc and around the basket. Texas opponents in Big 12 games have converted on more than 50 percent of their two-point shots; six Big 12 teams have given up lower marks than this. Additionally, on the season Texas opponents have converted on 62 percent of their chances at the rim. In D-I basketball shots at the rim are converted around 60 percent of the time, meaning Texas is a little below average in its defense of the basket. This at-rim number includes all Texas games, not just Big 12 games, which suggests that the Big 12 numbers would likely be even worse if I were less lazy and willing to compile them, as they wouldn't include a bunch of non-conference games against smaller and weaker opponents.
The reason why this is surprising — frankly it is almost startling — is because the Longhorns have Mohamed Bamba, a player who has blocked more shots than all but one other player in college basketball this season. Usually, teams with great shot blockers give up very low shooting percentages both inside the arc as well as around the basket. For context, the 2014-2015 Texas Longhorns, led by Cameron Ridley and Myles Turner, held opponents to 49 percent shooting on shots at the rim, and below 40 percent on all shots taken inside the arc in conference play.
I expected on a team with a shot blocker as good as Bamba that conference opponents would probably end up shooting around 45 percent from two-point range, and maybe more like 55 percent on shots at the rim. But this hasn't happened, and it is a little hard to figure out why. I have a few theories that may contain some of the story, but need to watch more carefully to try to see if these hold up.
If we dig deeper into Bamba's shot blocking numbers, we hit upon a strange observation. Game play-by-play logs break shots into different categories. A few of those categories cleanly group together into a category I call "at the rim." On average across college basketball, 63 percent of blocked shots occur at the rim.
Every player varies somewhat in their distribution of blocked shots. Some shot blockers log even more of their blocks at the rim; West Virginia big man Sagaba Konate (my current pick for Big 12 defensive player of the year) is probably the most extreme example, having logged 74 of his 79 total blocks at the basket. If you have watched a few Mountaineer games, this probably isn't surprising; virtually all of Konate's blocks seem to be humiliating episodes where a would be dunker or layup taker finds himself in over his head when he gets to the cup. The net result of all of this is that West Virginia opponents have only converted on 51 percent of their shots near the basket, with one out of every five of these attempts getting blocked. And Konate does more than just block shots; he is influencing some of the ones that go unblocked, as WVU opponents have only managed to connect on 64 percent of their unblocked shots around the basket. (For comparison, that number for Texas is just under 71 percent.)
So here is what is weird about Mo Bamba's shot blocking numbers. Only 37 of his 102 blocked shots have occurred on shots taken at the rim. This is one of the lowest rates I could find for a player with more than 60 blocked shots.
This is important, because these shots away from the rim that Bamba is blocking just aren't as valuable as the ones that occur at the basket. These shots generally are far less likely to go in if unblocked, and so blocking them has a lower effect on the total number of points allowed. Against the Longhorns, unblocked twos that aren't logged at the rim go in about 39 percent of the time; Bamba and other Texas shot blockers lower this percentage to about 34 percent.
Add to this the fact that Bamba's menacing shot blocking doesn't appear to have much statistical impact on unblocked shots around the basket, given opponents very high 71 percent shooting percentage on these chances, and the fact that Texas' defensive two-point field goal percentage in Big 12 games is no different when Bamba plays from when he sits.
Coming into the season, I figured that with Bamba on the team Texas would have the rim pretty well covered up, and it would be enough to make the Texas defense great. That hasn't happened, and it is a big part of the reason why this team has fallen short of expectations.
A quick look at the Sooners
Trae Young is a terrific basketball player who leads the nation in scoring and assists but is also in a slump. Over his past four games he has shot 7-of-41 from three-point range, because the thing that shooters do is keep shooting; it is what makes them shooters. He is surrounded by capable offensive players who each have the ability to get hot and take over a game, but generally haven't been asked to do so this season.
You can read more about OU by clicking on the preview from the last time these two teams played.
What happened the last time these two teams met?
It is amazing that this game only took place two weeks ago. The Longhorns beat the Sooners 79-74 in front of a packed and engaged Erwin Center; everyone had a lot of fun. It hasn't been fun since.
Trae Young didn't shoot the ball very well, but did his playmaking job, passing the ball ahead in transition and logging 14 assists. The Longhorns prevailed behind a balanced attack led by Matt Coleman, who scored 22 points.
What has Oklahoma been up to since last facing Texas?
Just like Texas, Oklahoma hasn't won since this game. The Sooners have been in an extended slide since taking a road loss in mid-January against Kansas State, with only two wins since.
Trae Young's shooting slump, or alternatively his demotion from minor god to very good human basketball player, hasn't helped. And without Young nailing 30-foot jumpers on a consistent basis, Oklahoma's defensive struggles have led to losses.
What does this game mean?
I am going to be straight with you. Texas' chances of playing its way into the NCAA tournament do not look good. I still hold the view that the Longhorns need four more wins to get the chance to sweat out the tournament bubble, and five more wins to lock up a spot in the field.
The problem is, the Longhorns are only guaranteed six more games at the moment, with five remaining regular season games before the Big 12 tournament. To get four wins in this environment requires that Texas go on one hell of a run.
But you never really know.
The Longhorns head to Norman on Saturday. The game tips off at 11 a.m. CT, and airs on ESPN.