Often the target of relentless criticism, the Texas Longhorns offense now ranks No. 2 league wide in adjusted efficiency through six games of Big 12 play, while the defense has taken a rather precipitous drop nationally down to the conference’s bottom tier.
So, what’s going on? Texas is experiencing difficulties in three areas, two of which have the full attention of head coach Shaka Smart.
The Longhorns are struggling to defend the three-point line, ranking ninth in the Big 12 in opposing three-point percentage and last in steal percentage. In the last four games, Texas has allowed opponents to shoot 42.9 percent from beyond the arc after starting the conference season with games against two of the Big 12’s worst shooting teams — short-handed Kansas State and misfiring West Virginia, a team that struggles more from distance than Texas.
Following the ankle injury to sophomore forward Jericho Sims before the West Virginia game, Smart has moved mostly to a four-guard lineup that often gives up some length in exchange for better ball-handling and shooting. However, that change has also come with a decline in players effectively challenging shots.
“We have to contest three-point shots better,” Smart said on Monday. “There’s been some tough shots that guys have made. But then there’s been others where we can’t be surprised that they rise up and shoot from 25 feet.”
For whatever reason, the problem has been particularly stark coming out of halftime. Against Texas Tech, the Red Raiders were able to quickly overcome a deficit thanks to two big three-pointers from graduate transfer guard Matt Mooney. Bolstered by that success, a Mooney layup with 16:05 remaining secured a Red Raiders lead that the Longhorns never overcame.
“We’ve got to have higher hands,” Smart said. “We’ve got to keep our hands up until the guy decides to put the basketball on the floor.”
Against Oklahoma, Christian James cut the Texas lead from eight to five with a buzzer-beating three before halftime when a Texas player dove on the floor for the basketball and James benefitted from a lucky bounce. In the second half, James made four jumpers, including one from beyond the arc that got senior guard Kerwin Roach II benched for losing track of James off the ball.
At home, the Horns have an advantage against opponents who aren’t used to shooting in the Erwin Center and don’t have the benefit of partisan fan support. On the road, however, Smart believes that defending the arc is often the difference between winning and losing.
“Defending a three is a big deal,” Smart said. “I think particularly when you go on the road, you have to make sure they earn everything they get. Again, if they throw in a tough three, that’s what good teams and good players do. But we always tell our guys, they can’t make enough of the tough ones to beat you. It’s more the ones that where you had a lapse or you didn’t get a hand up. You’ve got to finish the possession.”
In Lawrence, the game swung heavily on the inability of Texas defenders to effectively contest shots — Kansas hit 11-of-22 attempts from three-point range in a two-point victory. Some of that was simply bad luck, as non-shooter Marcus Garrett, who has hit at a rate of 16.7 percent from distance this season outside of the Texas game, made three of his four attempts.
Smart’s point stands, though, as the Horns weren’t able to keep an excellent Jayhawks shooter, LaGerald Vick, from hitting 5-of-8 attempts. Since the senior ranks among the top 75 three-point shooters in the country, there’s no excuse for leaving him alone. And his made buckets certainly weren’t lucky.
The challenge will only become more difficult on Wednesday when Texas heads to Fort Worth to face off against TCU, the league’s best three-point shooting team. In particular, the Horns must slow down sharpshooters Desmond Bane and Kouat Noi. Since both players are 6’5 or taller, that’s a significant task for a Texas guard corps that doesn’t have a great deal of length beyond 6’5 sophomore guard Jase Febres.
Smart believes that keeping the Horned Frogs out of transition is a major aspect of limiting the effectiveness of Bane and Noi, but pick-and-roll defense looms as another necessity if the Horns want to emerge from Schollmaier Arena with an upset victory.
Overall, TCU ranks No. 4 nationally in assists to made field goals, paced by the excellent floor game of Alex Robinson, who ranks seventh nationally in assist rate. Ranked just ahead of Robinson is Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, who sliced and diced the Longhorns for 10 assists in Las Vegas.
“He does a great job of moving around and he scores the ball really well, too,” Smart said of Robinson. “It’s a heck of a challenge for our guys but it couldn’t come at a better time for us.”
The lack of turnovers has also forced the offense to operate without the benefit of as many fast-break opportunities that come from generating steals. Regardless of the turnovers created, Smart emphasizes getting deflections because his research shows that deflections highly correlate with winning.
“In our league, you’re going to see a lot of offensive packages,” Smart said. “You’re going to see ball screens, some motion, some flex, some post-isos, and with all that stuff is the one thing it has in common is if you let teams just pop the ball around without any type of pressure, without getting your hands on the basketball, there’s too good of players in this league. They’re going to make you pay. We have to do a better job getting our hands on the basketball.”
What Smart didn’t mention on Monday are the issues that the guards are having defending their big, physical counterparts in the conference. Most notably, Mooney scored 22 points on 8-of-10 shooting, using his 6’3, 200-pound frame and deliberate, controlled game to get into the paint and shot fake Texas defenders out of position. The length of 6’6 guard Jarrett Culver was difficult for Roach and the other Longhorns guard to handle, too, as he produced 14 points on 11 shots.
Against Kansas, it was the 6’5, 195-pound Garrett who scored 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting, often getting dribble penetration to the rim. To be fair, Garrett has been doing that to virtually everyone put in front of him in the last two games, too, but he was particularly effective against the Longhorns and that was the performance that launched his recent tear.
Over the weekend, it was the 6’4, 213-pound James and 6’6, 217-pound Rashard Odomes who gave Texas defenders as much as they could handle. More than they could handle, at times — the two senior guards combined for 31 points on 12-of-25 shooting.
It hasn’t helped that the team’s best rim defender, freshman forward Jaxson Hayes, has often been in foul trouble this season, drawing four or more whistles in nine of 18 career games, including disqualifications against Providence and Kansas. The foul trouble has limited Hayes to 54.3 percent of all available minutes so far this season as he commits fouls at a rate of 6.2 per 40 minutes, so Texas hasn’t been able to benefit as much as possible from his top-10 block percentage nationally.
Ultimately, however, it’s largely on the guards to challenge shots effectively, get their hands on the basketball, and keep opponents in front of them.
The extent to which they can get back to doing those things more consistently may have a significant impact on whether the team can effectively navigate the rigors of Big 12 play and emerge with an NCAA Tournament bid.