AUSTIN, Texas — The new-look defense led by assistant coach Luke Yaklich and several offensive onslaughts helped the Texas Longhorns pull away from the Northern Colorado Bears for a season-opening 69-45 victory on Tuesday evening at the Erwin Center in which the Longhorns never trailed.
Sophomore guard Andrew Jones played extensive minutes — nearly 30 total — for the first time in 23 months and provided a spark off the bench for head coach Shaka Smart, including eight straight points early in the second half as the Horns extended a 19-point halftime lead to 27 points, 50-23.
Jones finished with 20 points, his career high, while hitting four of his five three-point attempts and adding three rebounds, two assists, and a drawn charge that drew perhaps the most intense celebration of his return.
“It was a great feeling to get back out there, officially, with my teammates. All the work that we’ve been putting in this summer, I was just glad to be able to step out on that court with no restrictions,” Jones said.
Jones, who now sounds like an extension of his head coach in his fourth season in the program, said that he didn’t experience any nervousness or jitters before the game, though he did admit that he didn’t know what to expect.
After talking to his parents and coaches before the game, however, Jones fell back on all the work that he’s put in over nearly two years to come back, including practicing with a PICC line in his arm while he underwent treatment for leukemia.
“Don’t worry about offense — come in and worry about defense, just worry about team wins instead of individual plays,” Jones said.
For Smart, seeing Jones check in was an emotional moment.
“Actually, really emotional, just the first time he went in the game, even before he went and scored 20 points and went 4-for-5 from three and played so well,” Smart said. “Again, it being 23 months since he really went out and played Andrew Jones basketball in a Texas uniform, it’s just really, really cool for him to be able to go out there and play.”
The biggest boost that Jones received on offense was from sophomore guard Courtney Ramey, who struggled with his jump shot, but was still able to serve as a catalyst offensively, leading the team with four assists and getting to the rim at a high frequency to score 16 points. Ramey was also a critical contributor on the defensive glass with nine of his 10 rebounds coming off Northern Colorado misses, a career high.
Defensively, Yaklich’s defense was able to hold Northern Colorado to several long scoring droughts, including nine minutes without a field goal in the first half as the Horns pulled away. Against a team that averaged 9.5 made three-point shots per game last season, Texas held Northern Colorado without a make from beyond the arc for more than 30 minutes as the Bears missed 17 consecutive attempts.
The best work that Texas did defensively was holding last year’s Big Sky Freshman of the Year, Bodie Hume, to 1-of-11 shooting and forcing him to miss all seven of his three-point attempts. As a freshman, Hume hit 37.7 percent from beyond the arc.
“They made those looks a little bit harder than I thought, but I thought their discipline defensively — understanding what we do well and trying to take that away — I thought they did a good job of that,” Northern Colorado head coach Jeff Linder said.
Coming into the game, the Bears had attempted more than 30 three-pointers in both scrimmages, so the goal for Smart and his team was to hold them to 18 three-point attempts or fewer. Texas wasn’t able to accomplish that, but it’s a small criticism when Northern Colorado only made 2-of-21 shots from deep, with those two makes representing about 20 percent of the per-game production from last season.
That feat is more impressive because Linder noted that Yaklich employs many of the same defensive principles that he does.
“It’s like going against us every day in practice, except you’ve got longer, more athletic guys,” Linder said. “Two years ago, we were No. 1 in the country in three-point field goals attempts against, No. 5 last year. So we knew we were going to have a challenge getting three-point attempts off, which is something that we try to do. A lot of those were probably contested.”
Linder compared it to being in the red zone in football — the windows get much smaller, especially against a team with such an advantage in length and athleticism. As a result, Texas was able to achieve one of its key goals by making Northern Colorado play one-on-one and two-on-two basketball, a losing proposition for the Bears against the Longhorns. The Bears did make 11 layups and dunks, but also missed 10 more and finished with only three assists on 15 made baskets.
“If you minimize teams’ three-point field-goal attempts, in this day and age, I think you’re headed in the right direction and you’re going to win a lot of games,” Linder said.
By switching ball screens, the Horns were able to avoid some of the long closeouts and rotations that often result in open three-point looks for opponents.
In another positive sign, the Texas defense went nearly four and a half minutes without allowing any points by Northern Colorado late in the game, even though the outcome was long since decided. Freshman forward Kai Jones flashed in particular, bringing energy defensively and using his length to impact the game with a block and two defensive rebounds.
There was a brief lull early in the second half, but substituting Jones into the game helped provide a spark on offense and defense.
“We had to re-lock in. Guys on the bench that came in, we just had to re-focus and couldn’t go out there and continue to play bad or continue to trend, because that’s a domino, something we talk about, so my focus for this team is to be a spark — energy. No matter what,” Jones said.
During that stretch, Jones helped ignite the Horns, and the crowd, with two three-pointers sandwiched around a driving layup to force the Bears to call a timeout as the lead ballooned to 27 points thanks to a 14-0 run by Texas.
One question moving forward is whether Smart can continue using the four-guard lineups that he employed for most of the game — there were times when Northern Colorado was able to get to the rim more often than he would like and a few stretches, including that start to the second half, during which Texas struggled some on the defensive glass.
It’s a strategy that Smart said after the game that he likes to employ, but Texas hasn’t had the personnel for it in the past. When the Horns do go small, Smart asks his guards to fly to the defensive glass to help out the single big and Ramey was by far the best in that area, through junior point guard Matt Coleman did have four defensive rebounds of his own.
Getting sophomore wing Gerald Liddell back soon should help that lineup rebound better defensively — Liddell recently suffered a concussion and was able to warm up with the team after going through an individual workout earlier on Tuesday, but was not cleared. Smart called him a combo guard-forward who has the ability to defend at a high level on the perimeter and serve as a second quality defensive rebounder alongside junior forward Jericho Sims, who had seven rebounds in only 14 minutes.
Offensively, the Longhorns should be less predictable this season, when the primary offensive engine was the spread pick-and-roll play enabled by Jaxson Hayes and his rim-running ability. There’s now more ball movement and player movement and Linder came away impressed with some of the adjustments made by Smart and his staff — when Northern Colorado consistently went under ball screens, Texas adjusted the angle of the screens to force defenders over those screens and open up driving lanes for players like Jones and Ramey.
“You can see some of the little nuances that Coach Smart uses to take advantage of how you’re trying to guard them,” Linder said.
Notably missing in action was junior Jase Febres, who took a high volume of three-pointers during the two preseason scrimmages and hit at a high rate. Febres spent the summer working on running off of screens and reading defenders with the revamped offense, but was only able to take two three-point attempts on Tuesday, making one. The work of two-time Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year Jonah Radebaugh made a difference there.
Jones and Smart also thought the Longhorns started off the game taking too many three-point shots — the first five came from redshirt freshman guard Brock Cunningham and junior forward Royce Hamm, Jr., who hadn’t taken one since his freshman season, during which he missed all four attempts.
Smart wasn’t happy about it on the bench during the game or after the game.
Asked about what his pregame reaction would have been if he was told that Cunningham and Hamm would take the first five three-point attempts, Smart was blunt.
“Not good,” he said.
“It’s a fine line where sometimes when you’re open, there’s a reason that you’re open, but also, particularly in Brock’s case, the position that he plays, we want him to be able to shoot and make an open shot and he’s done that in practice pretty well. I think sometimes when you play teams — and Northern Colorado did a really good job of saying, ‘Hey, Jase Febres, we’re going to really limit his threes, and certainly, other guys, we weren’t going to let them shoots threes.’
“Royce Hamm, when he shot twos, he made ‘em. When he shot threes, he missed ‘em. It’s a good lesson — let’s shoot more twos and less threes. So that will be a conversation that we have. Not that he can’t make that shot, but the bottom line is that our two-point percentage was way better than our three. Now the way that they defended our guards, our pick and roll, sometimes like Courtney did, you’ve got to jump up and shoot it. And Andrew was the one that was able to expose that and make those shots.”
Instead of settling for outside shots, the goal was to create more paint touches off the bounce. Once Texas started to do that, thanks to some of those small adjustments on ball screens, the Horns were able to get to the rim, using some of those small changes that Linder mentioned.
In fact, Texas did a better job of attacking the basket through the final 13 or so minutes of the first half after the ill-advised three-point barrage to start the game, out-scoring Northern Colorado 18-12 in the paint in the first half, aided by nine offensive rebounds and 11 second-chance points. Smart estimated that Texas scored about 1.5 points per possession overall when the ball reached the paint, but also believes that the Horns will make more shots this season after shooting making only seven of 27 three-point attempts.
For his part, Ramey thought that Texas had too many turnovers with 15 giveaways and not enough assists with only nine on 29 made baskets, so consider those areas for significant improvement moving forward, too.
That improvement, especially translating practice shooting success to the game and the young players avoiding nervous energy, will have to happen quickly, as Texas travels to West Lafayette to face Purdue on Saturday. The Boilermakers are the No. 7 nationally in the initial KenPom.com rankings.