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Texas focusing on growth during rare in-conference break

The Horns are one of the top Big 12 teams offensively in conference, but haven’t defended to Shaka Smart’s standard.

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma State at Texas Stephen Spillman-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since the Christmas break, the Texas Longhorns have a week between games, allowing head coach Shaka Smart extra time to focus on areas for improvement before the team heads to Norman for a rivalry game against the Oklahoma Sooners on Saturday.

Since the Horns typically play two games a week during Big 12 play, there’s a limited amount of time for Smart and his staff to stress all of the little things that go into success. With the extra practice time, the Horns are emphasizing areas of improvement for each specific player on both ends of the court.

In conference play, Texas ranks fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency, resulting in a drop into the 30s nationally — not to Smart’s standards after ranking No. 12 in that category last season and No. 21 the year before. The two specific areas where the Longhorns are struggling defensively compared to other Big 12 programs are steals (No. 9) and three-point shooting percentage (No. 9).

Deflections are Smart’s favorite defensive stat and Texas isn’t producing enough for his liking, even beyond the lack of steals, which naturally result from producing the 32 or more deflections that the Longhorns head coach wants every game.

“I can’t say that we’re doing as well as I want us to do with that,” Smart said.

Over ten years of being a head coach, Smart has found that deflections have a high correlation with success — the only time his team has gotten over 32 deflections and lost came against Georgia in late January. In recent weeks, Texas hasn’t managed to reach that threshold since the Baylor game, a stretch of three contests without reaching Smart’s goal, even though the Horns have gotten close.

However, that hasn’t even been the biggest area of emphasis.

“On defense our biggest emphasis that we have to get better at is having more active hands, taking away the three-point shot better,” Smart said. “Obviously, there’s times when guys make really tough ones over contested hands, but we’re talking about the ones we can control, that we can take away. We have to do a better job of that. I think it starts with transition defense and communication.”

Against Oklahoma State last Saturday, Texas struggled in particular against sharpshooter Thomas Dziagwa, who scored 23 of the 57 points for the Pokes thanks to seven made three pointers. On only 11 attempts. At times, the Longhorns defenders limited Dziagwa’s space and made it difficult for him, but the overall effort wasn’t acceptable, especially since the Florida product’s teammates made only 1-of-12 three-point attempts.

One play was particularly striking, as Dziagwa caught the ball at the top of the key well beyond the arc against senior guard Kerwin Roach II. Without even dribbling, Dziagwa squared up and made the shot without Roach ever raising his hands to contest the shot.

And those aren’t even the only two areas of emphasis defensively — Smart wants to limit points in the point, too. In conference play, Texas ranks No. 7 in two-point percentage. Given the athletic ability of the Longhorns guards and the presence of elite rim protector Jaxson Hayes in the paint, that’s a surprising statistic.

“We also on the defensive end want to continue to do a better job keeping people out of the paint. So, it’s double-edged sword because the more aggressive you are out beyond the three-point line, conceivably the easier it is for people to drive, but that’s where help defense comes into play. This week gives us an opportunity to work on those things.”

Offensively, there’s much more room for positive reinforcement, even if Smart isn’t entirely happy with the results, like most coaches. The good news is that in conference play, Texas leads the Big 12 in two-point percentage and free-throw percentage. In regards to the latter category, that’s a mark the Horns haven’t ever reached in the KenPom.com era, which dates back to 2001-02.

Overall, Smart’s team ranks second in adjusted offensive efficiency in conference games. The improvements offensively have vaulted the Longhorns from in the 100s to No. 30 after Tuesday’s game — into the 91st percentile nationally. According to barttorvik.com, the offense ranks No. 11 nationally in efficiency over the last ten games.

As a young team that ranks No. 264 nationally in experience, however, Texas is still working on executing the basics at a high level, despite the remarkable results.

“Offensively, the number one priority for us is continuing to improve our organization on the floor with five guys out there on any given possession so that we are exactly where we want to be,” Smart said. “We’re executing the play exactly how we want to execute the play. Our spacing is perfect and then that gives our guys the best chance to make a successful play on the floor, so that’s a point of emphasis. Individually, there has been different things we’ve talked about for each guy we’ll hit really hard.”

One of the most common refrains from Smart is that playing winning basketball in the Big 12 requires the Longhorns guards to play better than their backcourt opponents. To that end, the staff has prepared a multimedia presentation involving stats, video, and comparisons to illustrate their importance to the team’s success.

Given the level of guard play in the conference, it’s hardly surprising that each of the five remaining opponents have enough backcourt quality to out-play Texas, so if the Longhorns are going to finish the regular season with a winning record in those games, the guards will have to serve as the catalysts.

From the leadership standpoint, Smart will rely on the players who helped the Horns make the NCAA Tournament last season to provide guidance to the freshmen. In particular, the focus is on tuning out all the outside distractions from social media and discussions about Texas making the postseason and what seed the Longhorns might receive.

“We still have five games left in the regular season, so our focus is obviously on the very next game,” Smart said. “But as we go, definitely we’re going to need those guys to lead our team and help our younger guys understand that goes into wining and having the mindset of putting those blinders on to focus on only that.”

Despite the frustrating losses and a conference record that stands at 7-6, the Longhorns currently appear in all 117 brackets tracked by bracketmatrix.com, so the season’s truly defining moments are still in the future.

“You certainly want to be in a position where the most important games you have are ahead of you and you have a chance to go create the season that you want to create, because the nature of our sport is interesting in that every game matters going back to November 6, but March is the time that is so incredibly important and what people will remember the most,” Smart said.