clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
NCAA Basketball: Texas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Filed under:

How Texas players learned to lose themselves in the fight

It’s taken injuries and adversity, but the Longhorns are finally gelling at the right time to make the NCAA Tournament — and perhaps even save Shaka Smart’s job.

When Texas Longhorns head coach Shaka Smart arrived in Gainesville as an assistant coach for Billy Donovan in 2008, there was a popular phrase coined by a former player.

“We all we got.”

Two years ago, Smart brought up the phrase with Andrew Jones out battling leukemia and Kerwin Roach II recovering from a fractured hand. Two days later, Texas beat No. 8 Texas Tech at home.

The phrase seems fitting again this season — the Horns aren’t facing the same type of adversity poised by Jones starting his ultimately successful fight against leukemia, but the injuries have once again piled up.

Since late January, when sophomore forward Kamaka Hepa suffered an ankle injury and sophomore forward Gerald Liddell was ruled out indefinitely due to a stress reaction in his back, it’s been one injury after another for the Horns.

Hepa returned, only to miss the West Virginia game with strep throat and play a single minute against Texas Tech. Freshman forward Kai Jones suffered an ankle injury and missed the second Baylor game. In the same game against that Jones suffered his ankle injury against the Red Raiders, junior guard Jase Febres went down with a knee injury that will almost certainly end his season. Junior forward Jericho Sims hasn’t played in three weeks and is out indefinitely due to a back injury. His season is likely done, too. Junior guard Matt Coleman suffered a heel injury against Iowa State a little more than two weeks ago, missed one game, and has been battling through it ever since. And now freshman forward Donovan Williams is unlikely to play against Oklahoma on Tuesday due to a knee injury that he aggravated against Texas Tech.

Got all that?

In the midst of all those injuries, though, Texas has played its best basketball of the season as it takes a four-game winning streak to Norman on Tuesday coming off of two consecutive wins against ranked opponents.

Like the NIT run last season that featured five straight wins to earn the trophy at Madison Square Garden, certain elements of the run are rather inexplicable given the personnel losses in recent week.

Some elements are not as the Longhorns have rallied around each other and used the adversity to develop the type of mental toughness they’ve so often lacked this season.

“Our guys have done a really good job with their preparation. They’ve done a nice job with not making any excuses because we’ve had some guys out,” Smart said on Monday. “We’ve had some injuries. We’ve had some challenging situations over the course of the year, but the guys have taken ownership of what we need to do.

“The best thing about this last stretch of games is they’re really doing a good job losing themselves in the fight, playing together, helping each other, and holding each other accountable. Those are the things that go into winning no matter what time of year it is.”

Beyond the way the Horns have approached the last four games, there have been a number of other factors involved in the rise.


NCAA Basketball: Texas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Courtney Ramey and Andrew Jones get hot at the right time

During the run to the NIT title last year, Smart spoke extensively about the role that sophomore guard Courtney Ramey played as the avatar for the team’s competitive spirit. And yet, Ramey has struggled at times this season to fulfill that imperative to the team’s success — perhaps simply due to his own frustration with how slowly his season started following a preseason wrist injury, Ramey lost his edge at times.

“He’s a dog, man,” Smart said on Monday. “And that’s just who he is. When he got away from that at times earlier this year, I think all of us probably watched and said that’s not the real Courtney. It’s great to see him back to being being nasty. And that’s the only way we can win right now.”

As Ramey has regained his competitive spirit — that dog mentality that has always and will always define him as a player — he’s also had to take over a larger leadership role with Coleman sidelined for the TCU game and limited in his effectiveness since his return from his heel injury.

“As coaches, we will every single day continue to beat the drum from a standpoint of this is what it takes, this is what we got to do, this is what goes into beating this specific team,” Smart said on Monday. “The bottom line is we’ve had great ownership of that of late, led by Courtney — he’s really set a tone with that.”

Beyond the less tangible elements, Ramey is scoring, too. In the disheartening blowout against Iowa State in Ames that preceded the current winning streak, Ramey was the lone bright spot, setting his career high with 21 points. Against Kansas State in Manhattan, the St. Louis product dropped 26 points on 10-of-16 shooting in an all-around performance that also included six rebounds, five steals, and two assists.

Facing a critical second half last Saturday in Lubbock against the Red Raiders, Ramey scored all 12 of his points to help the Longhorns outscore the home team by 17 in the final 20 minutes. Few shots in the entire game were more important than the leaning three that Ramey made with the shot clock set to expire that extended a 57-53 lead to seven points with 2:07 remaining.

With 14 seconds left, it was Ramey’s breakaway dunk in transition that put the exclamation point on the emphatic victory.

For Jones, the major growth has been in his conditioning level, which has impacted his ability to perform well at both ends of the court. Ever since first suffering the symptoms of his leukemia, Jones hasn’t had the same stamina that helped put him on the fast track to the NBA during the sizzling start to his sophomore season.

To get himself back into shape, Jones has spent extra time with new strength and conditioning coach Andrea Hudy to regain his physical strength and increase his conditioning level.

It’s starting to pay off — against West Virginia and Texas Tech, Jones only sat out for two minutes. Combined. When Smart asked him if he needed to come out of the game, Jones was honestly able to tell his head coach that he was able to keep playing.

Not only was the redshirt sophomore guard able to remain on the court for those minutes, he was able to play with a high level of intensity on both ends of the court. Especially on defense, that wasn’t always the case earlier in the season.

With a deep guard corps and an identity that Smart wanted to build around the new defense brought by assistant coach Luke Yaklich from Michigan, the Texas head coach had the luxury of accountability through substitution earlier in the season. So when Jones didn’t play well defensively or was out of control on offense, Smart would take him out of the game.

Now Smart doesn’t have those options — or even a fully healthy Coleman — so there wasn’t any choice except for Jones to step up for the Horns.

Against two top-10 defenses in KenPom.com’s adjusted efficiency metric last week, Jones did exactly that, hitting 15-of-27 shots (55.6 percent) and 8-of-17 attempts from three-point range (47.1 percent). On Big Monday against West Virginia, Jones set his career high with 22 points, along with three rebounds, three assists and two steals, before matching that career high in points in Lubbock.

In the last four games, Jones is averaging 19.1 points on 51 percent shooting from the field and 51.9 percent shooting from beyond the arc.

“I feel good, you know — I’m starting to find my footing a little bit, starting to get my feet underneath me again,” Jones said after the Texas Tech win. “My body is starting to feel really good and the coaches are putting a lot of confidence into me to be myself, be confident, and know if I feel good about the shot, take it, and just always make the right play.”

Jones is currently second on the team in scoring (11.7 points per game), third in assists (1.9 assists per game), and third in steals (21). With the recent shooting surge during the current four-game winning streak for the Longhorns, Jones is now hitting 40 percent from three-point range to lead the team.

“It’s a phenomenal story,” Smart said on Saturday. “First of all, even just to be out there and playing and competing after all the stuff he’s been through is so much fun, but I think one thing that’s really helped him is that he’s had a great appreciation for the fact that he is back and the opportunity that he does have, and he’s really grabbed hold of it.

“And as you see, he’s just out there playing with a lot of confidence — that’s the Andrew Jones that we know and you know the exciting thing is, he still has room that he can he can continue to get better. He’s really only a matter of months post-treatment, literally chemo treatment, so really proud of him the way he’s attacking.”


NCAA Basketball: West Virginia at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The rise of Brock Cunningham and Royce Hamm, Jr.

At the end of the Rick Barnes era, the former Texas head coach struggled to find players with the same toughness as guys like Royal Ivey and James Thomas — the role players who focused on defense and rebounding and providing the team with an edge. For Smart, he simply hasn’t had those role players at all.

Until now.

“You have to have a nastiness about you,” Smart said. “That’s why we recruited Brock [Cunningham] to come here. Royce has always been a guy that we’ve told, ‘You gotta be blue collar, man, you got to be different.’ And those guys are really owning that.”

Hamm’s high-motor transition block against Texas Tech’s Chris Clarke early in the game on Saturday wasn’t just a highlight-reel effort — it was the type of play that established the defensive intensity that Texas was going to bring throughout that entire game. Against a physical team that boasts one of the nation’s best defenses, and in front of the raucous Red Raiders crowd, Hamm served noticed that the Longhorns weren’t going to back down.

So they didn’t.

In scoring nine points, Hamm set his career high, while adding six rebounds and two assists. Especially early in the game, Hamm continued to struggle with turnovers — at 38.9 percent, Hamm has the highest turnover rate of any Texas player appearing in more than 10 percent of the team’s minutes in the KenPom.com era, which dates back to 2001-02 — but once he settled down, he was able to make some winning plays offensively.

Smart believes it’s helped Hamm to stop worrying so much about his mistakes.

“He’s always at his best when he loses himself in the fight,” Smart said. “You know, Royce is a very conscientious, great kid. And sometimes in the past, he could tend to overthink things and almost psych himself out. And so what what he’s done well of late is just gone out to compete. Even like the Texas Tech game the other day, he had a couple turnovers early, there were a couple plays that didn’t go his way, but he just kept fighting, kept battling, had a big block for us. That’s who he is. He’s a motor guy. He’s an energy guy.”

The motor was running late in the game during a crucial moment. Following a three-point play by Kevin McCullar that cut the Texas lead to two points with 1:12 remaining, Ramey attempted a one-foot floater, but the ball bounced off rim. With an aggressive move to the basket, Hamm caught the ball in the air and laid it off the glass to make it a two-possession game.

“My mindset was just to attack the glass, so whether it goes in and not,” Hamm said. “Happily, the ball bounced off the right time, right place, and I was able to put it in.”

It’s taken three years for Hamm to truly find that role as an energy guy, but it’s happened, in no small part because there simply aren’t any other options — he just has to play through the mistakes.

Sense the theme here?

The injuries have also allowed Cunningham to receive the most extended action of his career.

Cunningham started the season opener against Northern Colorado due to Liddell’s preseason concussion and never looked comfortable — he missed all three of his three-point attempts and committed two turnovers in 10 minutes. After that, the Westlake product only played 17 minutes all season until the blowout against Iowa State.

Even in that game, Cunnigham struggled, missing two more three-point attempts and committing four fouls. In 19 minutes against TCU, the 6’6, 215-pounder struggled to make an impact on the stat sheet, securing a rebound and a steal and committing two fouls.

In fact, by that point, Cunningham was mostly known for his fouling ability, especially in practice.

“He does foul a lot in practice,” Smart said. “A lot. We tell him, Brock, you can’t do that.”

What Cunningham did do against the Horned Frogs was provide a level of physicality and effort on defense that the Longhorns needed against Desmond Bane. In trying to limit one of the nation’s best shooters, Cunningham was willing to do the dirty work of chasing Bane off screens.

“His 19 minutes or so on the defensive end were unbelievably important for us,” Smart said. “Courtney was getting tired and Brock’s a bigger body and more physical body on Bane. Like I said, he’s a terrific cutter, he really moves well without the ball, and in the first half, he was getting open on the screening action.”

In the second half, Cunningham locked him down as Bane missed all six of his shots, including three from three-point range.

Against Kansas State, it was much the same story on the stat sheet, but with more fouls — Cunningham disqualified himself with five in Manhattan. By the end of the West Virginia game, Mountaineers head coach Bob Huggins was left noting the aptitude of Cunningham in fouling opponents in what was probably the ultimate compliment that Huggins could pay a player.

However, Cunningham made his biggest impact on the West Virginia game by his ability not to foul himself out of the game. Derek Culver and Oscar Tshiebwe draw fouls as frequently as any pair of big men in the country and Huggins opted to play them together to put pressure on the depleted Texas frontcourt. It largely worked — as Smart noted after the game, the Longhorns were in danger of running out of bodies had the game continued for another five or 10 minutes.

During the key stretch in the second half, however, Cunningham was able to hold his own against much bigger players — he gives up about 40 pounds or more to Culver and Tshiebwe — and make it difficult enough for them to score that the Longhorns were able to pull out the victory.

More than just playing physical defense, Cunningham provided strong defensive rebounding, two late offensive rebounds, and a blocked shot with 1:42 remaining that highlighted Cunningham’s scrappiness and brought the Erwin Center crowd to their feet in appreciation.

By the Texas Tech game, Cunningham was getting more comfortable on the offensive end, hitting his first two threes of the season and finishing a nice reverse layup on a pass from Hamm.

So although Texas got off to a sloppy start in Lubbock, the efforts of players like Hamm and Cunningham helped the Longhorns got on track and dominate in the second half to pull off the upset.

“Once we got a feel for the game,and our guys started to gain confidence through shots, defense, and rebounding, it was just a snowball effect for the rest of the game and we kept it through the second half,” Cunningham said.

Credit Cunningham for helping to start the avalanche as his impact on the game continued to increasingly impact the stat sheet, too.


NCAA Basketball: Baylor at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

A more limited but more simple offense

Last season, the Texas offense quickly developed a clear identity — it was a spread pick-and-roll attack that utilized the rim-running ability of eventual lottery pick Jaxson Hayes in high pick-and-roll situations, but also adjusted during the season by asking Hayes to set more side screens in semi-transition in order to record easy baskets. The Longhorns rode that offense to a top-30 finish in adjusted efficiency.

With Hayes playing for the New Orleans Pelicans and junior forward Jericho Sims lacking the same ability to finish around the rim on lob opportunities, one adjustment for Texas this season was lifting Sims up to the top of the key and running offense through him by creating ball reversal opportunities or dribble handoffs.

After an assist rate of 2.2 percent in the first two seasons for Sims, it jumped to 6.5 percent before his back injury sidelined him indefinitely thanks to his increased role away from the basket.

The approach also allowed Sims the space to attack opponents off the bounce with the ability to go right or left — ambidextrous enough to shoot free throws left-handed as a freshman, Sims switched to his right hand the last two seasons and rewarded the confidence of his coaches this year by making plays off the bounce with his athleticism and ball-handling ability.

When Texas threw the ball inside to him, Sims started scoring efficiently enough on the block that opponents were forced to start double teaming him at times. With the increased emphasis on making those entry passes, defenses emphasized pressuring the guard attempting to make that pass and sometimes even fronted Sims to take the pass away.

“In recent games, sometimes it’s been feast or famine — it’s been sometimes really, really good,” Smart said. “Give him the ball and he’s been very efficient at times when he’s gotten it, but there’s been other times where it’s kind of made us stagnant as a team. You don’t want to stand there for 10-15 seconds trying to force feed it to a guy and not getting in there. That results in a lack of movement, so we definitely need to move bodies better and we need to move the ball better.”

In other words, as Smart and his staff ran more sets to get Sims the ball, the offense suffered diminishing returns from advanced scouting and defensive adjustments. It might seem like a paradox, but the improvements from Sims ultimately made things more difficult for him and for the offense as a whole because the Big 12 has the defensive coaching acumen and defensive personnel prowess to take those high-efficiency sets and actions away.

After all, the conference features three of the top four defenses in adjusted efficiency, four of the top 10, and only Iowa State ranks outside the top 65 nationally.

Still, Sims was playing a high level before his injury — No. 30 in two-point field-goal percentage, No. 129 in offensive rating, and No. 49 in offensive rebounding rate.

With Sims out, as multiple opponents downed ball screens to take Texas out of those actions from the wing by forcing guards to the baseline, the Longhorns have had to adjust, allowing Royce Hamm Jr. several opportunities against Texas Tech on short rolls at the top of the key or simply asking the guards to attack from different spots and make shots.

It’s not that the offense is better with Sims out, it’s simply that there is greater clarity of purpose — the coaches don’t have to run sets to make entry passes and the guards know that the offense’s success relies almost entirely on their ability to make plays, especially hitting shots from long range.

In the last four games, they’ve been doing exactly that.


NCAA Basketball: Texas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Achieving the formula for winning

The Xs and Os matter, of course, but beyond the more dogmatic approaches to offense that include the motion offense and blocker-mover, most teams in college basketball are heavily reliant on ball screens and on guards making plays.

The things that really matter offensively are in the margins and don’t always necessarily include the sets or actions that coaches call — it’s about rebounding on offense and defense, reducing turnovers, and getting easy points by getting to the free-throw line and converting.

In all of those areas, the Longhorns are hamstrung significantly this season.

Hayes, Kerwin Roach, and Dylan Osetkowski all ranked among the top four on the team in free-throw attempts last season. So even though Texas wasn’t a great or even really good team at getting to the line in 2018-19, the dropoff in free-throw rate and free-throw percentage has been significant this season. In fact, Texas is making five fewer free throws and making nearly four fewer free throws per game.

Meanwhile, the turnover rate increased by 4.5 percent this year, dropping the Horns from a top-40 offense in that category to No. 283 nationally, resulting in a substantial drop in possessions. Texas is losing nearly three possessions more per game due to the increase in turnovers.

Another substantial drop in possessions happened as Texas went from poor to bad in limiting offensive rebounds and lost a possession per game through a slight decline in its own offensive rebounding. The rebounding difference is worth about two possessions per game.

So while the personal preference here is for the type of “no-middle defense” that Texas Tech runs, the emphasis by Yaklich on limiting three-point attempts for opponents makes sense for this team — a three-point basket is worth 50 percent more points than a two-point basket. By limiting those shots for opponents and taking advantage of those opportunities offensively, there is the potential to make up for the team’s other deficiencies.

This season, Texas hasn’t increased the rate of its three-point shooting, the team has just relied more heavily on those shots going in and gaining that advantage in effective field-goal percentage. In fact, the Longhorns have only lost one game this season when shooting better than 31 percent from beyond the arc — against the Hoyas.

When converting at least 50 percent from the field this season, Texas is 8-0, including the recent stretch of shooting 46.2 percent from three-point range in the four-game winning streak and 51.9 percent overall.

Once again, the margins are important — the Horns were plus-4.9 per game last season in three-point scoring differential. This season, the margin is plus-9.7 per game, a difference of 4.7 points in every game. That’s not enough to make up for the total loss of possessions or fewer free throws, but it’s afforded the Longhorns what eventually became lost opportunities to win games against opponents like the Jayhawks and Bears.

It’s not just about shooting, though, as the Longhorns are finally starting to settle into the type of defensive intensity that Smart hired Yaklich to develop for a team he always knew needed to base its identity on making it difficult for opponents to score, especially from beyond the arc.

The most simple and effective unadjusted defensive metric is points per possession. In that statistic, the Longhorns have had some really poor games this season — the outliers, in order, are Georgetown, West Virginia, and Iowa State.

barttorvik.com

When the Horns have played good defense, they haven’t lost much except for games against Texas Tech and Baylor when the offense played extremely poorly against two of the best defenses in college basketball. Hardly surprising — this team simply doesn’t win when it doesn’t shoot well from distance.

All season, the formula for winning hasn’t changed given the team’s deficiencies. What’s changed is the defense playing its most consistent basketball of the conference schedule and the playmakers on offense like Ramey and Jones hitting shots.

Overall, Texas ranks No. 23 in BartTorvik.com’s adjusted defensive efficiency, but No. 15 nationally in the last 10 games. So there’s been a significant jump there that will need to continue for the Horns, especially because intensity and attention to detail defensively are the easiest things the team can control.


Especially against Oklahoma on Tuesday in Norman, and to a lesser extent against a flawed by relatively dangerous Oklahoma State team at home on Saturday, the question is whether Texas can maintain the current shooting streak.

The answer is probably not. So the Horns will have to do what they haven’t done consistently this season — provide a margin for error by playing high-level defense.

To accomplish that task, Texas will have to stay lost in the fight, from the role players like Hamm and Cunningham to the playmaking guards like Ramey and Jones.

With the NCAA Tournament odds for the team up over 40 percent on Tuesday afternoon, according to BartTorvik.com, Smart’s team has already accomplished what seemed so unlikely after the loss to Iowa State — contending for a spot in the Big Dance and a chance to perhaps save Smart’s job.

From needing to win the Big 12 Tournament two weeks ago, Texas has wrested some control over its own destiny. Let’s see what they do with it.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Texas Tech Michael C. Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Texas Longhorns Football

How to watch the Texas bowl destination

DraftKings

No. 20 Texas headed to the Alamo Bowl to face No. 12 Washington

Texas Longhorns Football

Survey Results: MVP’s, Newcomer of the Year, and Favorite Moment