With football season winding down, and Texas' non-conference hoops schedule about to heat up -- in the next several weeks the Horns will face Vanderbilt, Temple, North Carolina, and Michigan State -- Texas fans will probably start paying more attention to the action on the hardwood. So for those who haven't been with us so far, this post will hopefully give you an early look at the Texas roster, and what Texas has done well -- and done poorly -- through the first seven games. For those of you who have been following this team, I hope you will find enough interesting material in here to make it worth your while.
After a terrible 2012-2013 season followed up by an offseason where five players with remaining eligibility left the program, expectations for Texas hoops this season were fairly low.
To date, it seems safe to say that this team has done as well or better than most anyone expected. As of today, Texas is currently 6-1, and is a couple of possessions away from being 7-0 with an early-season signature win. Texas opened up its season winning a tight game against a Mercer team that I think is quite good, and to date has only really played poorly once, in a narrow win over UT-Arlington(*).
(*To those who think that teams should never play tight games against lesser opponents, I direct you to national title favorites Michigan State and Kentucky, who both struggled in wins over Columbia and Cleveland State, respectively. The Texas basketball team isn't remotely as good as these two teams; no one should be surprised by the occasional ugly win.)
But despite early flashes of strong play, it is a little early to know how close this team is to returning to its place as one of the better teams in the Big 12. At least for this season, challenging the best teams in the conference doesn't seem particularly likely. The Texas Longhorns still have to make some additional improvements to close that gap.
The Big Men
Jonathan Holmes. Through the first seven games, Holmes is the best player on the team. He is a skilled offensive player who plays with high energy and has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. And his off-season work now means that he is usually the strongest person on the floor.
Jonathan Holmes is simultaneously one of Texas' best perimeter shooters, best rebounders, and best defenders. So far, the junior forward has hit 48 percent of his threes. While this number is unlikely to hold over the course of the year, Holmes probably won't drop back to being a 25 percent three point shooter.
When Holmes plays, Texas has been at its best. On the season, the Texas offense has scored 1.08 points per possessions, while the defense has given up 0.96 points per possession. When Holmes is on the floor, Texas has scored 1.19 points per possession, and allowed 0.91 points per possession.
Connor Lammert. Connor Lammert has started off the season very strongly. Holmes and Lammert, as big men who can shoot, solve a lot of problems for the Texas offense. When Texas cannot get out and run and is forced into the half court, Lammert becomes an important part of the Texas offense. In half-court situations, Lammert has an effective field goal percentage of 68 percent so far this season. Part of this is that Lammert has been effective going to the offensive glass, going 4-5 on offensive rebound put backs this season.
Part is also Lammert's extraordinary success shooting the ball so far this year. Lammert is 7-13 on two point jump shots and 4-9 on threes. He is also 9-10 from the free throw line.
It is unlikely that he will proceed at this current rate (I am always skeptical of high shooting percentages on jumpers), but when you add this all up Lammert has an offensive rating of 158 per kenpom.com, which is the third highest rating in Division I among players with enough minutes. This rate is partly due the fact that Lammert has only committed one turnover this season.
While Lammert's offense has been exceptional, his improvements on the defensive glass have also been critical. Lammert currently leads Texas with a 23 percent defensive rebounding percentage.
As I have pointed out previously, down the stretch last season Texas wasn't a very good team defensively. (After Kabongo's return last year, it was the offense, and not the defense, that carried Rick Barnes' squad.) Through the first seven games, the Texas defense is on the cusp of being very good. Defensive rebounding is a major part of the reason why. What was a weakness of last season's team has clearly become a strength, as illustrated below.
The following table looks at seven different team statistical categories for the Texas defense. Each statistic is listed as a percentage, and that percentage appears in parentheses. The first number in each line is either positive or negative. This number represents how many points per possession better or worse than the NCAA D-I median Texas is in each category.
Texas Defense 0.96 Points per Pos Median PPP Walk ------------------- -0.084 (39.7%): 2FG% -0.035 (26.2%): ORB% -0.031 (20.6%): TO% -0.004 (37.1%): FTA/FGA -0.000 (68.9%): FT% +0.011 (38.1%): 3FGA/FGA +0.072 (41.4%): 3FG%
To make this more clear, let's take a specific example. Texas has limited opponents to only getting offensive rebounds on 26.2 percent of their possible chances. The NCAA median for offensive rebounding percentage is about 32 percent. Thus, the Longhorns' defensive rebounding lowers opponent scoring by 3.5 points per 100 possessions relative to what they would allow if they only rebounded at the median level.
The Texas defense derives more defensive value from rebounding than all but one other statistical category. (We will deal with that category in the Prince Ibeh section.) Lammert's improvement, along with all the rebounds Demarcus Holland is getting, are the two biggest reasons for this change.
The table above also makes clear Texas' biggest problem on defense -- the three point line. I will get to that when I talk about Javan Felix.
Cameron Ridley. Cameron Ridley's apparent improvement over the off-season has been dramatic. Ridley and Demarcus Holland were the two worst offensive players on last season's team. This season, Ridley is much more comfortable on offense, as best illustrated by his significantly reduced turnover rate. A season ago, Ridley turned the ball over in one quarter of his possessions, which is a horrible number for a big man. This season, his turnover rate is 18 percent.
Additionally, Ridley has improved in two other places. So far his free throw shooting is better; a year ago Ridley made about one in three free throws, whereas in the early part of this season he is hitting about one in two. And Ridley has become more active on the offensive glass. The Texas center is now coming up with almost 15 percent of the possible offensive rebounds while he is on the floor.
Through Rick Barnes' tenure at Texas, virtually all of his teams have hit the offensive glass. A season ago, a decent portion of the problem on offense was that Texas was getting relatively few second shots, compared with typical levels.
But that isn't the case this season. Texas is once again among the better offensive rebounding teams in the nation, and as illustrated below is deriving more value on offense out of rebounding than in any other category.
Texas Offense 1.09 Points per Pos Median PPP Walk ------------------- +0.047 (40.2%): ORB% +0.011 (17.2%): TO% +0.007 (49.8%): 2FG% +0.005 (48.6%): FTA/FGA +0.003 (33.3%): 3FG% -0.003 (26.1%): 3FGA/FGA -0.029 (61.4%): FT%
For Cameron Ridley, the offensive glass is particularly important. 14 of his 25 layups and dunks have come directly off of rebounds.
Ridley is also playing well defensively. We will get to that in the next section.
Prince Ibeh. Ibeh is on the floor primarily for what he does to opposing offenses; any thing Ibeh gives on the offensive end is a bonus. Through the first seven games, Ibeh has blocked 16 percent of opponent two point attempts, which is the highest rate on the team.
But Ibeh isn't the only shot blocker. Through seven games, Ridley has played more, and leads the team in total blocks, swatting an estimated 15 percent of opponent twos. And Jonathan Holmes has blocked 8 percent of these attempts while in the game. (Lammert blocks the occasional shot, but it isn't a big part of his game.)
The Longhorns have blocked 23 percent of opponent attempts at the rim, which is the sixth highest rate in Division I (Hoop-Math Leaderboard). Texas opponents are currently making fewer than 40 percent of their attempted twos. The difference between this and a median two point shooting percentage of 49 percent is worth about 8.4 points per 100 possessions.
It is a massive defensive advantage that Texas has given back at the three point line. But more on that when we get to Javan Felix.
Javan Felix. There is significant value created for an offense when a player is able to score without turning the ball over. While we tend to focus on turnovers and missed shots separately, we probably should not. Early in the season a year ago, the Texas offense was completely undermined by turnovers. That has not been the case so far this season, and Felix has been a big part of the reason why. The table below shows Texas' turnover percentage, game by game, in the first seven games of last season and this season. Felix's personal turnover rate is currently less than 14 percent, which is an outstanding number for a guard.
Texas Turnover Rate by Game, the first seven games of 2012 and 2013
Felix's shooting numbers leave something to be desired, as indicated by his 40 percent effective field goal percentage. He is still an undersized guard who struggles finishing at the rim, and doesn't shoot the ball particularly well from the perimeter. But if he and Taylor can continue to keep the Texas offense out of turnover trouble, the Horns can live with the shooting.
Felix and the other Texas guards have done both some good and some bad on defense. The Longhorns are forcing turnovers on defense at a rate that is both better than the D-I median and also somewhat better than what historical norms are for a Rick Barnes' teams. This brings value for the defense.
But then there is the matter of opponents' three point shooting. Texas' opponents are shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc, which buys them an extra 7.2 points per 100 possessions. It is this, more than any other thing, that is currently hurting the Longhorns.
Ken Pomeroy has referred to three point shooting as a "lottery." His basic conclusion is that there is a large amount of noise in three point shooting results, and much of team three point percentage defense is random; the data show that there tends to be no correlation between the three point percentage teams allow in the first half of the conference season with what teams allow in the second half of season when we look across all the teams in D-I hoops.
So has Texas just been unlucky so far this season? The answer to this question is, "probably, but." Texas probably has been unlucky on three point defense this year, just as the Horns were probably a bit lucky last year when they held opponents to the sixth lowest three point shooting percentage in all of Division I.
But it isn't all bad luck. Some is bad perimeter defense. Open three point shooters tend to make more shots than guarded three point shooters, and Texas has left more than a few guys open so far.
Demarcus Holland. Demarcus Holland has played more than any other Longhorn. And at least so far this hasn't been a bad thing.
Holland's emergence as a difference-maker on offense has to be one of the most surprising things so far in the season. After such a difficult freshman season, it is hard to believe that as a sophomore Holland is third on the team in both effective field goal percentage (57 percent) and true shooting percentage (0.579). A portion of this looks to be a small sample-size illusion -- Holland has made 46 percent of his two point jump shots so far, which is unlikely to hold up. But most of this change appears to be real.
Holland is the greatest beneficiary of Rick Barnes' more up-tempo approach to the game this season. When Holland shoots within the first ten seconds of possessions initiated by a defensive rebound, a steal, or an inbound of a made basket, his effective field goal percentage is 74 percent. Holland is getting to the basket in transition, with 15 of his 19 transition attempts coming at the rim. If the Longhorns continue to play fast, Holland is going to keep getting, and finishing, these looks in transition. There is something to be said about being one of the best athletes on the floor.
Holland is also a big part of Texas' improvement in defensive rebounding. This season, Texas has mostly played three guard lineups. This means that one or more guards will more than likely have to rebound. Holland has done that, getting 14 percent of the possible defensive rebounds while on the floor.
Isaiah Taylor. Through the first seven games, freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor has done a reasonable impersonation of Myck Kabongo. Taylor shares many of the same strengths and weaknesses of his predecessor. Taylor attacks the basket off the dribble well and draws frequent fouls. 28 of Taylor's 50 shot attempts have come at the rim, and he has already attempted 54 free throws compared with 46 field goal attempts. Those are Kabongo-like numbers.
However, Taylor has not yet capitalized on his free throw attempts in the same way that Kabongo did. Through his first seven games, Taylor has only hit 61 percent of his free throws. Taylor is easily costing himself a point or two per game with misses at the line.
Damarcus Croaker. It is still a little bit hard to get much of a feel for Damarcus Croaker. He comes to Texas with the reputation as a good athlete, but as of yet just hasn't had the opportunity to show it. I am sure he will get his chance.
For now, Croaker has played the game as more of a catch-and-shoot three point specialist, with 24 of his 37 attempts coming from three point range. It is a role this team needs to have filled, so if it is a role that Croaker can play this year, it will be good enough for now.
Kendal Yancy. I just haven't seen enough of him to form much of an opinion yet, but I will say this; the kid is not built like a college freshman. In the little that we have seen him play, he seems to be a player who likes to take the ball to the hole, and seems capable of doing something with it when he gets there. You just can't have too many guys like that.
Martez Walker. He hasn't played enough yet for a reasonable evaluation.
With such a young basketball team, the situation with regards to playing time and individual contributions is still rather fluid. And while Texas has played a decent early non-conference schedule, things are about to get a fair bit more difficult. I hope that within a few more weeks we will have a better feel for where this team stands.