Through the first nine games of the 2014-2015 college basketball season, the Texas Longhorns have been among the very best defensive teams in the country. As of Sunday December 14, Rick Barnes' squad is ranked the fourth best defense nationally per the Ken Pomeroy ratings, and was allowing the lowest effective field goal percentage of any team in the nation. Through nine games, Texas opponents have scored only 79 points per 100 possessions.
I frequently like to use waterfall charts to better understand what a team's strengths and weaknesses are. Waterfall charts compare a team to a hypothetical team that scores 1.04 points per possession by achieving the median in seven different statistical categories. Each step in the waterfall shows how the team is either better or worse in each of the seven categories, and how this difference affects the points scored per possession.
The waterfall chart shows how opponents have fared against the Texas defense. The Texas defense has been outstanding from two point range, and opponents have also not shot well from three. Rebounding and foul avoidance has further cut into opponent scoring. The only area where the Texas defense is below average is in forcing turnovers.
The Texas defense through its first nine games.
For the Texas Longhorns defense, it all starts with protecting the basket.
Protecting the paint
The world of top rated defenses is divided into two groups: ones that force turnovers (like Louisville) and ones that do not (like Virginia or Texas). The difference between forcing turnovers and not forcing them is frequently structural. Defenses that put defenders in passing lanes typically force the most turnovers. These teams sacrifice some interior help for this trade-off, meaning opponents will get to the rim more frequently.
Defenses that keep a greater number of helping defenders in gaps and around the paint, like Texas does, force fewer turnovers, but frequently limit dribble penetration, prevent easy chances at the rim, and control the glass. These sorts of defenses strive first and foremost to limit opponents to one poor shot per possession.
I have a photo to show exactly what I am talking about. In the photo below Jonathan Holmes has been beaten off the dribble by his man. But with three other players protecting the paint, including a shot blocker, it doesn't leave the offense much opportunity to do anything going to the basket.
The result of this approach so far for the Longhorns has been outstanding. Texas is allowing only 25 percent of opponent attempts to occur at the rim, which is the 14th lowest rate in D-I. And when Texas opponents do get to the rim, the Texas shot blockers are there holding opponents to only 42 percent shooting on layups and dunks. This is the third lowest percentage in the country; the national average shooting percentage on these shot attempts is around 60 percent. The Longhorns have blocked the highest rate of opponent shots at the rim in D-I, turning away 26 percent of all opponent chances from in close. This is the luxury of having three outstanding shot blockers on the roster.
Guarding the three point line
Bringing so much weakside help into the lane potentially creates chances for opponents to score on drive and kick three pointers. Last season, the Texas interior defense was nearly as stout as this year, but opponents were able to hurt Rick Barnes' squad some from beyond the arc.
But this season Texas has not been hurt from deep, in part because Texas is doing a much better job of running opponents off of the three point line. Last season, 36 percent of opponent shot attempts came from three point range, and opponents connected on 35 percent of their threes. This season, only 29 percent of opponent attempts have been taken from beyond the arc, and these shots have only fallen 26 percent of the time.
Some of this poor opponent three point shooting is a short term statistical fluke -- it is highly unlikely that Texas opponents will continue to shoot so poorly from long range. But Texas has been better this season at running opponents off of the three point line, a trait shared with most of Rick Barnes' best defenses.
Limiting both chances from three point range and shots near the basket doesn't leave much space for effective offense. 46 percent of opponent attempts against the Texas defense are two point jump shots, which is the third highest rate in the country. These shots are often highly contested, and thus far have fallen only 27 percent of the time.
Let's show one example of how this works, and how the multiple layers of Texas' defense work together to both cut off the basket and take away clean looks from deep. The possession detailed below occurred late in Texas' win against UConn. In this possession, Ryan Boatright works off of a ball screen and attacks the Texas defensive interior. Jonathan Holmes, Javan Felix, and Myles Turner all stand between Boatright and the basket.
Boatright is able to penetrate the ball into the interior, but is cut off from the basket by three Texas defenders. He sees teammate Sam Cassell in the corner, and kicks the ball out to him.
Cassell is Felix's man. On the kickout, Felix runs hard at Cassell, leaving little chance for a shot. Felix won't be able to prevent a dribble attack, but he has removed the immediate threat of a catch and shoot three, one of the best shots in basketball. Shown in the image below, Cassell puts the ball on the floor to drive into the defensive interior.
The fact that Cassell can drive by Felix here is of little consequence, as there are multiple helping defenders in the paint and Cassell has no good options. Felix scrambles to recover, while Turner and Holmes cut Cassell off from the basket. Cassell ends up attempting a step back jump shot, about the worst shot in basketball.
You can watch the whole play in the clip below.
Rick Barnes has coached some outstanding defenses in his time in Austin, but this season's group may very well turn out to be his best. One of the things I love about watching a defense like this work is how it requires both individual excellence as well as great teamwork. Texas is fortunate to have a roster of outstanding individual defensive players such as Demarcus Holland, Kendal Yancy, Myles Turner, Jonathan Holmes, Cameron Ridley, and Prince Ibeh. And all five players on the floor right now are executing the defense together.
Taking away both the rim and the three point line leaves an offense in a bad spot. If the Longhorns can keep this up, they will remain very difficult to beat.