The Texas Longhorns struggled offensively, but ultimately prevailed over UT Arlington by a score of 63-53. Myles Turner led Texas with 18 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots.
For anyone who was watching this game, the obvious question is this: what just happened? Despite an overwhelming size and talent advantage, the Texas Longhorns could never really put the Mavericks away.
If there is one thing I believe about basketball, it is that with a sufficient allocation of defensive resources, a coach can take away just about any one single thing from an opponent. Often doing this exposes the defense to something else, and the exercise requires an understanding of relative risks.
Coach Scott Cross' defense worked to accomplish two specific goals against Texas, which are the same to goals that the Maverick defense typically works towards. The first goal was to apply pressure on the Texas guards and deny passing lanes to create turnovers. This goal was successfully accomplished, as the Longhorns coughed the ball up 13 times, which was roughly 22 percent of their possessions.
The second goal of Cross' defense was to keep the ball out of the paint. To do this, Cross used many extra defenders. Let's show just how this work with a few photos I snapped while watching the game.
In the first photo below, Myles Turner has the ball at the top of the key. He has just received a pass from the far side wing, so the defensive configuration gives us an idea of how the defense was playing when the ball was on the wing. (I am sorry, as I couldn't get this picture off quickly enough.)
Here is what we see in this photo. The weakside corner defender had dropped all the way in front of the basket, 20 feet from his man, while the post defender is fronting the low post. This effectively sandwiched the Longhorn low post player between two defenders, making ball entry nearly impossible. Making matters worse, an additional weakside defender (in this case the man who had been guarding Demarcus Holland) also dropped into the paint, as did Myles Turner's defender. This meant that the Texas post player was effectively triple teamed before he ever caught the ball, with another help defender close by.
In a second photo, we see a situation where the ball has been penetrated a little closer to the baseline by Demarcus Holland. Two defenders converge on Holland, while the other three drop into the paint. Trying to get the ball inside on the strong side against a defense like this is madness. Frequently, when Texas tried, the result was a turnover.
This defense is a familiar one. It looks a lot like the "ball-line" defense that has long been deployed by Tubby Smith, currently the head coach of Texas Tech.
One thing should stand out in both of those photographs. Both feature one or more wide open three point shooters. The Texas Longhorns, like many of UTA's opponents, had clean looks from three all night long. The problem is that Texas just didn't hit many of them, going 5-27 from three point range on what were mostly good rhythm looks from beyond the arc.
So here is the story of the game. If you don't hit three point shots, there is no way in hell you are going to score many points against this defense. And if you do hit threes, you are going to score a ton. (UTA's last opponent, Montana State, went 18-26 from long range.)
Texas eventually found some limited success against the Maverick D when attacking the basket or making a quick entry pass after reversing the ball from the strong side. If your goal is to jam the ball inside against this sort of defense, you need to do it quickly after ball reversal, or it is not going to happen.
On the offensive end, the Mavericks freely shared the ball (no player scored in double figures) and converted 7-16 of their own threes. UTA nearly turned the game into a three point shooting contest; this is chapter one in the upset handbook.
But it didn't quite work for Cross' men, largely because Texas dominated the paint, grabbing an unbelievable 28 offensive rebounds, and blocking 13 shots. The result was a weird situation where the Mavericks connected on 44 percent of their threes, but only 33 percent of their twos.
Jonathan Holmes, who was a miserable 1-7 from three point range, hustled his way to 9 offensive boards on his own. He also chipped in three pretty spectacular blocked shots. Myles Turner grabbed 6 offensive rebounds and blocked five shots. The only Texas players shut out on the offensive glass were Javan Felix and Damarcus Croaker.
All of the offensive rebounds, combined with UTA's propensity to pick up fouls, led to 27 free throw attempts for Rick Barnes' squad. Texas hit 82 percent from the line, which included a 14-17 Myles Turner free throw shooting clinic. Frankly, Myles Turner was great, and saved Texas' bacon. (This is the third strong games in a row for the Texas freshman. Turner scored 25 points a week ago, and was a rock for Texas defensively down the stretch in last Sunday's comeback against UConn.)
If you want to generalize from this game -- if you want to see it as some sort of indication of future doom -- go ahead. But I won't join you; you are on your own. All this game tells us is that when an opponent packs the paint, pressures passes, leaves good perimeter shooters like Jonathan Holmes wide open, and the Longhorns hit less than 20 percent from three point range, then points will be hard to come by.