After wandering the Earth for the first five games of the basketball season, the 2-3 Texas Longhorns are headed home. Over the next several weeks, Shaka Smart's team will play five straight games at the Erwin Center.
The first opponent is UT-Arlington (4-1). While this might seem like a standard non-conference home game against an overmatched opponent from a single-bid league, the Mavericks deserve to be taken seriously. The evidence for this is a pair of road wins at Ohio State and Memphis so far this year. (Although there is a caveat here; Ohio State and Memphis both look to be headed for difficult years.)
This is head coach Scott Cross' tenth season in charge of the UTA program, and with a few big wins so far this year the Mavericks are finally receiving some well-deserved attention.
For the Mavericks, success so far this season starts on the defensive end of the floor. Cross' men are currently ranked in the top 100 for overall defense, per kenpom.com. UTA plays a somewhat unusual style of defense that largely resembles the "ball-line" defense used by Tubby Smith at Texas Tech.
The UTA defense is built to achieve two goals. The first goal is to apply pressure on opposing guards and deny passes that progress the ball towards the basket. This combination creates turnovers. So far this year, opponents have turned the ball over in 24 percent of possessions against UTA, which ranks in the top 25 nationally.
The second goal of Cross' defense is to keep the ball out of the lane. This is accomplished by sinking help side defense deep into the paint, and by aggressively doubling the ball when it enters the post or is penetrated to within about ten feet of the baseline.
Let's use some photos from last season's game between Texas and UTA to see how this works. 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,.
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 aligning his defense this way, Cross was explicitly taking the option to enter the ball into the post away. I think it is reasonable to expect he will do something similar this year, aiming to make Cameron Ridley low post touches hard to come 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. This is classic ball-line defense.
Let's reflect on that photo above a bit more. Holland is double teamed, while three other defenders all have two feet in the paint. Dribble penetration by Holland, or an entry pass into the post, just isn't likely to lead to anything other than a turnover or a highly contested shot.
Going inside against UTA is hard. It is hard because of all of those extra defenders, and it is hard because of the shot blocking presence of junior Jorge Bilbao. On the offensive end, Bilbao isn't a particularly big part of the action, outside of doing good work on the glass. But he anchors the interior of the Maverick defense.
The ball-line defense isn't perfect. An important characteristic of this approach is that it is rather old. Older than the three point line; the defense was supposedly originated by Tubby Smith's college coach and mentor J.D. Barnett in the 1970s. (After playing for Barnett at High Point, Smith followed Barnett to VCU, serving as his assistant. VCU went to its first five NCAA tournaments in Barnett's six seasons as head coach. With all due respect to Jeff Capel, Anthony Grant, and Shaka Smart, Barnett effectively put VCU hoops on the map.)
If you look at that photo above, and imagine that the three point line is still just a crazy idea of the ABA, as relevant to modern basketball as the multi-colored ball, you can understand why this approach would be appealing. In fact, it is darn near perfect. It will generate steals, take away easy chances at the hoop, and gives up pretty much nothing useful in return.
But now let's return from this alternate universe to the real one, a world that includes a three point line. And now look at that photograph, which should reveal the weakness of this particular style of defense. That weakness will be familiar to anyone who has followed Tubby Smith's career; opponents are going to get clean looks from three point range.
UTA opponents this season have taken 37 percent of shot attempts from long range. Last season, 40 percent of opponent shots came from long range. This is a lot of chances to put an extra point on the board.
So the story for Texas will be simple. Take care of the ball and hit some threes, and a win will probably come easily. Struggle in these two areas, and the Longhorns could be in for trouble.
When the Mavericks have the ball
The offensive picture has not been as pretty so far for UTA. On the year, the Mavericks have made 44 percent of their twos, 24 percent of their threes, and aren't getting to the free throw line all that often. That is not good.
Cross' team looks to push the tempo. The UTA defense generates steals that it looks to quickly convert, and the Mavericks also pushes the ball hard up the floor after a defensive rebound, aiming to get to the basket or shoot a quick transition three. And almost everyone on the team has a green light to shoot.
6-7 sophomore Kevin Hervey is Cross' primary offensive option so far this season. Hervey will shoot from the perimeter, will go inside, and is active on the offensive glass. He is a big part of the reason why UTA is ranked in the top 20 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage.
On the perimeter, the Mavericks will sub liberally. 5-11 sophomore point guard Erick Neal plays the most minutes, handling the ball for Cross. 6-3 junior Jalen Jones, 6-2 sophomore Kaelon Wilson, 6-2 junior Drew Charles, and 6-7 sophomore Nathan Hawkins will all get plenty of minutes. Only Jones has really played well on offense so far this season, but the season is still young.
The Mavericks haven't had much punch on offense this season, but it is conceivable that someone could just play out of their mind for a single game. Defense is where Cross' men make their bones, and is where they have the greatest potential to give the Longhorns trouble.
Keep an eye on turnovers and Texas' three point shooting percentage. If both of these numbers break in favor of the Horns, then Texas should be fine.
If they don't, then the last five minutes could end up being more exciting than desired.