The loss of Texas center Cameron Ridley for a undisclosed length of time to a foot injury is a major bummer for Longhorn hoops. It is disappointing on several levels. Obviously it hurts Texas basketball. But it is also disappointing because the senior center has worked so hard during his four years at Texas, and has been playing so well this season. It is good to see people rewarded for hard work, and a full and successful senior year for Ridley would have been a nice reward. Life isn't always fair.
This isn't a piece lamenting the loss of Ridley (note that as of this writing we have no idea just how long it will be until he can return to the floor). Rather, it is a piece looking at how Texas basketball will be affected by the loss of its best big man.
When Ridley has been on the floor for Texas
To start off, it is helpful to look at how Texas has fared so far with Ridley on and off the floor. As a warning, this will not paint a pretty picture of Texas without its starting center.
By my data, Ridley has been on the floor for 456 offensive possessions, and the Longhorns have scored 1.17 points per possession when he has played. For the 314 possessions when Ridley has sat, Texas has scored only 1.00 points per trip. 17 points per 100 possessions is a big number, and is worth worrying about.
On defense, the difference has not been as great. With Ridley the Texas D has been about 7 points per 100 possessions better than without him; given the small sample size and the fact that most of this difference is due to differences in opponent three point shooting -- something that is both highly variable over small samples and that Ridley can do little to affect -- I am not inclined to make much of the defensive difference we have seen so far. This is not to say that I believe the loss of Ridley will not impact the Texas defense; in fact I think it will make a pretty substantial difference, which I will detail below.
What the Texas offense loses without Cameron Ridley
When we are confronted with a number like the one referenced above -- that the Texas offense has been 17 points per possession better when Ridley has played than when he has sat -- we have to ask ourselves how much of this difference is reasonably attributed to Ridley. To do this, we have to dig further into the details.
The Longhorns better offense when Ridley has played is primarily due to three things: an increase in two point shooting percentage, a decrease in turnover rate, and an increase in offensive rebounding. While I am skeptical that Ridley's presence on the floor is the cause of a turnover reduction -- prior to his injury Ridley had the second highest number of turnovers on the team ranking behind only Isaiah Taylor, who handles the ball a lot more -- I think it is safe to say that Ridley does affect two point field goal percentage and offensive rebounding rates.
When Ridley has played, Texas has converted 53 percent of its shots inside the arc, compared with 44 percent when he has sat. That difference is worth 7 points per 100 possessions. And a healthy amount of that is directly attributable to the shots that Ridley takes. Prior to his injury, the Longhorns were shooting 50 percent as a team from inside the arc, but if you subtract Ridley's shots from that total the rest of the Horns are only shooting 46 percent.
Ridley's shooting accounts to roughly half of the difference in two point shooting percentage between when he has played and when he has sat. The other half is more mysterious. Random variance, lineup and opponent effects, and perhaps some additional indirect effect of Ridley himself accounts for the rest. My preference in the absence of better evidence is to be conservative. Let's just say that so far Ridley's effect on Texas' shooting inside the arc has been worth roughly 3 or 4 points per 100 possessions, with some small chance that it has been worth more than that.
When Ridley plays, Texas has rebounded 39 percent of its misses, compared with 33 percent when he has sat. This difference is worth about 3 points per 100 possessions to the Texas offense.
Ridley is directly responsible for a lot of this difference. He has grabbed approximately 17 percent of Longhorn misses while on the floor, while his typical replacements Shaquille Cleare and Prince Ibeh have grabbed 13 percent. So roughly two thirds of the difference in offensive rebounding between when Ridley has played and Ridley has sat is directly attributable to the Texas senior. It is also possible that his success scoring inside is creating additional opportunities to rebound, as shots from in close are more often rebounded by the offense than shots from the perimeter.
If we add all of this up, we can conservatively estimate that Ridley has been worth about 5 or 6 points per 100 possessions to the Texas offense, relative to his replacements. This is a sizable gap, but it does not have to be devastating.
How the loss of Ridley changes the focus of the Texas offense
While Ridley has been in the game this season, roughly 26 percent of Texas possessions have ended with the ball in his hands. His replacements Ibeh and Cleare consume 10 percent and 16 percent of Texas' possessions, respectively. While it is likely that we will see Cleare shoot the ball a little more with Ridley out, there are still going to be free possessions that will no longer be going through the Texas big men.
This is an important point. The Texas offense will change without Ridley. Giving his minutes to Ibeh and Cleare is not the same as giving his shots to these two players. Those shots are more likely to be distributed broadly across the team, which will shift shots to the Texas perimeter players.
And here there is hope for Texas fans, as Shaka Smart's perimeter players have done quite well so far, and are a big part of the reason for Texas' solid showing on offense through the non conference season.
The fact that the Longhorns are shooting 38 percent from three point range is a big help, and without Ridley Texas is sure to rely on the three ball to an even greater degree. With the success of Javan Felix, Eric Davis, and Connor Lammert from beyond the arc, three point shooting has been so far one of the things that Texas does best. And if Tevin Mack can find his stroke, it will help compensate for some of the likely regression from Texas' best perimeter shooters.
If we want a better feel for how Shaka Smart is likely to adapt to his new reality, we need only look back as far as last year, when he played with four perimeter players around a low usage big man who primarily set ball screens, rolled to the rim for dunks and layups, and crashed the glass. Meanwhile, four other players played around the perimeter, and let the shots fly. That VCU team took 40 percent of its shots from three point range, which is where Texas may be heading. (When we subtract Ridley's stats from Texas' shooting numbers, the rest of the Horns have put up 43 percent of their chances from long range.)
In a way, it even makes sense; when we look at Texas possessions that don't involve post entry this is precisely how the Longhorns have been playing all year. For all practical purposes, Connor Lammert is a perimeter player, at least on the offensive end of the floor -- no Texas regular has attempted a higher percentage of his shots from three point range this season than Lammert.
Without their main inside scorer, we can reasonably predict that the Longhorns will shoot an average of roughly four or five extra three point shots per game. A lot will end up riding on these shots -- five three point attempts can add anywhere between 0 and 15 points to a team's scoring total -- making Texas even more susceptible to the whims of perimeter shooting fate.
How the loss of Ridley hurts the defense
While the difference in the defensive numbers between when Ridley has played and Ridley has sat so far are not as great as the difference on offense, going forward the loss of Ridley is going to alter the Texas defense.
While Prince Ibeh's fouling is a problem (and more on this below), the truth is that over the last four years the Texas defense does not suffer much when Ibeh enters the game for Ridley. Over their time at Texas Ibeh has been a somewhat better defender, although the differences are small.
Through the first part of the Texas season, the Longhorns have played roughly 80 percent of their defensive possessions with either Ridley or Ibeh (or both) on the floor. During these possessions, Longhorn opponents are shooting under 38 percent from two point range. When both Ridley and Ibeh have sat, Texas opponents have converted on nearly 52 percent of their chances from inside the arc. This difference in shooting percentage is worth just under 13 points per 100 possessions -- and while some of this is likely due to random chance the difference between Texas with either Ridley or Ibeh on the floor and without them is substantial.
Cleare and Lammert are just not the rim protectors that Ibeh and Ridley are, and the Texas defense suffers when Cleare and Lammert are forced into this role. The Texas defense has held up through the early part of the season when Ridley has been on the bench, as Ibeh has been able to play roughly half of the possessions where Ridley isn't on the floor. But with Ridley now unavailable, just how many minutes will Ibeh be able to play?
Through his career, Prince Ibeh has never averaged more than 14 minutes per game in a single season. Part of this has been because there hasn't been a need for him to play more; with Ridley, Myles Turner, Connor Lammert, and Jonathan Holmes as teammates, Ibeh has seldom been asked to play a lot. But part of this is also because of foul trouble.
Over his college career, Ibeh averages a foul roughly once every five minutes on the floor. And this season in limited exposure his foul rate is actually up somewhat, running at about one foul every three minutes. It is possible that because Ibeh knew he wasn't going to be needed much that he is a little more aggressive than he would otherwise be. It is also possible that he just has a tendency to foul.
Just how many minutes can Prince Ibeh give Texas? This is a reasonable question to ask. Giving roughly 20 minutes per game seems plausible if he can get his foul rate closer to his career average. But getting much more than that seems less likely without a pretty significant change in the way that he plays.
If Ibeh gives Texas 20 minutes per game while Ridley is out, it will leave Texas to play about half the game without a strong rim protector.
What solutions does Shaka Smart have available to help the Texas defense?
While through the early part of the season the Longhorns have had mixed results with full court pressure, and Smart clearly seems uncomfortable with the way Texas is pressing, necessity may force the press to become a bigger part of the Texas approach in the coming weeks.
When applied well, pressure defense solves a lot of problems for undersized defenses -- and to be clear, when Ibeh sits and Ridley is unavailable, Texas will now be undersized. Forcing extra turnovers compensates for a defensive weakness inside; this was the formula that made Smart so successful at VCU even in seasons when he didn't have a strong defensive big man.
But the key phrase is the previous paragraph is "applied well." If the full court press is not yet ready for prime time, Texas is going to have to figure out how to make up for the loss on defense on the offensive end of the floor.
There is no other way to say it; a loss of Cameron Ridley for a large portion of the remainder of the season hurts. Through the non conference season, Ridley has been a major part of Texas' success on both ends of the floor, and now Shaka Smart will have to work to find new solutions for the Longhorn offense and defense.
Tonight, we will get our first look at this new reality, as Texas hosts Connecticut at home.