The Texas Longhorns are currently 3-5 in Big 12 play. While the narrative around Texas troubles usually focuses on Rick Barnes' offense, that narrative -- at least this season -- could not be more wrong.
Because for Texas, during Big 12 play, it is the defense that has been the real problem.
The numbers here are pretty unambiguous. Through eight Big 12 games, Texas opponents are averaging just under 1.05 points per possession, which means that so far the Texas defense has been the eighth best in the league, better than only Iowa State and Texas Tech. Meanwhile, Texas' offense sits much closer to the middle of the pack; Big 12 games so far this season have averaged 1.00 points per possession, while Texas is scoring 1.01 points per trip up the floor.
Coming into the conference season, these would not have been the results that we would expect. Texas at the time projected to likely have a league average offense (as it appears the Longhorns have) with one of the best defenses in the conference. This combination would be more than enough to allow a team to build a solid conference record in the Big 12 -- it is in fact exactly what the 6-2 West Virginia Mountaineers do.
So what is wrong with the Texas defense?
Over the last few seasons, when the Texas defense has been at its best, it has relied on a couple of things. First, Texas features several shot blocking centers, who together form the backbone of its defense. The Texas shot blockers have been quite effective during conference play, blocking an estimated 22 percent of opponent shots inside the arc, which leads the league by a substantial amount.
But the success of the Texas defense last season and during the early part of this season was built on more than just blocking shots. Texas additionally did an outstanding job of limiting penetration into the interior of the defense, either with the pass or off the drible. This, combined with outstanding shot blocking, meant that Texas opponents had a difficult time getting to the rim, and on the rare occasions that they got there they would have to shoot over an imposing center.
Keeping opponents away from the rim is something that has been absent in most of Texas' recent losses. In recent weeks Texas opponents have been getting to the basket, and while they haven't always been scoring there thanks to the efforts of the Texas big men, this result is a symptom of the fact that Texas' defense is frequently being broken down by the opposition.
On the season, the Longhorns only allow opponents to take 28 percent of their shots at the rim, which places the Texas D in the top 40 nationally. But Baylor took 39 percent of its shots at the rim, Kansas took 34 percent, TCU 44 percent, OSU 38 percent, Oklahoma 35 percent, and Texas Tech 33 percent. Either in man to man defense, or frequently in zone, the Texas defense is allowing opponents to shoot from much closer to the basket than usual in recent weeks. This makes the Texas defense less strong than it was before.
Some of the other problems of the Texas D are a direct consequence of this. In conference play, opponents are rebounding 33 percent of their own misses, whereas prior to conference play opponents tracked down only 27 percent of their misses. Rebounding, which was a strength of the Texas defense at the start of the season, has been a problem as of late. Baylor's 1.32 point per possession offensive explosion on Saturday was fueled in part by getting 17 offensive rebounds.
Defensive breakdowns, along with spending a lot of time in a zone defense through the first half of conference play, also have means that opponents get their share of clean looks from three point range. When opponents get into the center of a defense, the defense collapses, creating open looks from three. Texas opponents have not wasted those chances, connecting on 36 percent of their threes during the conference season. Baylor's 12 made threes against Texas is the most extreme example of this issue getting the Longhorns.
Ball screen defense
There are a lot of things that aren't happening right these days for the Texas defense, and it would be a major effort to try to catalog and quantify all of them. But one thing that I have noticed lately is that in some cases, Texas is messing up its ball screen defense -- this was frequently a problem against Baylor.
Upon rewatching the Baylor game, I saw the a number of issues with Texas' ball screen defense. On several occasions Texas guards were attempting to go under ball screens, giving Kenny Chery a chance to shoot the ball from long range. For my way of thinking, shooting from long distance is the most dangerous thing that Chery does, and you are far better off forcing him to dribble and try to score in the paint.
Texas is also sometimes blowing its ball screen coverage, perhaps due to confusion or lack of communication between players. To effectively defend a ball screen, both players have to be on the same page, and need to execute the same defense. Perhaps the most problematic recent example of this came with about six and a half minutes left in the Baylor game, where Isaiah Taylor attempted to force his man to reject a ball screen (the so-called "ice" defense) while Ridley attempted to step out to hedge on the screen. The result of this mixup was that both Taylor and Ridley were playing on the same side of the screen, as shown in the photo below.
Defensive breakdowns are problematic for any defense, but they are particularly bad for a defense like Texas. There are many different ways to play defense, but they can be broadly categorized into defenses that pressure passes and force turnovers, and defenses that do not. Texas' defense falls squarely into the non-pressure category. This isn't necessarily a bad thing -- you can build an outstanding defense this way.
Pressure defenses just break down sometimes. It is a consequence of putting off-ball defenders into passing lanes, where they are not as effective helping to contain dribble penetration. But with a pressure defense, the hope is that you create enough turnovers to make up the difference.
For a non-pressure defense, breakdowns are a much bigger deal. The whole point of playing this style of defense is to limit defensive breakdowns as much as possible. In the photo above, Felix is shadowing Chery (an adjustment Barnes made after watching Chery torch him from three), and Texas' other two help defenders are in decent help-side position. But when the pick and roll defense gets blown, and Taylor and Ridley give up a straight line drive to the basket, there isn't much that the help defenders can do. (Turner cut off the drive, but a pass found his man cutting to the rim.)
How can Texas salvage the season?
For Texas, I believe recovery from a terrible start to conference play is still possible, but it will require getting back to defending at a high level. During the non-conference season, Texas was primarily a man-to-man defensive team that would switch to zone in certain situations, or when it made sense from a match up standpoint.
During conference season, Texas' defensive philosophy has shifted. Through eight games, the Longhorns have been primarily a zone defensive team, even when the specific match ups seemed to scream out for man-to-man. I want to be clear here -- playing zone against Baylor makes no sense at all, and Texas played nearly the first eight minutes in a zone that Baylor tore to pieces.
Zone is a great defense against teams that don't rebound and can't shoot, or when you want to try to squeeze a few extra minutes from a big man in foul trouble, or when you are worried about being screened on a baseline out of bounds play, or when you just want to change things up for a few possessions (the way Duke used it late in Saturday's win over Virginia). But over the long haul, I just don't think zone is winning basketball.
So my first recommendation is to scrap the zone. Do it if only because it is taking away practice time from other things, such as ball screen and transition defense, which also appear to need some work.
Beyond this, Texas needs to get back to the things that made its defense great at the start of the year. Containing dribble penetration with multiple layers of helping defenders controlling the gaps, being in the right place on ball screens, and aggressively closing out on shooters are all things that Texas did at a high level in early season wins.
Texas just needs to get back to playing D.