The Texas Longhorns came into the season with high hopes, hopes that were only supported by a strong start to the season. Rick Barnes had a roster with a solid mix of experience and top-level talent. The Longhorns seemed poised to contend at the highest levels of college basketball with a good offense and one of the nation's best defenses.
But the season has not gone as planned, in large part it is because the Texas defense has not kept up its end of the bargain. Since the start of Big 12 play, the Texas offense has gone through a few ups and downs, but has mostly been solid. The Longhorn O has scored at least 1.05 points per possession in each of the last five games, and has only landed under the one point per possession line five times during conference play. During Big 12 games, the Longhorns have scored 1.03 points per trip, which is a bit better than the Big 12 scoring average.
To be sure, this level of offense isn't exceptional, but it is certainly good enough to win when paired with the sort of defense that Texas thought it had a few months ago.
The Texas defense at this point is exactly average. Texas opponents have scored 1.01 points per possession in league games. While the Texas defense remains exceptional at protecting the rim (opponents shoot less than 40 percent from inside the three point arc against Texas, which leads the conference), and the Longhorns have the highest defensive rebounding percentage in the league, the perimeter defense has not been as good. During conference play, Longhorn opponents are connecting on 39 percent of their three point shots, and and turn the ball over in fewer than 14 percent of their possessions.
Let's ponder these numbers for a minute. While it is perfectly reasonable to construct an excellent defense that doesn't force many turnovers, you still need to get some. The Longhorns currently rank in the bottom six nationally in opponent turnover percentage.
Opponent three point shooting is slaughtering Texas right now, and while there is statistical evidence that suggests that a lot of "three point defense" is really just random, and that defenses may not exert much control over opponent three point shooting percentages, there is also a considerable amount of data that suggest that wide open shots go in more often that shots that are contested.
Right now, Texas has a problem giving up wide open looks from three point range. It is probably not by accident that Texas' best defensive performances in conference play have come against TCU, Texas Tech, and West Virginia -- three teams that lack the ability to punish a defense from long range. Against the rest of the league -- particularly against teams like Kansas, Iowa State, Baylor, and Oklahoma -- the Longhorns' tendency to give up clean looks from long range has killed an otherwise solid defense.
How opponents are getting open three point shots
Early in the conference season, the Texas Longhorns were deploying zone defense frequently. While some of Texas' troubles guarding perimeter shooters was a direct result of playing so much zone through the first half of the conference schedule, Rick Barnes has reverted back to his more usual man-to-man defense. The problem is that even with this switch, teams are still hurting Texas from the perimeter.
The Texas Longhorns play a style of defense designed to keep opponents out of the paint, and away from the rim. With such a congested interior, and so many long and athletic shot blockers on the floor, it makes sense that Texas leads the nation in opponent two point field goal percentage defense.
Playing defense this way puts a premium on closing out on shooters when opponents reverse the ball after driving into the defense. Early in the season, Texas' defensive closeouts were exceptional. I wrote about this subject two months ago when Texas' defense was able to manage to both pack the paint and limit clean looks from three. For a good example of how the Longhorn D was functioning at this time, watch the embedded clip below, taken from Texas' win against UConn. In it, notice how Javan Felix is in help defense in the lane in an open stance, and watch how fast he closes out on his man after the ball gets kicked out. The result ends up being a step back shot attempt from the free throw line -- possibly the worst shot in basketball.
That is just about perfect defense by Felix.
Lately, Texas' close outs on perimeter shooters have been anything but perfect. The example that I show below is taken from the Iowa State game. In this example, the Cyclones do not do anything tricky on offense, and still find an easy look from three off of a single pass. In the frame below, the action sets up with Georges Niang on the near side wing, isolated one on one against Cameron Ridley.
Let's take a moment to sort out how the Texas defense is aligned. Holmes is sinking into the gap to limit Niang's chances for dribble penetration. Holmes is in good position to both help, and still defend his man. On the weak side, Demarcus Holland is sinking into the paint, and Yancy is about a step away from the mid-line.
This is generally how Texas builds up its help side defense, and this alignment isn't really the problem. Yancy is a long way away from Dustin Hogue, but Hogue is currently several passes away from the ball. So on ball reversal along the perimeter, Yancy would have time to recover.
Niang drives the ball into the gap, and Jonathan Holmes collapses to help. The image below shows the result of this. In this photo, Holmes and Ridley appear to have contained Niang, and have kept him out of the paint. That is pretty good defense on a guy who is a tough match-up.
But with the threat mostly contained, Yancy is starting to drift. He has turned his head, and is in no position to close out on his man. Niang ended up kicking the ball into the corner for a wide open three by Hogue, who buried the shot.
I want to be clear about what I am getting at here. I have no problem with collapsing Yancy all the way in front of the basket as a weak side defender. In fact, I have praised the way that Rick Barnes constructs his help side defense many times over the last few seasons.
My issue is with the execution. Yancy isn't anticipating the pass, and has over-helped. His momentum is taking him in the wrong direction when the ball gets kicked out to his man, and has no chance to close out. This is not the crisp help and recover action that we saw in the video clip above.
Ball screen defense
I have commented in recent weeks that Texas' ball screen defense has been rather poor. In fact, a lot of the problems that Texas has had defending shooters on the perimeter has been because of breakdowns in ball screen defense that lead to drive and kick chances.
Here is one of many examples that I could have taken, selected from the Iowa State game. In this example, Iowa State's Jameel McKay is running out to set a ball screen on Demarcus Holland, with Cameron Ridley guarding him. McKay appears to be positioning himself to set a screen on Holland's left shoulder, allowing the dribbler to attack the middle of the floor.
But at the last second, McKay switches sides, and screens on Holland's right shoulder. This is a common tactic that you will see all over basketball (in fact, the Texas Longhorns often do this on their own ball screens). The pick and roll is such an important part of basketball, and there is a constant arms race between offenses and defenses to develop new tactics.
In the photo below, we see the problem this creates. Ridley anticipated that the screen would be set towards the middle of the floor, and has jumped out to defend on this side. He didn't react quickly enough, and is now out of position to help on the dribbler. This will require Texas' back line defenders to help, which will not end well.
After dribble penetration, Texas' helping defenders have converged on the ball, stopping it. This has left three Cyclones open beyond the arc. The ball kicks out to Hogue, who takes (and misses) a wide open shot.
That the shot missed should not influence how you evaluate this play. This is a defensive breakdown, plain and simple, and a well-executed play by the offense; every Cyclone did his job, except for the ball. The fact that it didn't immediately lead to points for the opposition doesn't change anything -- sometimes shots go in and sometimes they don't.
When poor ball screen defense and meandering help side defenders combine to give the opponent an easy three
In the first of the two preceding examples, the Longhorn defense was burned once by a help defender drifting too far from his man while not providing much actual help. In the second example the problem was bad ball screen defense.
When both of these events occur on the same play, the results are predictably bad.
In the next example, Iowa State is setting up a high ball screen with three shooters spacing around the perimeter. McKay is setting a ball screen, with Myles Turner defending him.
There are a lot of different ways to defend a ball screen, but two common ones are for the defender covering the screener (in this case, Turner) to step out and force the ball handler to dribble away from the basket (sometimes this tactic is called "showing"), before recovering to his man, or for Turner to play almost in a one man zone defense and look to contain both the ball handler and the roll man while the on-ball defender works his way back around the screen.
At the moment when the screen actually is set, Turner does something odd. In the image below, Turner appears to be half way in between these two defenses. Note the way his feet are pointing in the image. If he were stepping out hard into the path of the ball handler, this is the direction that they should point. But in this case he is playing back, and his feet are pointed in the wrong direction, which compromises his ability to defend.
As the offense attacks, Turner's initially poor footwork has put him a step behind, and he will be in trouble for the rest of the play. In the image below, we see the action a few frames later. There are a few things to point out. First, notice that Isaiah Taylor is not helping to cover the dribble penetration. He is guarding Matt Thomas. Presumably, after seeing Thomas bury a number of three point shots, the Texas defense has adjusted. It is clear that Taylor has been assigned to not leave Thomas, and he will stick with him for the remainder of the play. Meanwhile, Javan Felix starts to drift away from his man in help side positioning.
As the play continues, the dribble penetration approaches the rim. While the ball handler has a clear angle to the basket, he ends up deciding not to challenge Turner and Jonathan Holmes. Meanwhile, Felix continues in to no man's land, and completely loses track of Naz Long, one of the most dangerous perimeter shooters in the conference.
If Felix were doing something productive helping with the ball handler, this might make more sense. But he is not -- he is just getting lost. The ball kicked out to Naz Long, who hit a wide open three.
What should we take away from all of this?
In basketball, the difference between success and failure is frequently one or two small little details, seemingly insignificant, but critically important. Being a step to slow to react, mixing up footwork, or not properly reading a play can all kill a defensive possession. Early in the season, the Texas defense was getting many more of these details right than it is currently.
The three example possessions were all taken from the Iowa State game, but we could have found very similar issues in Texas' loss to Oklahoma last week. While it is probably not reasonable to expect to stop Iowa State, the Texas defense provided very little resistance, frequently breaking down on the perimeter.
Texas' upside for the rest of the season requires getting back to being outstanding on defensive end of the floor. The Longhorns have to get better defending the pick and roll, and have to get better closing out on shooters, dealing better with the conflict between helping and recovering that lies at the heart of man-to-man defense. They just have to be better at the basics of team defense.
If there is hope for Texas it is simply that we have seen the Longhorns play high level defense before. But time is running out on this season -- there isn't much time left to get these issues resolved.