In the early spring of 2008, the Texas basketball program was one of the very best in college basketball. During the previous seven seasons, the Longhorns had been to a Final Four, three regional finals, five Sweet 16s, recorded a 172-69 record, and had two national players of the year.
Rick Barnes' program was on a roll, showing no sign of slowing down. Two seasons later, Texas would achieve its first ever number one ranking in the Associated Press poll. And a season after that, the Horns would reach as high as number three in the AP rankings with a team that saw three players selected in the first round of the NBA draft.
But despite these brief positive indications, the 2008 season in retrospect was a turning point in the history of Longhorn Basketball. The Texas basketball program would never again reach the level it did that season. The program began a gradual decline, interrupted by the first half of the 2009-2010 season and a recovery in 2010-2011, ultimately hitting the bottom in the 2012-2013 season.
So what happened? Where did things go wrong? How does a program go from a run of success like what occurred from 2002-2008 -- a time period where Texas basketball ranked as one of the ten best programs in the nation -- to being simply just another basketball program.
I have been thinking about this topic a lot lately. While there is no single factor that explains everything, my thesis is remarkably simple. The Texas Longhorns suddenly found themselves with very few players who could put the ball in the hole.
Texas' exceptional offense from 2002 to 2008
Before we dive into the difficulties of the last seven seasons, it is important to understand the success that preceded them. Because without this understanding, we lack the context to really explain what happened, and what went wrong.
From the 2001-2002 season through 2008 -- years that clearly are the high point in Texas basketball history -- Rick Barnes' teams routinely featured one of the best offenses in the nation. The table below lists how the Longhorn offense ranked nationally during these seasons, using Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive rating.
|Season||Kenpom.com Offensive Ranking||3Pt FG%||TO%||Off Reb%|
During these years, I would argue that Texas' offensive success was largely attributable to three things: strong perimeter shooting, overwhelming rebounding, and careful stewardship of the basketball. To better illustrate these three keys year by year, the table above also lists Texas three point shooting percentage, turnover percentage, and offensive rebounding percentage each season. The median Texas offense during this time period shot 37 percent from beyond the arc, turned the ball over in 18 percent of its possessions, and rebounded 41 percent of its own missed shots. These three numbers range from very good to outstanding.
This is a somewhat unusual model for a top offense. In only one season (2005-2006) was Texas' FG% inside the arc greater than 50 percent, which is frequently a benchmark hit by top rated college offenses. For example, in the 2014-2015 season only 2 of the top 20 offenses in the Pomeroy ratings had a two point shooting percentage less than 50 percent (Wichita State and Baylor).
But during the glory days of Texas basketball, the offense was able to regularly sustain this level of success without shooting particularly well from inside the arc.
When the shots stop falling
After the Texas' 2008 run to the regional finals of the NCAA tournament, Texas' star point guard D.J. Augustin left for the NBA. The Texas offense would never again be as strong.
What happened in those following seven seasons? The table below shows the same statistical results as the previous table from the 2008-2009 season through the 2014-2015 season. During this time period, the Texas offense would never finish better than 20th nationally, whereas during the previous seven seasons, it had only finished worse than 20th once.
|Season||Kenpom.com Offensive Ranking||3Pt FG%||TO%||Off Reb%|
During this time period, Texas basketball mostly continued to exhibit some of the same traits of Rick Barnes' best offenses. In most (though not all) seasons, the Longhorns took care of the basketball, maintaining similar turnover rates to the previous era. Additionally, although offensive rebounding rates were somewhat lower, they were still very good over this period.
The biggest and most obvious difference between Texas basketball before and after 2008 was in perimeter shooting percentages. During the glory days of Longhorn hoops, Texas' perimeter shooting was excellent. During the later years of Rick Barnes' time in Austin, three point shooting ranged between average and poor.
It is not an accident that Texas' two best offenses during the last seven seasons came during years where three point shooting percentages were better, and by far the worst offense during this time came in a season where three point shooting percentage was at its lowest point.
I would like to point out that struggling to score while having a hard time from beyond the arc is not a characteristic that is unique to Texas basketball under Rick Barnes. In fact, it is rather common; shooting is among the most basic and important skills in the game of basketball, so no one should be surprised when teams that don't shoot very well have trouble scoring. It is possible to run an effective and efficient offense with mediocre perimeter shooting, but the game gets so much easier when you can hit a few threes.
What was the source of the drop off in shooting?
To better understand why Texas followed up a seven year period where it shot the ball well from outside with a seven year period where it did not, it is instructive to look a the team season by season in greater detail.
When the shots were falling.
In the seasons where the Texas offense was at its best, Longhorn rosters generally featured between three and six players who were successful three point shooters.
2001-2002: The four Longhorns with the most three point attempts each shot 35 percent or better from long range.
2002-2003: The top three players in three point attempts all shot the ball at 36 percent or better from beyond the arc.
2003-2004: The six players with the most three point attempts all shot at 35 percent or better from three.
2004-2005: Texas five most prolific three point shooters all hit at a rate of 36 percent or better.
2005-2006: The three players who shot the most three pointers on the team hit at a rate of 38 percent or better.
2006-2007: Texas' four leading three point shooters all made 40 percent or better from beyond the arc. Texas' offense with Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin was absolutely devastating. Too bad it was paired with by far the worst defense of Rick Barnes' time at Texas.
2007-2008: The top four three point shooters each hit at least 38 percent from long range.
When the shooting trouble started.
I view the three seasons following the 2008 Elite Eight run as transition years. The Longhorn offense during this time period was not as good as during the previous seven year run, but still was decent. Texas' perimeter shooting results track with this trend.
You will notice as you look season by season that in the best year, Texas' three main perimeter shooters all managed a high three point percentage, whereas in Texas' worst shooting season only one Longhorn shot the ball with high efficiency.
2008-2009: A.J. Abrams connected on 40 percent of his threes. Damion James hit just under 33 percent. No one else shot better than 30 percent from beyond the arc. Abrams shooting wasn't enough to elevate Texas' perimeter shooting to a level better than somewhat below average.
2009-2010: All in all, not a terrible year. Texas' most prolific shooter (Jordan Hamilton) hit 37 percent from long range. J'Covan Brown, who has the second most three point attempts, had a difficult season, hitting 29 percent. Texas had three other guys hit 37 percent or better.
2010-2011: This was a nice bounce back year for Texas' perimeter shooting, along with the program as a whole. Texas' three most prolific outside shooters hit 38 percent or better from long range.
When shooting problems became a permanent condition.
For the last four seasons of Rick Barnes' time in Austin, his team did not shoot the ball very well from long distance.
2011-2012: Brown led the team in three point attempts and hit 37 percent. The next four most frequent three point shooters all shot below 33 percent.
2012-2013: In this disaster of a season, Julien Lewis led the team in three point attempts and hit 35 percent of his shots from long range. Ioannis Papapetrou was third on the team in long range attempts, and shot a solid 36 percent. Everyone else on the team shot below 30 percent from distance.
2013-2014: Javan Felix led the team in three point attempts, making 34 percent of his threes. Martez Walker and Connor Lammert both shot the ball reasonably well, but didn't shoot as often, while two of Texas' three most frequent chuckers finished the season at 33 percent or less.
2015: Felix shot more threes than anyone, and hit 39 percent of what he took, while no one else in the top five in three point attempts shot better than 33 percent. Demarcus Holland hit 46 percent of his threes, but didn't take very many of them.
The lesson in all of this is not very surprising; in order to shoot the ball well as a team, you need several players who are hitting shots from long range. The history during Rick Barnes' time at Texas was that he needed at least three guys who make threes at a decent percentage to make his offense go.
This is a consequence of simple math. If your top 3 to 5 players in terms of number of three point attempts are all connecting on 35 percent or more of their shots, the chances are good that your team three point shooting percentage will be a strength. But if you only have one or two really good perimeter shooters, it will be hard for these players to get off enough shots to make up for poor shooting by everyone else.
Where did all the shooters go?
So what changed after 2008, and where did all of the perimeter shooting go?
To help answer this question, I generated two lists. The first list contains 16 players who projected as strong outside shooters when they arrived at Texas that first started playing at Texas between 2000 and 2008. The second list contains 15 players who would have been viewed similarly that started at Texas during or after the fall of 2009.
To compile these lists, I have tried to be as complete as possible, and had to make a few judgement calls. For example, I left non-perimeter shooting point guards like T.J. Ford, Isaiah Taylor, and Myck Kabongo off the lists -- perhaps I should have included them. And then there is Brad Buckman, who really didn't start taking a lot of threes until his junior season, and maybe shouldn't be considered here. Additionally, I classified Kendal Yancy as a "shooter" and have assumed he will spend four full seasons at Texas, something that is not certain.
But with or without these few cases, the conclusions don't really change. Shooters who started their Texas careers between 2000 and 2008 have averaged 3.3 seasons at Texas. Shooters who started during or after the fall of 2009 averaged 2.2 seasons at Texas. That is a big difference. A team that gets two seasons per player has to recruit three players to cover the minutes of two players on a team that averages three seasons per player.
Top shooters recruited (2000-8): Brandon Mouton (4 seasons), Royal Ivey (4), Brian Boddicker (4), Sydmill Harris (4), Kenton Paulino (4), Kenny Taylor (2), Daniel Gibson (2), Brad Buckman (4), A.J. Abrams (4), J.D. Lewis (3), Kevin Durant (1), D.J. Augustin (2), Justin Mason (4), Damion James (4), Connor Atchley (4), Varez Ward (2) -- Average 3.3 seasons per player.
Best perimeter shooters recruited since 2009: Jai Lucas (2), J'Covan Brown (3), Avery Bradley (1), Jordan Hamilton (2), Cory Joseph (1), Julien Lewis (2), Sheldon McClellan (2), Sterling Gibbs (1), Jonathan Holmes (4), Ioannis Papapetrou (1), Javan Felix (4), Martez Walker (1), Damarcus Croaker (1.5), Kendal Yancy (4?), Connor Lammert (4) -- Average 2.20 seasons per player.
Looking at these lists, one thing becomes clear. Attrition, either via early entry into professional basketball, or transferring to other programs, became a major problem for Texas starting with the group of freshman who showed up on campus during the fall of 2009. And this attrition specifically robbed Texas of the perimeter shooters needed to make its offense function at a high level.
Attrition became a particularly grave problem for the highly regarded classes of 2009, 2010, and 2011. Let's look at each of these classes below
2009: The number three ranked class according to 247 Sports, this group included three perimeter players. Avery Bradley only stayed in college for a single season, while Jordan Hamilton left for the NBA after his sophomore year. J'Covan Brown stayed at Texas for three years, before pursuing a professional basketball career. In total, this group accounted for a total of 6 player seasons out of a possible maximum of 12.
2010: 247 Sports' 17th rated freshman class, but the rating was only this low because this class only consisted of two players. Recruiting rankings tend to weigh quantity of players pretty heavily. In this case both of Texas' 2010 freshman were five star high school All-Americans. Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph both spent only a single year on campus. While Thompson didn't do much for Texas' perimeter shooting, he is currently reminding everyone just how good he is during the NBA finals. Joseph was billed as a marksmen coming out of high school, and he shot the ball well in Austin. This group gave Texas 2 player seasons out of a possible 8.
2011: 247 Sports gave this grouping the sixth highest ranking in D-I. Myck Kabongo, Sheldon McClellan, Julien Lewis, Jonathan Holmes, Jaylen Bond, and Sterling Gibbs gave Texas a huge six man class, with four perimeter players and inside-outside big man Jonathan Holmes. This exceptionally talented class turned out to be a disaster; after two seasons, only Jonathan Holmes would remain at Texas. Thus, the Longhorns got 13 player seasons out of a possible 24, while transfers deprived Texas of two strong perimeter shooters (Lewis and McClellan) and one elite shooter (Gibbs).
Three consecutive recruiting classes were vaporized by attrition -- only Holmes and Brown were on campus for more than two years. Some of this was to be expected. Four of the five players who started their college careers in 2009 and 2010 were rated as five star prospects coming out of high school. The fact that Bradley, Thompson, and Joseph left for the NBA after their freshman seasons and Hamilton went pro as a sophomore was a reasonable thing to anticipate. Simply put, players of this caliber do not usually stay in college very long.
But not every player taken was a five star recruit headed to the NBA. The 2011 class looked like a group with one high level star and a number of program players. When this class washed out, it would damage Rick Barnes' program, and the program would never recover.
All in all, Texas just lost too many players, many of whom were the guys Rick Barnes needed to put points up. It is exceptionally hard to out-recruit this level of attrition. Only a tiny fraction of the very best programs in college basketball, schools like Kentucky and Duke, seem to be able to successfully out-recruit this sort of attrition problem. Kentucky and Duke are recruiting from a deeper pool of talent than virtually everyone else in the country; for most other schools this isn't sustainable.
Basketball is hard when you can't make shots
Reducing seven seasons of games to such a simple statement seems like an oversimplification -- and to be clear it is an oversimplification -- yet shooting the ball remains the most essential skill in basketball. For Rick Barnes' final seven seasons at Texas, shooting is something that the Longhorns just didn't do very well. It turned offense into a struggle, and made everything difficult.
Ultimately Rick Barnes couldn't out-recruit and out-coach his shooting and attrition problems. He could cover these problems up at times, but they wouldn't go away.