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Some disjointed thoughts about Texas basketball and the start of Big 12 play

Thinking coherently about this team isn't easy.

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns are not off to a great start. Texas is 1-2 in Big 12 play so far, and a rough two week stretch that includes contests against Iowa State, West Virginia, and Kansas awaits.

While watching Texas' recent TCU loss, there were a few thoughts that came to mind that seemed worth exploring. So feel free to listen in on my inner monologue about Texas hoops.

Charting the full court press

Texas spent most of the TCU game (except for a period of time midway through the second half) setting up full court pressure on the Horned Frogs on backcourt inbounds passes. I went back and watched the game, attempting to chart what happened each time the Longhorns pressed. (I say "attempted," because my dogs were working hard to draw some of my attention from this project, so it is possible that I missed a possession or two.)

I ended up charting a total of 30 sequences where Texas pressed. During this time, the Longhorns mixed several different presses; I made no effort to identify which sort of press Texas was in.

In 16 of these sequences, the press did little to shape the ultimate outcome of the possession. TCU brought the ball up the floor successfully, and then ran a some sort of half court set.

In the other 14 sequences, the press immediately delivered an outcome.

In six sequences, the outcome was a live ball turnover. That is good for the defense -- it is a shame that Texas wasn't particularly good converting on live ball turnovers, registering a 40 percent effective field goal percentage on shots within 10 seconds of a live ball takeaway (Texas' season average eFG% in these situations is 56 percent). But at least from the standpoint of evaluating the press, these were successful possessions for Texas.

In the other eight pressing sequences that I tracked, TCU produced high quality scoring chances directly off of the press. The Horned Frogs ended up with four shots very close to the basket, two open catch and shoot three point attempts, and drew two shooting fouls.

So if we want to weight the costs and benefits for the press from Texas, we have to understand if six live ball turnovers are worth a trade of eight high quality shots. The answer is that they probably are; I will take you through a very approximate accounting of this over the next several paragraphs.

Each turnover deprives the opponent of the remainder of a possession. And live ball turnovers frequently turn into high quality scoring chances. The combination of all of this is worth probably six or eight points total, when we consider the defensive and offensive benefits of live ball turnovers.

On the other side of the ledger are those good shots that Texas gave up. If those eight good shots were replaced by eight poor ones, that difference is worth around a half a point each (give or take, this is all very rough to avoid dealing with some dreadfully complicated stuff). It is also possible that in some of these possessions, there would be a turnover forced if there hadn't been a quick scoring chance for the offense. If we assume a typical turnover rate, one or two of these possessions would have likely resulted in a turnover.

So if we assume those good shots come at the expense of six poor ones and two turnovers (a reasonable boundary case, because TCU would likely get some good shots out of its half court possessions), the cost of these possessions would be about five points to the defense. In a more likely scenario, this would cost the pressing team fewer than five points.

So by my really rough math, the benefit of the Texas press would have been expected to net between one and four points for the Longhorns, depending on how circumstances played out. So it worked.

But the truth is, in a game where you can't score, Texas would have liked the press to work better than that.

What can we say at this point about the Prince Ibeh/Shaquille Cleare platoon?

Here are a few things that I think we can say about Shaq Cleare at this point.

  • Shaq Cleare can do some good things on offense. He is strong, has really good footwork in the low post, and makes free throws. He is also a decent passer. He can help the Texas offense, although he won't have the impact that Cameron Ridley had.
  • Shaq Cleare does not defend the rim particularly well. He has blocked only one shot this season, which is kind of amazing when you think of it. Cleare has been on the floor for 242 defensive possessions where he was not paired with either Prince Ibeh or Cameron Ridley, and in those 242 possessions opponents have made 49 percent of their twos.

Cleare and Ibeh have split time at the center position over the last two games. In Texas' midweek win over Kansas State, Ibeh played 27 minutes while Cleare played 13. In the Saturday loss to the Horned Frogs, Cleare played 23 minutes while Ibeh logged 17. Ibeh will play as many minutes as fouls and fatigue will allow from this point forward, which is likely going to average to around 20 minutes per game.

It is remarkable how little overlap there is between what Ibeh does well and what Cleare does well. Both are reasonably good on the glass, but beyond that just about anything that Ibeh does well is a struggle for Cleare. And the aspects of Cleare's game that are strengths are weaknesses for his counterpart. If you could magically transfer Cleare's footwork, passing, free throw shooting, and back to the basket game into Prince Ibeh, the result would a player who might challenge for an all-conference nomination, if he could stay on the floor long enough.

But the thing is, you cannot just do a magic trick like that. And it is not simply a matter of teaching Ibeh the moves and footwork of Cleare, which is probably just as much a physical gift as is Ibeh's reach and leaping ability. Cleare's smooth footwork is something that you just cannot teach to anyone. Some people can learn to do it, and some people can't.

And so Shaka Smart is left with this very strange situation. His starting center is a shot blocking machine who's primary offensive contribution will be the occasional offensive rebound or dunk on a lob pass by a teammate, and who will for periods of time nearly shut down an opposing offense. And his backup is a player who doesn't block shots and doesn't have much of a defensive impact, but who can score a little bit when you give him the ball. And each game Smart is going to get a random and unknown number of minutes from each of these two players, due to how frequently they foul.

Will anyone for Texas ever make another shot?

Shooting a basketball is an ugly and messy business. And right now for Shaka Smart's team, it is particularly ugly and unusually messy. Through the first three games of the Big 12 season, the Longhorns have gone 18-72 from three point range, which works out to 25 percent. And half of those made threes came in the first game of the conference season. Shooting like this, while additionally not getting many second chance looks on the offensive glass, makes it very hard to win.

But shooting is a fickle thing. If shooting three pointers were just a random binomial process (and to be clear, it is not), ugly streaks would still happen. In this simple binomial world, some percentage of shots would go in, and some percentage of shots would miss. It would be like a game where we roll a single die 25 times, and each time the die registers five or six, we score. We would have games where we score a lot, and games where we wouldn't score very much at all.

Now, shooting threes in a live basketball game isn't a simple binomial process. Some threes are easier than others; we know for example that contested shots, or shots taken off the dribble, are somewhat harder to make that uncontested catch and shoot attempts. And we know that the people taking these shots are real people with good days and bad days -- not mindless gaming implements.

That said, shooting is still a lot like a random binomial process. And like a random binomial process, just because you haven't made a shot for a while doesn't mean the next five aren't going in. Long range shooting has been limiting Texas' offensive output lately, but there will be games where the shots fall and all will seem right again.


Any success or any failure ultimately comes from an accumulation of a lot of little things. There are a lot of different factors coming together right now that are making things hard for the Texas Longhorns. Some are due to circumstance; Cameron Ridley's injury and the fact that many Big 12 teams are at the peaks of their talent cycles this season fall into this category. Others, like Texas' poor shooting as of late, are just perhaps an accumulation of bad bounces that as we go forward won't always be bad. And others, like the performance of Texas' pressure defense, are things that are at least somewhat controllable, if hard and slow to improve.

The conference season has just started, and has nearly two months to go. As happened through the non conference season, it will surely have its share of twists and turns. The season isn't over yet.