For the second year in a row, Texas basketball is off to a rocky start. A season ago, the Longhorns stumbled out of the gate, struggling in early match-ups against major conference opponents. The 2016-2017 campaign is off to a similar start. November basketball just hasn’t been kind to Shaka Smart and the Texas Longhorns.
And for a second year in a row, it comes as something of a shock to the Texas basketball faithful. Every year comes with great excitement. This season, after landing a highly regarded recruiting class, the Longhorns were rewarded with a preseason ranking in the top 25. This struck me as a bit of irrational exuberance at the time, and my relative pessimism was supported by Smart himself, who informed the media in his first press conference of the year that he did not have a team that was good enough to be considered in the top 25. I have always appreciated the brutal honesty of basketball coaches.
At five games into the season, the Longhorns are 3-2, with three mostly easy wins against over-matched opponents from single bid leagues who all currently sit outside of the top 200 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, and two convincing losses against major conference opponents who appear likely fringe candidates for the NCAA tournament. Given all of this, it is reasonable to ask what sort of team do the Longhorns have so far.
What Is Going Well
It is hard this early in the season to project strengths and weaknesses of a team going forward; the evidence against trying this is pretty much every previous basketball season in history. But what we can do is look at what has gone well for the Longhorns so far, and what has not. From this, using some of our previous notions of this team we can revise our preseason expectations a bit based on this new information.
The strengths for the Longhorns have been a bit surprising, to be honest. Smart’s men have carried over some of the strengths of last season’s team, taking good care of the ball and playing mostly strong interior defense.
Both of these statements come with something of a caveat; Texas’ interior defense results are still beefed up from beating up on undersized opponents in the first three games of the season. That said, the Longhorns did a decent job against Colorado protecting the rim (excluding rebounding issues, which I will get to below), which is more encouraging when we consider that they did it without James Banks, the team’s best interior defender. Only Northwestern so far has cracked the code and shot better than 50 percent from two point range against the Longhorn defense. They accomplished this by manipulating match-ups in Smart’s switching defense, pulling Texas’ biggest players away from the basket, and leaving the rim unguarded.
Banks is worthy of some special recognition so far this season for his defensive work. Banks is a really good defensive player, which is something we anticipated in Smart Texas Basketball, but I think it is safe to say we didn’t think he would be quite this good this quickly. On the season, Banks has blocked 13 percent of opponent two point attempts when on the floor, a rate that is in the top 25 nationally per kenpom.com. By my numbers, in the four games where Banks has been available, opponents are shooting 33 percent on twos when Banks is in the game and 55 percent when he sits. This is a small sample size, so these numbers will surely move closer together as the season proceeds, but still this is a pretty large gap after four games. If we only look at the Northwestern game — the only game against a Power Five opponent that Banks has participated in — the Longhorns gave up 39 percent from two-point range when he played and 71 percent when he did not. The fact that Banks is doing this while still maintaining a manageable foul rate speaks highly to his future, which may contain a conference defensive player of the year award or two.
The second caveat for Texas is around turnovers. Through five games the Longhorns have only turned the ball over in 16 percent of their possessions — this is an outstanding result. But Texas has not yet faced a team that actually forces very many turnovers, and won’t until its December 2 match-up with Alabama. Texas’ young guards will be better tested once January comes, as many of the teams in the Big 12 have been forcing turnovers at a high rate so far this season.
What Isn’t Going Well
Aside from not turning the ball over very often, the Longhorns haven’t done much else to distinguish themselves on offense. As was anticipated prior to the season, the Longhorns are not getting many offensive rebounds, hauling in 27 percent of their misses so far this season — a rate that ranks outside of the top 200 nationally. This has occurred even with 60 percent of the games played so far coming against undersized opponents.
On the defensive boards, it is still a little hard to tell what Texas will look like. The Longhorns have faced two teams so far that present significant risks on the offensive glass. Shaka Smart’s team basically held serve on defensive rebounding against Northwestern (the Wildcats managed to pull down 32 percent of their misses), while it had problems against Colorado. The Buffaloes grabbed 46 percent of the possible offensive rebounds, a rate that ended up being a significant factor in determining the game outcome. That said, I don’t want to try to make too strong of a projection from this single game result, given that: (a) the Buffaloes are likely to finish the season as one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the country and (b) Texas was playing without James Banks.
This brings us to the final big problem that Texas has had, which has been shooting the ball from the perimeter. Coming into the season, I was pretty clearly of the view that for Texas to be good they needed to shoot the ball well from three-point range. The start to this season has not changed this view at all.
Texas’ Shooting Problems
Let’s start out with the basic facts. Through the first five games of the year the Longhorns have connected on 29 percent of their threes. This bad shooting has been a key factor in one loss so far, as the loss to Colorado basically came down to three things: Texas’ poor three point shooting, Colorado’s good three point shooting, and the Buffaloes’ dominance of the offensive boards.
When looking at basketball performance, we quite often find ourselves in the situation of trying to differentiate bad offense from bad shooting. Against Colorado, the Longhorns shot 18-40 on twos and 3-17 from beyond the arc. Those are bad numbers that when combined with mediocre offensive rebounding resulted in coach Smart’s team finishing the game with a lousy 0.86 points per possession.
So what is the source of this problem? There are two distinct issues that an offense can have when it comes to bad shooting outcomes. Poor outcomes can result from taking poor shots, or they can come from missing good ones. So what happened to the Longhorns against Colorado?
I went back and charted every shot attempt that Texas took in order to identify how many “quality” shots were hoisted by the Longhorns. I counted the following types of shots as quality: attempts taken within approximately six feet of the basket that weren’t desperate heaves and open catch-and-shoot threes where the shooter caught the ball cleanly and shot in rhythm. Any jump shots attempted off the dribble, from the mid-range, or taken by a player on the move do not qualify as quality looks. This is a somewhat subjective exercise, but to be clear there aren’t many boundary cases; we all know good shots and bad shots when we see them.
Against the Buffaloes, approximately 72 percent of Texas’ shots were quality looks. (I didn’t chart the game against Northwestern as I didn’t want to spend the additional two hours required to do it, and suspect the results for that game would be much worse.) The problem was that the Longhorns only connected on 41 percent of their “good” shots (and connected on 33 percent of the bad ones). This more or less meshed with my initial impression of the game; against Colorado the offense didn’t grind down as it did against Northwestern. Texas had good chances to score, but the ball just didn’t go down.
So What Happened Against Northwestern?
While there is a little bit to be optimistic about in the Colorado game, the Northwestern game was 100 percent ugly for Texas. I feel that the post game recap has already captured a lot of what went wrong on defense for Texas:
The Texas Longhorns switch nearly every ball screen, a fact that the Wildcats were well aware of. They ran ball screens to set up the match-up that they wanted, usually getting point guard Bryant McIntosh isolated on the perimeter with one of Texas’ big men. Then McIntosh would go to work, driving the big man off the dribble. Occasionally, the score didn’t come directly from McIntosh, but came from an offensive rebound after one of the Longhorns’ most important rebounders was taken out of position, or a kick-out pass from the Wildcat point guard to an open perimeter shooter.
So let’s instead talk about the offense. The Texas offense is focused heavily on getting the ball inside this season to Jarrett Allen and Shaquille Cleare, something that Northwestern, and to a lesser extent Colorado, made difficult to do.
It is hard to come up and directly enter the ball into the post on the strong side of the floor when everyone knows it is coming. Against both Northwestern and Colorado the Texas guards had a difficult time entering the ball in from the wing in this way, and when they did attempt a pass the result was frequently a defensive deflection. It is for this reason that ball reversal becomes such an important part of a post-oriented offense.
Few teams are better at post entry than the Kansas Jayhawks have been over the last decade. When watching Kansas play, you will notice how so much of the time post entry only happens after some sort of ball reversal. I have even written about this before, so let’s take a quick look at an excerpt explaining how Kansas works the ball inside off of a wing ball screen (a tactic highly relevant for Texas):
In the first example, we will show Perry Ellis getting deep post position after ball reversal coming off of a ball screen. We pick up with the ball on the wing, in the image below. A ball screen is being set on the wing, with two weak side offensive players spacing the floor on the opposite side. Ellis is in the post, being denied good position by his defender.
Ellis isn't fighting particularly hard to win better position, because he is preparing for ball reversal. After the screen is set, we get to the image below. Ellis is preparing to seal off his defender.
Advancing a few more frames, we get to the next image. The dribbler has drawn a helping defender, and is now preparing to make the ball-reversing pass to the wing.
Finally, the ball comes to the wing, and Ellis has his defender sealed off. Ellis probably could have sealed his man even deeper if he would have started sooner, but as things stand he has one foot in the paint and his man walled off. The result after ball entry will be a shot close to the basket.
Note that in that final image, there is a clean entry path for that pass to be made and Perry Ellis has his defender sealed deep in the paint. This all happened because while a ball screen was being set on the strong side, players on the weak side were preparing for it.
Now let’s take a look at Texas attempting to run the exact same action against Northwestern.
Rather than showing the entire sequence, I will start the action with what happens as Kendal Yancy (who is working a ball screen set by a now-rolling Jarrett Allen) has penetrated into the defense and drawn a helping defender. Meanwhile, Cleare is working to seal his man off in the post while Roach is preparing to receive the pass.
Little details are so important; success and failure of a particular action on offense frequently come down to small details such as where on the floor particular players are standing. Cleare is up a few feet higher than ideal in this situation, although this only one of the things that kills the play. The bigger problem is where Roach is located.
Kerwin Roach would be better off a few feet closer to the sideline as it would force his defender have to cover more ground (as was the case in the Kansas example), leaving the passing lane open for a longer period of time. Meanwhile, credit is due to the Northwestern defense, which contained the initial ball screen and left the helping defender at least a step closer to Kerwin Roach than was the case in the prior Kansas example. The combination of Roach being a step or two too close and the defender in better position by a step is enough to make the difference between a clean passing lane and a contested one.
On to the next photo, after ball reversal.
Note that in this photo, Cleare doesn’t have great position, as the Northwestern defender has done a nice job of sliding him up the paint. Had he started deeper, he probably would be in better position. But Roach still wouldn’t have a clean look at him, as his defender has recovered and is now ready to challenge an entry pass.
Making matters worse, Eric Davis’ defender is also pinching into the gap to make the entry pass more difficult. While it is hard to tell from the television, Roach doesn’t have a clean path to throw a pass, and any entry pass would come with high risk. So even if Roach had a better passing angle, this still might have been a difficult pass to make.
Parsing the game in microscopic detail allows us to second guess things that happen rather quickly, which isn’t exactly fair. But doing this, Roach’s best move at this point would probably be to dribble-penetrate to his right and force Davis’ defender to make a choice. This would likely have resulted in a clean shot for Davis or the chance for Davis to attack a closing defender off the dribble. Instead, after some messing around the ball eventually gets jammed inside to an out-of-position Cleare and the result of the play is a turnover.
For Texas fans, there is still good news. The college basketball season is long, and with only five games in there is a lot of time for the Longhorns to improve. We only have to look at last season to know that this is possible. But some improvement will be required, or the long season will become a curse rather than a blessing.