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Texas Longhorns Basketball, Inside the Numbers: The Art of Being Good at Being Boring

Dull, dull things are behind the success of the Texas Longhorns since the start of 2016.

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

The Texas Longhorns are currently 7-4 in the Big 12, and 8-4 since the start of the new year, which puts them near the top of the Big 12 race and on track for an NCAA tournament invitation. Shaka Smart's team has come a long way since its early-season troubles, and has recovered nicely from the critical injury to center Cameron Ridley that had me worried.

It has been a while since I have taken a look at what is going well (and not well) for the Texas Longhorns. Since the start of the conference season marks a time when a team's level of competition stabilizes, and since we are now a good portion of the way through the conference season, I wanted to focus specifically on the Longhorn's strengths and weaknesses in games played since the first of the year.

How We Do This

It has been a a year or so since I described some of the details behind my calculations, so let's do it again. For those who don't like math, avert your eyes.

Ack, what the f--- is that?

That is an equation that relates points scored per basketball possession to some basic statistics.

Turnover percentage (TO%), which is the percentage of a team's possessions that end with a turnover.

Effective field goal percentage (eFG%), which is like field goal percentage, but weighs three-point attempts more heavily, because they result in a greater number of points. eFG% can further be broken out into two-point field goal percentage (2FG%), three-point field goal percentage (3FG%), and the fraction of total shots taken from beyond the arc (3FGA/FGA).

Free-throw percentage (FT%), which is the percentage of free throws that a team makes, and you surely already know about.

Free=throw rate (FTR), which is just the ratio of free-throw attempts to field-goal attempts.

Field-goal percentage (FG%), which is the boring old field-goal percentage that everyone knows.

Offensive rebounding percentage (ORB%), which is the percentage of total possible rebounds grabbed by the offense.

You can read more about where this comes from here, and by following the links in that article to the derivation, which I literally first worked out while staying at a Holiday Inn Express.

Using this equation, by knowing just seven things (2FG%, 3FG%, 3FGA/FGA, TO%, ORB%, and FT%, and FTR) you can typically calculate a team's points per possession total for either offense or defense accurately to within a few points per hundred possessions.

This can be useful for a number of things, but what I will use it for here is to help show how Texas' performance in each of these seven categories on both ends of the floor affects the total performance of the Longhorn offense and defense.

So here is what I do. I start off by imagining a "typical" college basketball team with typical results in each of these categories. This team scores and allows about 1.04 points per possession. I then compare the Texas offense and the Texas defense to this typical team, calculating how much the difference in each statistical category helps or hurts the Horns in terms of points per possession.

The way that I like to depict the results of these calculations is with a waterfall chart, which combines all the excitement I have described above with the thrill of following along with a corporate earnings call.

In the waterfall chart, we start off on the far left with a typical team that scores and allows 1.04 points per possession. Then we move through each category showing how it raises or lowers the points per possession total of Texas when compared with this "typical" squad. When we add and subtract all of these things, eventually we should get to Texas' point per possession total, but we don't quite make it there, because of small differences between the equation and reality that compound and require a correction. In the waterfall, this is the "correction" that I show, which bridges the gap between calculation and the team reality, which sits at the far right.

But enough math; let's talk hoops.

The Texas Offense

The waterfall chart for the Texas offense since the start of conference play is shown below. The green bars are things that increase Texas' offensive efficiency, and the red bars are the things that reduce it.

A couple things really stand out here. First off, the Texas offense as a whole is not exactly setting the world on fire. Shaka Smart's team has the sixth-best offense in the Big 12, which means that it is just okay. Scoring at 1.03 points per possession isn't a disaster, but it isn't much to get excited about either.

The strengths and weaknesses of the Texas offense show up clearly in the graph. The Longhorn offense gets a big boost from not turning the ball over. The 14-percent turnover rate the Horns have enjoyed since January 1 is the biggest single positive contributor for the Shaka Smart's team on either end of the floor.

Not turning the ball over is really boring, and also really important. While a team that turns the ball over a lot tends to look terrible, a team that avoids turnovers doesn't necessarily look impressive. This is primarily because you don't really think about turnovers when they aren't happening.

But turnovers matter -- it is hard to be good on offense when you make a lot of them, and avoiding them is worth a lot.

One way to make this more tangible is to do something I often do when watching a game. We all have watched games where a team seems to be hanging around in a game and it is hard to tell why. A lot of times this happens because the team in question isn't turning the ball over. The next time it happens when you are watching a game, check out the turnover total, as it may very well explain a lot.

While the Longhorns' single greatest strength is on offense right now, its single greatest weakness is as well -- Texas doesn't get many offensive rebounds. The Longhorns are last in the Big 12 in offensive rebounding percentage, which is costing the team points.

The Isaiah Taylor Effect

It will come as no surprise that the Longhorn offense is most careful with the ball when junior guard Isaiah Taylor plays. Taylor's personal turnover rate is absurdly low, and as a team the Longhorns only have turned the ball over in 13 percent of their possessions since January 1 while Taylor is in the game.

Compare that with the case when Taylor sits. So far, the difference in turnover percentage between when the Texas lead guard is in the game and out of the game is worth about eight points per 100 possessions all by itself. And when Taylor is paired with Javan Felix or Kendal Yancy, the turnover percentage dips slightly lower, as these three players (along with Connor Lammert) have essentially sworn off turning the ball over in 2016.

The Texas Defense

While Shaka Smart's offense has been middle of the pack in the Big 12, his defense has been rather strong. The Longhorn D is one of two teams that through Monday's games were holding Big 12 opponents to under a point per possession. (In the waterfall charts, the Vanderbilt game is also included, but including it or removing it from the analysis does little to change the story.)

The waterfall chart below gives us a good feel for what makes the Texas defense so good.

There is an important lesson to be learned in that chart. You can be good by mostly being average, and then excelling in one important area. For Texas, that area is in defense from two-point range. Since January 1, Longhorn opponents are averaging under 45 percent from inside the three-point line, which makes the Texas defense about four points per possession better than a typical team.

While there are a lot of players contributing to Texas' defensive success, one player means more than anyone else.

The Prince Ibeh Effect

Texas center Prince Ibeh has been playing very well lately, as I am sure you have heard. Ibeh is a force on defense -- he always has been -- and since Cameron Ridley broke his foot has figured out how to play while fouling at a normal rate. This has enabled Ibeh to play a lot for Texas, which is very important on defense, and previously seemed impossible for the foul-prone big man.

Ibeh's mere presence on the floor distorts the game in Texas' favor. During conference games Ibeh has blocked  approximately 11 percent of opponent twos. Opponents since the start of the new year have shot 43 percent on two-point jump shots when the Texas big man in on the floor, and 47 percent from two when he sits. That is a difference worth about four points per 100 possessions.

Reducing the Weaknesses

We don't need math or graphs to convince someone that Prince Ibeh and Isaiah Taylor are really important to Shaka Smart's team. But they do help show why they are important, and give us a sense of just how important they are.

While Ibeh and Taylor are helping Texas excel in a couple of areas (ball security and interior defense) just as important is the fact that the Longhorns have shored up some of the problems areas that were causing pain early in the season. In a previous iteration of this analysis, I suggested that shooting inside the arc, shooting from the free-throw line, defensive rebounding, and opponent made threes were the source of most of Texas' trouble.

Since the start of the conference season, while these four things mostly haven't become strengths for Texas, they aren't really hurting all that much. Over this time, Texas has shot a reasonable 50 percent from two-point range, is a respectable 68 percent from the free throw line, is allowing opponents a 30-percent offensive rebounding rate, and is seeing 32 percent of opponent threes drop. All in all, these are perfectly average things -- and turning weaknesses into average traits is a perfectly good way to improve.

All in all, through their recent success, the Longhorns aren't doing much of anything special. But frequently in basketball being good at a couple of really boring things like ball security and interior defense, and being acceptable at everything else, is good enough. You can win a lot of games without being special.