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Texas Basketball, Inside the Numbers: Let’s Talk About Shooting

Texas’ three-point shooting woes hint at deeper problems with the offense.

NCAA Basketball: Texas at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

With the first Big 12 game in the books, the Texas Longhorns basketball team looks to be headed for a rough conference season. Texas is 0-1 and struggling to score, managing to put up less than one point per possession in seven out of 13 games so far (six of these games were losses), while averaging just slightly above the one point per possession threshold over the season as a whole.

While the Texas offense is struggling with several things, the number one problem problem for the Texas Longhorns this season is shooting from the perimeter. So far this season, Shaka Smart’s team has converted on 29 percent of its chances from three-point range, which ranks in the bottom 20 nationally.

When thinking back about predictions for this incoming Texas basketball season, there is nothing that I got more wrong than what I thought about the Longhorn’s perimeter shooting. Because in Smart Texas Basketball, I wrote that three-point shooting had the potential to become a team strength. (Since I wrote the offense chapter, I won’t blame this on my coauthor.)

The Longhorns shot 34 percent from three-point range last season, which ranked 202 out of 351 Division I programs. And a 33 percent mark from three-point range during conference play played a major role in what was a fairly anemic offense. With three-point shooting we at least have some reasonable hope for improvement. Hell, we might actually be optimistic. Here is why.

Eric Davis, who as a freshman connected on 38 percent of his 110 threes is returning. Tevin Mack, who was inconsistent during his freshman season but is by all accounts a very good three-point shooter is back. While there are other parts of his game that are even better, Kerwin Roach has a decent perimeter shot. Kendal Yancy hasn’t shot all that often but in his three seasons at Texas has hit 35 percent of his threes.

The incoming players have the potential to be even better. Mareik Isom is a career 37 percent three-point shooter and that shooting percentage is only as low as it is because he shot 14-60 from three as a freshman. Over his last two years he is a combined 41 percent from three-point range and has been the top three point shooter in the Sun Belt Conference in each of the last two seasons. He absolutely can shoot the hell out of the basketball. Additionally, incoming freshmen guards Andrew Jones and Jacob Young can both shoot. It is not unreasonable to suspect that three-point shooting will improve enough that it becomes a team strength next season. If it doesn’t, the Texas offense is going to have loads of trouble.

It turns out that I at least got the last sentence of that excerpt right.

Why can’t these guys shoot?

The Longhorns poor shooting results is in principle a function of several factors. Sometimes poor shooting is the result of shot quality, and sometimes it just is due to guys missing good shots. It would be instructive to understand this breakdown for Texas.

It would be instructive, but it is a lot of work to go back and watch every single three-point shot that the Longhorns have attempted this season. Instead, I decided to go back and chart three-point shots taken in Texas’ loss to Kansas State. I was able to watch all but one of them on WatchESPN; for some reason a first half miss by Eric Davis wasn’t available in the video.

It is possible to classify shots in various ways in order to get at different characteristics of shot quality. In the end, I settled on a handful of non-subjective ways to classify Texas’ perimeter attempts, all of which are widely expected to impact shot quality. In order to classify what sort of shots the Longhorns are attempting, I answered the following question about each shot:

  1. Is the shooter stationary or moving when he catches the ball? In principle, a stationary shot by a player with his feet set up should be easier than a shot attempted by a shooter on the move.
  2. Does the nearest defender to the shooter have to close out to attempt to contest the shot? If the defender has to move to contest the shot, the shooter will have a better chance to look at the basket, and is less likely to be affected by the defender.

For the cataloged shot attempts, the Texas Longhorns were 1-6 from three point range when the shooter was moving prior to receiving the ball, and 4-11 when the shooter was stationary. When a defender didn’t have to close out to cover the shooter, Shaka Smart’s squad was 0-4, and it was 5-13 when a close out was needed. For cases where the shooter was stationary and attempting a shot against a closing defender the Longhorns were 4-9.

As a word of warning, we don’t want to go crazy over-interpreting these results, as they are a small selection of shots coming from a single game. That said, the results are at least sensible; Texas shot for a higher percentage when the degree of difficulty involved in the shot was lower.

9-17 threes were taken by a stationary shooter against a closing defender, meaning a little more than half of the Longhorn attempts from three fell into the easiest classification here. Overall, four of Texas’ five made threes came off of these situations, with the one remaining made three coming when Andrew Jones dribbled around a high ball screen and found himself with an open three in the final minute of the game.

The other way of looking at things was that Texas was 1-8 when shooting conditions were less than ideal. Roughly half of Texas’ threes were taken with a greater degree of difficulty.

One of the challenges with numbers like these is the lack of comparative data to help put them into context. Lacking this information, we have to be a bit more careful. With this caveat, I think it is safe to say that if something like one out of every two shots attempted by Texas from three point range require the shooter to deal with either a very near defender or make a shot while on the move, it is hard to imagine the results working out better than this.

Based on this, I have a working hypothesis that a big part of the problem with Texas’ shooting this season is a lack of high quality shot attempts. Because after all, based on their previous history we have a pretty good idea that struggling shooters like Davis and Young are actually pretty good at shooting the ball.

Working inside out

It doesn’t seem controversial to state that a Texas offense that creates more good looks for perimeter shooters will be more successful. It is perhaps instructive to consider the circumstances where these sorts of shots arise.

Against Kansas State, six of Texas’ nine high quality looks from three came in circumstances where the ball was initially penetrated into the interior, either through a low post entry or dribble penetration, and then passed to the perimeter. The other three came directly after a ball screen in cases where the ball didn’t penetrate off of the initial screen, but Texas got a decent shot anyway.

This is not a shocking result. It is a widely held belief that inside-out action tends to create some of the best shooting chances from three point range. This idea is obvious to anyone who watches enough basketball. If Texas isn’t creating enough of these sorts of scoring opportunities, it is reasonable to ask why.

In a future post, I will dive deeper into this question, looking at the troubles that occur when Texas tries to use ball screens to break down opposing defenses.