After dropping their Big 12 season opener on the road, the Texas Longhorns have a chance to improve their league record to 1-1 tonight. The Oklahoma State Cowboys have different ideas.
Under first-year coach Brad Underwood, the Cowboys have started the season 10-3. They did lose their Big 12 game last Friday night, falling to a strong West Virginia squad. They will be a rather tough opponent for Texas this evening.
Through the non-conference season, the Big 12 has neatly separated into three tiers. At the top are Kansas, West Virginia, and Baylor — all three teams look rather capable and should have national aspirations this season. In the bottom tier are Oklahoma and Texas, two teams that are struggling with abnormally young rosters. Everyone else — including Oklahoma State — sits in the middle.
How Texas performs against this tough middle of the league will decide a lot about the Longhorns’ league record. Winning at home against these teams presents the Longhorns with some of their best chances to pick up wins in a league that won’t offer many easy ones.
So what is it going to take to beat Oklahoma State? The first matter of concern is the Oklahoma State back court, which is perhaps the best in the conference. In a conference full of terrific players, it is possible that when March rolls around we will all decide that Jawun Evans is the best.
The reigning Big 12 Freshman of the Year — an award he won despite missing half the conference season with injury — is playing about as well as expected. Evans is roasting opponents, averaging 20 PPG and 5 APG, shooting better than 50 percent from three point range, and serving as the central element of the Cowboys up-tempo attack. Underwood’s squad will look to push the ball in transition at every chance and set ball screens for Evans while the defense scrambles. Underwood’s teams have historically not played anywhere close to this fast, but on the other hand they have not had lead guards as dynamic as Evans. Enjoy his sophomore year, because next season he will likely be drawing a large paycheck in the NBA.
Evans’ running-mate is someone Big 12 observers will know well; sharp-shooter Phil Forte. Forte went down with a season-ending injury last year early in the non-conference schedule, and returns this year as a fifth-year senior after taking a medical redshirt. The most important thing to know about Forte is something you already know about him — he can absolutely shoot the hell out of the ball. He has hit 38 percent of his career 700 (!) three-point attempts, and needs only the slightest look at the rim to pull and fire.
On the front court, Underwood rotates several capable players. Jeffrey Carroll is having a strong junior season, scoring all over the floor (he has converted on 64 percent of his twos and 40 percent of his threes so far this season). Carroll is also an active rebounder. He and teammate Leyton Hammonds give Underwood capable scorers along the front line who are also comfortable stepping out and dropping shots from long range.
Several other players are worth mentioning. Mitchell Solomon is killing opponents on the offensive glass. Freshman Lindy Waters is a 6-6 wing who shoots the ball pretty well and scores in transition. Fellow freshman Cameron McGriff is a terrific athlete and looks to be something of a basketball player as well. Underwood also will give minutes to two more freshmen: 7’0 Lucas N'Guessan and backup point guard Brandon Averette.
Brad Underwood cultivates a particular style of play that works very well. Oklahoma State this season is third nationally in opponent turnover rate, behind only West Virginia and Fordham in this category. Not coincidentally, all three of these teams play variants of the high pressure half-court defense favored by Underwood’s one-time boss Bob Huggins, where defenders play on a direct line between the ball and their man and attempt to deny, deflect, or steal every single pass on the court. Underwood also sends his team to the offensive glass like his former track-suit wearing leader, and OSU is chasing down a little more than 40 percent of their missed shots as a result, which rates in the top five nationally.
Something that clearly sets Underwood’s teams apart from those run by Huggins is the way that they play on offense. While this season he is using more screen and roll than he historically has (the man is not dumb, and when you have a player like Evans sometimes the best offense is to give him the ball and let him do things), Underwood’s base offense remains what he tortured opponents with at Stephen F. Austin. It is an offense that plays through the high-post and draws from various successful systems developed in the schools of the Big 12; I would like to spend a few paragraphs on it because it is so different from the high ball screen offenses that have come to dominate the college game.
A similar offense is currently practiced by Oregon coach (and former head man at Kansas State) Dana Altman, and the system itself is widely attributed to former Iowa State coach Johnny Orr. But observant NBA fans will also note that it contains many similarities with the offensive system devised by another Kansas State coach; Underwood’s attack shares common characteristics with Tex Winter’s Triangle that Winter first deployed in the 1950s to take the Wildcats to two Final Fours before he and Phil Jackson used it to win 11 NBA championships with the Bulls and Lakers decades later.
In Underwood’s implementation, the offense is a patterned-continuity system, meaning that a basic pattern repeats itself over and over until a shot emerges. The basic setup is shown in the diagram below, where two players are high, two players on the wings, and a single post player sets up around the free throw line.
This is a configuration that we see often in basketball offenses; it shows up in systems as different as the Princeton offense, Bob McKillop’s fantastic five-man motion offense at Davidson, and John Beilein’s highly successful offense at Michigan. It brings all defenders up high, away from the basket, creating opportunities to cut to the rim. This is the basic initial threat of the offense.
There are a number of different things that can happen to initiate the offense, and various actions that occur, so I will focus on only the most common pattern. In the image below, we see that an initial pass is thrown to the wing.
With the ball on the wing, the first action is a hard basket cut, which usually attempts to take advantage of a back-screen from the high-post. This is shown in the image below. If the player doesn’t receive this pass, he works out to the strong-side corner.
After the first cut, the weak-side wing also will basket cut, as shown in the figure below, trying to take advantage of a screen from the high-post (this is sometimes called a “shuffle cut”). He has options to either go over or under the high-post player, depending on how the defense plays. On occasion, rather than cutting this man will instead stop and set a back-screen for the big man at the high-post, who will cut to the basket for a lob pass.
After these first two cuts have occurred, we get to the figure below. At this point, the offense has formed the basic configuration of the Triangle. But Underwood’s offense does not appear to feature the extensive menu of options of the Triangle. Instead, the primary goal is to work the ball to the high-post player. This can happen either by a direct pass from the wing, or by first passing the ball back to the player up top. If the pass does not get to the high-post, this player instead will set a ball screen, which is not shown in any of my diagrams.
If the offense can get the ball to the high post, it triggers an immediate hard cut to the basket — this action frequently is referred to as a “pinch post” cut. Ideally, the guard can rub his defender off the the man at the elbow, take the hand-off, and drive hard to the basket. As the player drives to the basket, his teammates will space around the perimeter looking for a kick-out pass.
This basic attack tends to result in two sorts of scoring chances. Underwood’s teams generally get a lot of shots around the rim from all of these cuts. Oklahoma State is no different, as 41 percent of the Cowboy’s chances to score come directly at the basket. Additionally, with players spread around the perimeter as this player attacks the basket, there are ample chances to kick the ball out for a catch-and-shoot look from three point range.
If Oklahoma State misses its first shot, players fly to the glass like crazy maniacs. It is a good style of play, and with the dynamic scorers on the Cowboy roster, it is not surprising that OSU is ranked in the top 20 nationally in offensive efficiency by kenpom.com.
The Texas defense will have its work cut out for it attempting to slow down a potent Cowboy attack. The game tips off at 7 PM CST, and airs on the Longhorn Network.