Aiming to build off of their emotional double OT victory against No. 16 TCU, the Texas Longhorns head to Stillwater this Saturday to play the Oklahoma State Cowboys (11-5, 1-3). While there are no easy road wins, this game represents one of Texas' better chances to steal a victory away from Austin. It won't come easy.
The Cowboys have a coach this season that is both new and familiar. Mike Boynton takes over after his longtime collaborator Brad Underwood moved to Illinois last spring. This was a rough blow for Cowboy fans, who rather liked their first-year coach last year. That blow is softened somewhat by the fact that Boynton and Underwood share nearly identical offensive and defensive approaches and have worked together long enough that Boynton seems a suitable successor.
Boynton and Underwood first hooked up at South Carolina on the staff of Frank Martin. Underwood moved with Martin from Kansas State, and Boynton was an assistant on Darrin Horn's staff, who Martin was hired to replace. Yes, the Darrin Horn who is now an assistant coach at Texas. The basketball coaching world is small.
When Underwood left to become the head coach at Stephan F. Austin, Boynton went with him. After three exceptional seasons, Underwood moved on to Oklahoma State, and SFA made the decision to not offer the job to Boynton. So in what ended up being a blessing in disguise, Boynton again followed Underwood to Stillwater. A year later, he would be rewarded with the head job at a major conference program at a school where one can win a lot of games. That is a pretty good career progression for a 35-year-old; Oklahoma State is a pretty nice place to be a basketball coach.
This history is important to consider, as it directly informs how we should think about this game. Boynton and Underwood have worked closely together for years and their teams clearly look like it. This has the potential to make a number of imprints on this game; the most obvious one being when the Cowboys are on defense.
Pressure man-to-man defense in the style of Bob Huggins
There are many approaches to man-to-man defense. Boynton's approach is a very particular and aggressive one that Big 12 fans will be familiar with.
Mike Boynton practices a style of defense that closely aligns with what Bob Huggins has used throughout his career. Underwood and Martin both worked for Huggins, and each coach has a defense that closely mirrors Huggyball 1.0. Boynton gets down in much the same way. (The "Press Virginia" style that Big 12 fans see is a full-court version of this same defense with some trapping thrown in for extra fun. It is at least Huggyball 2.0, or perhaps 3.0; it is hard to keep track of these things.)
We are about to dive in a little deep, but I promise you there will be a reason we do it. There are dozens of details that make man-to-man defenses different from each other. The guiding principle for this one is easy to spot. Each defender works to keep his man from catching the ball. All passes are denied, and all defenders try to position themselves between their man and the ball.
Let's check to see what that looks like. In the photo below, I have indicated the location of the ball. I have also indicated where each of the four off-ball defenders are. Look at where they are relative to who they are guarding; all are playing more or less directly between the ball and their man. This is not normal, but this is the way this defense works.
This specific thing has a lot of weird effects and distorts the game in strange ways. The strongest effects are that this defense can produce a lot of turnovers and a lot of fouls. While on the season as a whole the Cowboys have turned teams over, the problem for OSU is that through the first few Big 12 games they aren't creating many turnovers. They are fouling a lot.
Beyond this, this defense has some interesting secondary effects. One of the strangest ones is that it tends to discourage low post play by opponents. There are plausible reasons for this (my guess is that ball denial limits passing both to the wing and into the post, and getting the ball to the block usually requires both) but whatever reason you want to posit the data are pretty overwhelming. Teams that play this style of defense limit low post scoring chances to rates roughly half of the national average.
All that pressure also makes running a lot of set offensive actions difficult and puts individual on-ball defenders on something of an island. Thus you see a lot of drives, a lot of cuts to the basket, and as a result a lot of shots at the rim. The Underwood/Boynton branch of this defense played by Oklahoma State and Illinois also does a pretty good job of limiting three point attempts, but teams will get their chances to score around the hoop.
All that actually sounds like a pretty good situation for Texas, a team that struggles with sets, struggles to shoot from the perimeter, but is pretty good attacking the basket, finishing around the rim, and throwing back line lobs to guys like Mohamed Bamba and Jericho Sims. You can get a lot of lobs against this style of defense, and prior history has shown that Shaka Smart knows this better than I do.
Against a defense like this, Matt Coleman is either going to be fantastic or a complete mess. It may be the former on some possessions and the latter on others. If he is sufficiently fantastic, don't be surprised of the Cowboys switch into a zone — that is if they don't start out in one as a prophylactic measure. OSU has played zone about 20 percent of the time this season, so while they are not exactly Baylor it isn't entirely unfamiliar to them. Likewise, Kerwin Roach would be a nice guard to have attacking the OSU pressure; too bad he has a broken hand.
One final note about this style of defense. Midway through last season Oklahoma State scrapped it. Last season's group didn't have much success with it, and they didn't get any better without it. Perhaps the switch helped them get more minutes out of some of their key (and now departed) offensive stars.
When Oklahoma State is on offense
1100 words on Mike Boynton's CV and my weird fetish for a particular type of pressure man-to-man defense is an odd way to go with a game preview, but on the off-chance someone is still reading... Congratulations; I will now teach you where I hid the paintings taken in the Gardner Museum heist. The first letter of each sentence in the next paragraph will tell you how to find them.
Boynton's offense follows the same approach of his old boss, with cutting, passing, and some ball screens. It still has feature players despite all of the ball movement, with wing Jeffrey Carroll and guard Kendall Smith getting a few more shots than everyone else. Tavarius Shine is having a nice bounce back year after missing nearly all of last year with an injury, but sat out a Wednesday loss to Kansas State with a sprained wrist. Emerging as an important scoring wing this year is 6'6 Lindy Waters, who is a more capable shooter than the numbers so far show. Mitchell Solomon has added a few tricks this season and turned himself into a solid low post scorer, and he hasn't lost any of his aggressiveness on the offensive glass. Entering the starting lineup over the last few games is Yankuba Sima, a shot blocker who transferred from Saint John's midway through last year.
Fast and tiny point guard Brandon Averette and athletic wing Cameron McGriff are the two main guys off the bench. Oklahoma State takes a lot of threes, crashes the offensive glass, and is one of the best free throw shooting teams in the nation. Their offensive approach is meant to move shot blockers away from the basket and creates opportunities for cutters, but Mo Bamba surely has other ideas about this, so we will get to see who is right.
The game tips in Stillwater at 4 PM CT, and airs on ESPNEWS.