The Horned Frogs travel to Austin tonight looking to end their six-game losing streak by knocking off the Texas Longhorns. For the Frogs, it is the first game against an unranked team in nearly a month, and just the third Big 12 game against an unranked foe. Texas was able to control the Frogs in the first matchup between the in-state rivals, a 66-48 Longhorn victory in Fort Worth in late January. UT enters the game having lost four of their last five contests, dropping out of the rankings this week. I caught up with Jeff Haley of Burnt Orange Nation to preview the matchup. You can check out my responses to his questions right here.
1. Texas was ranked 10th in the preseason and was tabbed by some to end Kansas' streak of dominance and capture a Big 12 Championship. Today, the 'Horns are unranked and in sole possession of 8th place in the Big 12. What's going on with the Longhorns?
I think the answer here is pretty simple. It is that, reputation to the contrary, Texas' defense just hasn't been very good during the Big 12 season.
If tempo-free stats are your thing, then you may have noticed that during the Big 12 season Longhorn opponents are averaging 1.04 points per possession, which puts the vaunted Texas defense as the eighth best unit in the league. (Texas' offense is middle of the pack, rating fifth in the conference.)
Texas' defensive troubles are highly specific. Because of the style of defense played by Rick Barnes' squad, Texas doesn't force very many turnovers, and instead focuses on containing dribble penetration and protecting the rim. That is OK -- you can have an exceptional defense by playing this way, as the 2012 national champion Kentucky Wildcats showed us.
But what you cannot survive is failing to get turnovers while simultaneously allowing opponents many clean looks from three point range. That is something that has been happening lately, as Texas opponents have connected on 39 percent of their threes during conference play.
Some of this is surely just bad luck for Texas, and some timely opponent shooting, but some of it has been due to Barnes' heavy use of zone defense through conference play. Good shooters are getting lost in the Texas zone. Most recently, it was Kansas State's Tre Harris and Nigel Johnson who combined this Saturday to hit 7-11 from beyond the arc in a game that ended up being much closer than it should have.
2. Year after year it seems like Rick Barnes has a tremendous amount of talent at his disposal, however he sometimes fails to put it all together. How much blame do you think Barnes deserves for Texas' under-performance this season?
This gets to be a contentious topic, which I try to stay away from during the season. But here is my take.
The two biggest things holding back this Texas squad: a surprisingly poor defense, and problems taking care of the ball. Rick Barnes has his strengths and weaknesses as a coach, but two things that have historically fallen in the "strength" category are that his teams defend and take care of the ball.
If we are going to look for strategic reasons why this has happened, I would point to two things: the previously mentioned overuse of zone defense that I think is keeping this team from living up to its defensive potential, and too much offensive focus on getting the ball inside. A sizable portion of Texas turnovers are occurring either before, during, or shortly after post entry.
A player like Cameron Ridley is nearly unstoppable when he catches the ball with two feet in the paint, but if you throw the ball to him a foot outside of the lane a turnover is a reasonable possibility. Post entry attempts have led to a lot of problems for Texas guards, as has running offensive sets designed to mostly get the ball inside.
Of course, Barnes basically dropped this approach against Kansas State, and the result was that Texas' offense scored a robust 1.09 points per trip by basically playing through point guard Isaiah Taylor.
If there is a higher level issue with this Texas squad, it is that it is probably a perimeter player or two short. Texas could use one or two guys who could play the wing, hit threes at a high rate, and adequately defend their position. Rick Barnes recruited plenty of guys who could have provided this. Julien Lewis, who transferred to Fresno State, and Sterling Gibbs, who is lighting up the Big East these days, are two players who would have helped. Sheldon McClellan (who's defense was a little less than adequate, but who can definitely shoot) is playing in Miami. Ioannis Papepatrou is playing pro ball in Europe. Martez Walker withdrew from Texas this fall after allegedly hitting his girlfriend. Help is on the way in the next incoming freshman class, but it doesn't do Barnes any good this season.
3. The Longhorns have been pretty banged up as of late, with Jonathan Holmes and Javan Felix missing Texas' previous contest at Kansas State with injuries. How has their situation improved since the weekend? What does Texas' injury list look like for tonight?
Both Javan Felix and Jonathan Holmes suffered concussions. Felix is currently cleared to practice some, but is being watched closely. I don't know if he will play or not. There is no new information about Holmes.
I think it is highly unlikely that both players play. Felix might be back, or he might not.
4. In the first contest between TCU and Texas, the Longhorns were able to use their size and strength in the paint to block, alter, and prevent TCU from scoring in the paint. Texas' defense held the Frogs to a season-low 48 points on 33.3% shooting. What makes the Longhorns' defense so tough for opposing offenses?
It is simple -- teams with poor perimeter shooting or that just don't take many threes have a hard time scoring against Texas. Texas' interior defense is second only to the Kentucky Wildcats. No matter the lineup, Texas will always have one or more of the nation's best shot blockers on the floor. Myles Turner, Cameron Ridley, and Prince Ibeh all have a dramatic effect on what happens inside the paint, but I don't want to undersell the contributions of Connor Lammert and Jonathan Holmes (who is unlikely to play). Texas games feature a lot of blocked shots, and frankly most teams would be better off just jacking threes against the Horns.
Additionally, Texas can unleash two very tough perimeter defenders on opponents (Demarcus Holland and Kendal Yancy). Playing so much zone probably reduces their ability to impact the game defensively.
5. Finally, what is your prediction for tonight? Do the Longhorns get back on track with another big win, or does TCU take advantage of a slumping UT team and pick up the school's first win in Austin since 1987?
1987? Wow, I had no idea. I was a 10-year-old kid in Buffalo, NY when that happened, and was just starting to get obsessed with basketball. But my obsession clearly didn't reach as far away as the Southwest Conference. So as far as I am concerned this has never happened.
I think we push that off for another year. I suspect Texas wins. The scenarios that I can put together that result in TCU victory all involve Kyan Anderson going 7-10 from three point range.
Big thanks to Jeff and the team at Burnt Orange Nation. Look for continued coverage of TCU vs. Texas right here leading up tonight's game.