AUSTIN — Texas has three games in the Erwin Center remaining before Big 12 play begins against Kansas State on January 2nd of the new year.
Grand Canyon, Providence, and UT-Arlington travel to Austin to face a Longhorn team that has positive and negative data points factoring into the young season.
The Longhorns are 6-3 after almost a month of games. They’ve dropped two games at home to mid-major opponents in Radford and Virginia Commonwealth, and also lost one game against Michigan State in Las Vegas the day after Thanksgiving.
On Thanksgiving, Texas defeated North Carolina 92-89 in one of the best all-around performances of the Shaka Smart era. Outside of those three losses, Texas has played solid but nowhere near spectacular basketball.
Texas has played in its fair share of close games last season. Most of UT’s losses in conference play were by 10 points or less. The Longhorns were painfully close to a victory often last year, but the lack of offensive flow and successful shooting streaks often doomed the burnt orange. The Longhorns were strong on the defensive end, but the offense couldn’t always hold up its end of the deal.
While the in-game offense looks a little different, the results are largely the same. Texas is actually shooting three percentage points worse from the field and from three-point land this year compared to last year. Foul shooting is about the same. Even the average offensive output is 0.2 points off from last year, with the average scoring defense 1.6 points better.
The end result looks similar, but the personnel and way they are achieving those results looks quite a bit different.
Last year, defenses did everything they could to prevent the ball from reaching the interior through the pass. Mohamed Bamba was a focal point of every defensive gameplan, and after Andrew Jones was lost for the year, outside offensive production lagged until Kerwin Roach and Matt Coleman started to figure out how to score on their own.
This season, the idea is a little bit different. Texas has good post players this year in Jaxson Hayes and Jericho Sims, but nobody who can legitimately demand both the ball and double teams like Bamba did in his lone season. More has been asked of Coleman and Roach, specifically dribble penetration prior to passing to open players.
Compared to last year, there is still a lot of dribbling around the arc. This year, however, there is enough offensive design and execution to create open shots for what was expected to be a better group of shooters than 2017-18’s team. Those open shots simply have not been hit at the rate UT wants.
Roach and Dylan Osetkowski have seen their field goal percentages drop this season compared to last. Jase Febres has seen his field goal and three-point percentage go up compared to last year with starter’s minutes. Elijah Mitrou-Long is a bit more credible than Eric Davis in creating his own shot, but isn’t hitting them at the same rate as Davis did in his final year.
The focal point is no longer a 7-foot big man, but rather two athletic guards in Coleman and Roach. This has put their dribble-drive abilities to the fullest test.
On defense, Texas remains one of the toughest teams to play against in the nation. They are better in turnover margin, and swiping the ball more often than last season. They press frequently, but aren’t constantly pressing. Smart also has gone deep into his bench early in the year with nine players averaging at least 10 minutes of playing time.
One of the players with increased minutes recently is Kamaka Hepa, who played down the stretch at the four against Purdue. Normally, this is a spot where Osetkowski sees a lot of action, but Smart chose to go with his Alaskan freshman over a senior with three years in the program. It worked, as Texas won 72-68 over the Boilermakers.
The remaining three games of non-conference are all against opponents Texas is currently ahead of in the KenPom advanced statistical ranking. That said, Grand Canyon, Providence, and UT-Arlington are all mid-major programs with solid teams. The Mavericks of UTA won a game in the Erwin Center in recent years.
A 6-3 mark wasn’t out of the realm of possibility before the year, but losses to VCU and Radford back-to-back at home didn’t seem as likely as other combinations. Still, Texas has a chance to not only put an early season three-game losing streak behind them before Big 12 play starts, they have room to get better. That’s been common under Smart while at Texas.