I’m not going to get into a microanalysis of this game because I think we all get it at this point. Texas’ formula for winning games against outmatched opponents is smothering defense, manufacturing offense by finding mismatches, and not giving away possessions on the glass. They don’t necessarily dominate the glass, but Texas at least gets a stalemate to make points one and two matter.
The game against OSU was no exception. Granted, the Longhorns continued to play at an historic level of team defense, but I thought that, offensively, Texas played uneven and sometimes even disinterested on that end. Then, all of a sudden you look up and they’re up twenty. Is that good or bad? I won’t be able to tell you definitively until we’re flying home from Lincoln but more on that in the Nebraska Preview tomorrow. For now let me give you some scattershot thoughts on why we looked the way we did on both ends of the floor last night.
First, let’s give credit where credit is due. The Cowboys are a very well coached defensive basketball team and when you combine that with some good athletes you’re going to make teams look bad for stretches—even top 5 teams. Coach Ford does a great job putting together a defensive game plan based on the individual scouting reports of the opponen, unlike some coaches. Most indicative of his coaching genius is his refusal to guard Dogus Balbay which took away our flex cuts along the baseline for Jordan and clean post catches for Thompson on the boxes.
As for athletes, I thought Markel Brown shocked Jordan Hamilton with his athleticism when he got the defensive assignment in the second half. Hamilton’s second half stats bear that out. Additionally, Paige’s one man zone allowed Moses to use his strength advantage to keep Thompson out of his comfort zone for the most of the night, because the big Cowboy post didn’t have to worry about half fronts or ¾ fronts with Paige sitting in the lane. Otherwise, Thompson would have gone bananas. In other words, Ford picked his poison and took away Hamilton on the perimeter by putting a smaller, but quicker athlete on Texas' best player and then tried to take away Texas' interior advantage by junking up his defense when Doge was in game. It’s the main reason Gary Johnson had a career night and Cory Joseph could of have gone off had he been on his game.
The elephant in the room is J’Covan Brown and his lack of production. He has to play significant minutes to make teams play Texas’ sets and motion honestly, which frees up Hamilton to exploit mismatches and Tristan to catch the ball unencumbered. Had Brown brought his Kansas game last night, Jordan would have got paint catches and pounded the smaller Markel Brown with impunity, and Tristan Thompson would have had at least 3 more dunks. I get that Balbay is a glove and a glue guy on this squad, but Texas can’t expect to cut down the nets unless Brown is a bigger part of this offense, because we’re going to run into teams with much better athletes than OSU who are just as well coached. Except that tournament team will be able to score with us.
Speaking of scoring, as uneven as our sets and motion looked at times last night, our defense was every bit the level it’s been at the last two months. We had more quickness and length than OSU at every position and smothered them thusly, so there’s no reason to get into the details of this performance. Bigger, quicker, and stronger = dominating defensive performance. But I’m not going to leave you high and dry on this end of the floor. I’m a defensive guy at heart so I love talking about it, and I love talking about how and why the Horns are having this type of record setting season on the "want-to" end of the floor.
First, it all starts at the tip of the spear—on the ball defense. You can have the greatest help defenders in hoops history, but if you can’t stay in front or just control the dribbler, you can’t stop anybody. And the Horns have two of the game’s best on ball defenders in Joseph and Balbay. In fact, not only are they adept at staying in front, they’re size, strength, and athleticism allows them to be so much more. They’re tough to knock off the dribble because they’re strong, so they can’t be backed down by big guards that are clever with the ball, or knocked off the ball even when they stay in front. Just ask Demetri McCamey and Brad Wannamaker. This will come in handy on Saturday against Nebraska's Lance Jeter or in the tournament against Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor.
Joseph and Balbay’s size also give them a fighting chance to contest most jumpers, even a Kemba Walker step-back. Then there’s the harassment factor. As an opposing point guard, bigger, more athletic guards make it a chore to even get your team in an offense. You spend some of the finite amount of game energy you have to make that first pass, that by the end of the ballgame you’re worn down. This is why Coach Calhoun of UConn did all he could to keep Walker off the ball for parts of the first half against Texas. It was a good strategy and surprising most team's don't employ it against the Longhorns.
The next defensive component is something we’ve talked about ad naseum on this site and that’s the freedom perimeter players have to pressure the basketball knowing that Texas has a legitimate shot blocker on the back end to erase drives. It allows teams to play passing lanes a bit more, and pressure guards farther away from the bucket than they normally would. It’s a reason why Texas defense beyond the arc is so good which further shows itself in overall field goal percentage because teams are then relegated to taking the most uncomfortable, unpracticed shot in hoops—the midrange jumper.
The final component to Texas’ stifling defense isn’t talked about but it needs to be. That component is Jordan Hamilton’s emergence as a true three not only defensively, but on the backboards as well. Jordan has improved his body and conditioning to where he’s now considered a capable defender on the ball and that’s huge, especially when you consider he’s guarding a lot of third guards who are quicker and smaller than him. Notice how teams don’t try to isolate Hamilton as much? Let’s call that the Khris Middleton experiment.
But what’s most interesting to me is Hamilton’s dominance on the glass and the domino effect that has with bigs like Gary Johnson and Tristan Thompson. Knowing there’s a dominant force on the weakside glass, Johnson and Thompson can focus more on denial minded post defense and shot blocking respectively which is a big advantage over most teams who are counting on a nothing more than a 6-5 third guard to slide in to block out a power forward once their big helps. It’s a classic tug-of-war between denying the post/helping the post vs. maintaining rebounding position. Jordan’s emergence changes that dynamic.
As for the post-mortem. We f’ed them up on defense. I hope we pack a more dynamic offense to Lincoln by sneaking J'Covan Brown in the suitcase. We’ll need it.