The Texas Longhorns sit at a crossroads. After back-to-back losses against Kansas and Iowa State, Texas has fallen below .500 in Big 12 play. With a 3-4 conference record, the Longhorns are tied for 7th place with tomorrow's opponent, the Baylor Bears.
The chances of Texas winning the Big 12 are minute at best. Last year's victors, Kansas, posted a 14-4 record (the conference-leading Jayhawks are 6-1 to-date). To achieve that record this year, Texas would have to run the table. Not likely, you scoff. Even if this year's conference winner finishes with more than 4 losses (probable, given conference parity), Texas has shown little to believe it can emerge victorious from the Big 12 battle royale.
The Burnt Orange faithful are once again sharpening their pitchforks. If a Big 12 title is no longer an achievable goal, what does head coach Rick Barnes have to do in order to keep his job another year? Most likely, a deep NCAA Tournament run.
It's not unfathomable for a team struggling in January to make hay come March (see last year's UConn vs. Kentucky final as Exhibit A). Texas has talent. But Barnes needs to turn modular pieces into a well-oiled, integrated machine.
The struggling offense has gotten a lot of press. But personally, my concern is on D. In recent games, Texas has opted to run a 2-3 zone as its base defense. Zones are effective in one of two ways. First, as an element of surprise. Barnes effectively snuck in some junk defenses last year, a little box-and-one and triangle-and-two along with the 2-3. Earlier this year, Texas would unleash the 2-3 (or some 2-3/3-2 hybrid) on intermittent possessions, with decent results.
Second, and here's the kicker: you hammer zone principles into your guys until it becomes a reign of terror (see: Louisville, Syracuse). That requires practice ad nauseam. The Longhorns look like they've been practicing for 3 weeks, and the cracks show. Dribble penetration between the guards is too easy. A hi-lo, two-big offense generates open bunnies inside with a capable passer in the high post. The corner 3 has been wide open. Poor shooting, slower-twitch teams like TCU and WVU were unable to capitalize, while KU and ISU ran Texas' zone ragged.
If Barnes is adamant about sticking with the zone, Texas has the personnel to pull it off. There will be some growing pains, but again, the end goal now is a March Tournament run. Does Texas have the gumption to stick with the zone, refine it, and perfect it? We'll see.
I've got some thoughts about offense, too, but the article is running long, and there's a game to preview. So let's get to it.
These aren't your older brother's Baylor Bears. Scott Drew's recruiting dreamwagon lost a wheel last year. Long known for locking up top talent early--think Isaiah Austin, Perry Jones, Tweety Carter--Scott Drew has opted for a bunch of anonymites. Baylor's starting lineup consists of two former Juco's, a transfer from Denver (!), and two moderately recruited Texan bigs.
On offense, Baylor is amazing at one thing: offensive rebounding. The Bears' 43.3% offensive rebounding percentage tops the nation, with bulldozer Rico Gathers leading the charge. Baylor accomplishes this via length on the wings rather than sheer size in the paint. Having four capable, if not voluminous, 3-point shooters also helps. On D, Drew has reverted back to his often mocked but occasionally effective 1-3-1 zone. The Bears lack an elite rim protector inside, but its perimeter length has been effective enough to cause a ruckus for teams that already have trouble scoring.
G - Kenny Chery (5' 11", 180 lb). Pierre Jackson, Chery is not. Chery's numbers are trending in the wrong way versus last year. Most notably, his shooting efficiency is down while his turnover rate is up. Life is harder when you don't have two NBA-caliber bigs roaming in front of you. When on, Chery can burn good teams (25 points against Kansas). He's improved his 3-point shot (37.3% vs. 33.3% last year) and is a good defender, despite his stature.
G - Lester Medford (5 '10", 175 lb). Medford is another Juco find by Drew, who has done a good job scouring those ranks in recent years. Meanwhile, Barnes unearthed...J.D. Lewis. Medford was a dual-sport athlete in high school, spent a couple years in Iowa, and will be the next hit in Drew's trifecta of Juco lead guards. Right now, he leads the team in 3-point attempts with 78, shooting 37.2%.
W - Royce O'Neale (6' 6", 215 lb). O' Neale starred at Denver for two years after an unheralded recruitment from Killeen Harker Heights. O'Neale is the glue guy: a low usage, high efficiency player. Though he won't make anyone forget about Brady Heslip, O'Neale sports the best 3-point percentage on the team (26-61, 42.6%).
F - Johnathan Motley (6' 9", 230 lb). Motley was a late riser from Houston North Shore (he and Texas signee Kerwin Roach were teammates during Motley's senior year). Texas reportedly recruited him, and he would've been a nice piece to fill Jonathan Holmes' shoes next year. Alas. Drew has done an excellent job developing springy, athletic 4's (Ekpe Udoh, Quincy Acy, Cory Jefferson), and Motley, starting in just his redshirt freshman season, looks like the heir apparent.
F - Rico Gathers (6' 8", 280 lb). Gathers is a beastmode rebounder who might have a future in the NFL if he never develops an offensive game. He's a walking double-double, averaging 10.7 PPG and 11.9 RPG on the season. He posts an O-reb% of 20.0%, 2nd best nationally, and also finished in the top 10 for O-reb% his first two years. He has the girth but not necessarily the ups (Texas fans can relate with Cam Ridley), but he's not asked to do much more than jump and rim run.
W - Taurean Prince (6' 7", 215 lb). From San Antonio Warren, Prince was a Long Island signee before sneaking into Baylor's recruiting class late in 2012. He is officially Baylor's sixth man, but leads the team in shots taken (182) and points (12.2 PPG). Sneaky good player.
G - Allerik Freeman (6' 3", 200 lb). Freeman is a freshman with a decent offer list, including UCLA and Kansas. He's a little more developed than Jordan Barnett, but not by much.
F - Deng Deng (6 '8", 205 lb). A Sudanese native by way of Australia, Deng-squared played Juco ball at Baytown Lee. He hasn't seen the court much in conference play.
W - Ish Wainright (6' 5", 200 lb). Wainright was once part of a recruiting "package deal" with Kasey Hill and Julius Randle that nobody believed would happen. Suffice to say that Wainright would've been the weak link in that triagon. If he plays--doubtful--it's strictly for defensive length.
Keys to the Game
1. Break the 1-3-1. The novelty of Scott Drew's zone doesn't work quite as well in conference play, as Barnes and his players have seen it in action one or ten times before. I'm not going to harp on shooting as the backbreaker (either Felix is hot or he isn't). Instead, I'm looking for Texas to be smart with the ball. Get two ball-handlers to split the top defender, utilize the soft spot in the high post with Lammert or Turner, don't dribble and dick around for 20 seconds before turning the ball over. That sort of thing.
2. Protect the Glass. Easier said than done against the top offensive rebounding team in the country, obviously. But Texas has the bodies to make life difficult for Gathers and company. Cam Ridley has one of the few builds in the nation to body up against Gathers, while Holmes and Lammert need to box out the smaller, elusive wings, O' Neale and Prince.
3. Funnel the ball inside. Will Texas stick with the zone tomorrow? Baylor really does only two things well on O. It shoots the ball decently from 3 (with lots of potential shooters but no one ace), and it rebounds in bunches. Pretty good zonebreakers, those. If Texas zones, you almost want Texas to play aggressively, which means trapping the smaller guards while closing out the corners. But the Horns can't be everywhere at once. If you're giving something up, I don't mind letting Chery and Medford penetrate into the teeth of the paint, provided Texas' bigs are adept enough to cause havoc rather than giving up an easy dump-off. Let's hope Barnes went over those zone principles in practice.
The game is on ESPN2 at 5pm. Hook 'em.