Barring a miraculous Big 12 tournament run, Texas is likely to end its season without a post-season berth of any kind for the first time since Tom Penders’ last season in Austin. Not only that, after the loss to the TCU Horned Frogs leading scorer Tevin Mack was suspended indefinitely (and signs point to this being the last you see of Tevin Mack in burnt orange). This is a team in turmoil on a number of fronts; they’re incredibly young, they’re facing more roundball adversity than they ever have before, and they’re playing to sparse home crowds. It becomes increasingly easy for a squad of young players to hang their heads, check out through March, and consider alternate options in the off-season. The recipe for getting blown out by three top-10 teams in a row was there, and Texas didn’t have to do much to make it happen. They’d have to actively work to prevent it from happening, swimming through an emotional riptide just to put up a good showing.
So how did they respond to all of the simultaneous currents shoving them out to the Gulf of Mexico? They fought their asses off. A 7.1 man rotation took on the West Virginia swarm - a defensive force of nature that blew out #1 Baylor by 21-and-it-could’ve-been-30 - and nearly pulled off the most stunning upset of Shaka Smart’s brief Texas tenure. (Yes, more stunning than the North Carolina win last year.) For 40 minutes, this Texas squad stood up and gave their all. They should’ve lost by 20 and they had a chance to tie the game in the last minute. Yes, this is another in the ledger of almost-wins we discussed in the TCU recap, and at the end of the day an almost-win is still recorded with an L. Still, the fight this team showed was impressive.
I’m fielding an increasing number of questions from a minority of Texas fans who wonder if Shaka is a good coach. The argument generally starts by wondering about the team’s record (fair), then wonders if the players are overrated (they’re not), then starts to draw direct lines between Shaka and the narrative on Charlie Strong (don’t do this, it ends badly for you), and usually concludes with some sort of variation on the basketball equivalent of “he should call more touchdown plays” (sweet baby jebus, no). Look, I don’t expect everyone to believe me when I advocate for Shaka’s ability; at the end of the day I’m just an asshole on the internet with a platform to speak my mind. I’m not an analyst like Jay Bilas or a coach like Bill Self & Larry Brown, but they have all raved about Shaka. I have watched Shaka Smart give a clinic on his press to other coaches, and when he was done Larry Brown pulled him to the side where they spent 30 minutes talking shop and diagramming plays on a legal pad together. I have asked Bill Self about Shaka and heard him talk about Smart like he was his son. I have said Shaka’s name to Jay Bilas and watched his eyes light up like I handed him unreleased Future tracks. These guys all know more about basketball than me, and they all think Shaka is incredible. And they have solid ground to stand on; tonight - in game mothereffing SEVENTEEN - Shaka unveiled a matchup zone defense for the first time this season against West Virginia and it flummoxed the Mountaineers for the better part of a half. (Who has the ability to debut a new defense halfway through a season and have it work like gangbusters?) He flipped between that, a 1-3-1 zone, a 2-3 zone, and a man defense throughout the game, even throwing in a bit of 3/4-court pressure from time to time. How many times did Texas fans rightfully complain about Barnes’ inability to adjust to the other team more than once a game? The puppet master was putting in work tonight, and it almost resulted in a W.
Allen did a better job of establishing himself in the post early today, and it resulted in multiple easy shots near the rim. Allen took 15 shots and only missed two, going 6-7 from the floor and 7-8 from the line. Speaking of, Allen started the season 7-18 (38.8%) from the free throw line and has gone 31-48 (64.5%) since including 16 of his last 19 (84.2%). What was an early liability has turned into a relative strength for Allen. He added seven rebounds, two blocks, an assist, and just as importantly only one turnover. Given the pressure West Virginia exerts on their opponents and the number of turnovers Allen has conceded this season, one turnover in 36 minutes is quality work from Allen.
Four players logged over 30 minutes in this game, and one of them was Cleare. Thankfully, due to off-season conditioning and a diet that consisted of something other than two pounds of Funyuns per day, Cleare has dropped not just weight but body fat in considerable amounts. A season (or two, or three) ago Cleare would’ve been gassed after 20 minutes, but he put in solid work in extended minutes. His shot selection was good, his defense was quality, and he helped break the press in a number of ways including dribbling the ball up the court a couple of times. It’s always fun watching people see Cleare dribble up the floor for the first time; the announcers were mortified, but those of us who have seen him over time know he has an underrated handle for a big man. He even went behind the back on a Mountaineer, it was great TV.
HE EXISTS. WE HAVE PROOF OF LIFE.
If you want to understand the tantalizing ability of Andrew Jones, watch him push the ball in the first half against West Virginia’s press. He regularly broke the press with speed and a solid handle, but that’s only part of the allure of Jones. More than once, he took the ball directly down the lane and forced either a decent layup or enough contact to merit free throws, which might remind you a bit of a recent Texas departure currently playing in the NBA D-League. Jones is starting to understand the difference between sprinting down the floor without a plan and sprinting down the floor with a plan. It’s not perfect — he still went 1-on-3 or 2-on-4 a couple too many times — but his ability to force the defense to react to him in transition is going to be a problem for the Big 12 in the coming years. Next year he’ll be 3-4 on layups instead of 1-4 and he’ll be shooting and-ones rather than two shots. Little differences like that are what separates losses this year and wins next year.
18-23 from the line is a solid number for any NCAA team, much less Texas. Roach’s 4-7 from the line is the only blemish on an otherwise good overall result from the line.
Kerwin Roach Jr.
His shooting was decent, but honestly I’m putting him here because he had a 5/4 ATO against one of the fiercest presses in the country in extended duty at the point. It’s not a great ratio on its own, but 12 games ago I would’ve expected something more like a 4/8 ATO against a press this solid. Roach is now at least an average D-I point guard, which is a significant improvement from the start of the season.
Don’t look now, but Texas is rated in the top-30 nationally in Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive ratings. They’re one spot ahead of Kansas on the season, and 3rd in the conference through the first four games of conference play. Texas may not be able to score well (182nd in AdjO) but they’re defending as well as anybody in the Big 12 not named West Virginia or Baylor.
The Mixed Bag
This is actually a step up for Young, and we need to give him props for being a positive contributor in a situation where any reasonable fan would’ve expected a Jackass outtake instead. Young is still hyperactive like a puppy mainlining bath salts, but he found ways to add more than he took off the table overall. Hitting a couple threes is big for him and potentially could settle him down just a touch where he’ll hit 30%+ going forward. Texas will definitely need some offense from Young with Mack gone for...however long he’s gone. Young was a willing defender as well, though I didn’t focus on him enough to say how positive he was (or wasn’t) on that end of the floor. The fact that he wasn’t infamous is a good sign unto its own.
Tevin Mack is a Ghost
He wasn’t on the bench and they pulled him from the pre-game hype video. If he’s not done for good, Shaka’s definitely trying to scare the life out of him. I’d be more confident in his return this season (or ever) if he was at least sitting at the end of the bench in street clothes.
Texas is 7-10, 1-4 in conference play, and Hell Week begins as they travel to both Waco and Lawrence to battle two of the top teams in the conference. The likeliest outcome of this week is two losses, but given what we saw out of the team today they’re at least up for the fight. If they’re still going to fight, Texas fans should continue to support them. Showing up for their games now might keep more of this nucleus around in the coming years, which could pay dividends for burnt orange faithful in spades. They play Baylor on Tuesday, tip is 6pm CT on ESPN2.