Trait: A Transcendent Superstar
You've all heard everybody talk about matchups in the NCAA Tournament, and more specifically speaking, about how they looked forward to one player facing a team. I mean, one player can't win a game, right? But ever since Weber State's Harold Arcineaux dropped North Carolina with 36 points, and likely well before that, people have been obsessed with the lower seeds' best players, and how they could carry their team to a victory over a higher-seeded team..
The Longhorns have almost the perfect star for that in J'Covan Brown, who almost single-handedly beat Arizona last year. Brown is the most frustrating player for a defense to play against: a scorer that you can't scheme away from putting the ball in the basket. Sure, you could limit his easy shots. But every team this year went into the game with the goal to shut down the Longhorns' only consistent threat, and he still wound up scoring more than 20 points per game and leading the Big 12 in the category. Brown is capable of scoring 25-plus points and carrying the team down the stretch, if need be.
Trait: Three-Point Bombers
The three-point shot has been called "the great equalizer" almost since its inception, the way for a supposedly less-talented team to overcome a bigger team with more post presences. Over the course of a game, it has been said that shooting 33 percent on your threes creates the same number of points as making 50 percent of your two-point field goals. So shooting 40 percent, or better, can really swing a game, or series of games, your way.
Statistically speaking, the Longhorns are the worst three-point shooting team in the Big 12. So why do I give them a check mark here? Because while two of their worst shooters statistically are Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis, neither are actually bad three-point shooters. They're just streaky guys who have had a few downswings. And Texas has the shooters to make up ground in a hurry. The Longhorns made 7-of-12 three-pointers in the second half of comeback wins against Iowa State and Kansas State this season, and barely lost to Kansas in Austin despite shooting 13-42 inside the arc (31 percent). Why? Because Texas shot 8-for-19 (42.1 percent from behind that same line.
Trait: Good Point Guard Play
You hear it every March: so-and-so will win because they have strong guard play. Teams are told that every possession is important, and a point guard can do so many things to help in that category. The fewer turnovers, the better.
After a 22-point performance in Texas's loss to Oklahoma State, but one in which Myck Kabongo dished out just two assists to five turnovers, he's put on a clinic in distributive point guard play. In the six games since that point, Kabongo has averaged 6.3 assists and 2.2 turnovers per contest. In the two Big 12 Tournament games, Kabongo dished out 10 assists to just one turnover. He hasn't been shooting quite as well, or scoring as much, but in March, you'd take that job protecting the ball over the added few points. Besides, it's not like he's being shut out: he averaged 10 points per game over those two games. The one thing that he could do better is get out on the break a bit more to create easy buckets. But that also depends on the next trait.
Trait: A Stout Defense
Other than when Loyola Marymount was tossing up century marks on everybody, the making of an upset is typically spurned by the lower seed defending well on a per-possession basis. Take a look at VCU's Elite Eight victory over Kansas. Yes, VCU shot 48 percent from three (see above). But many of those threes were created on the break after defensive stops, one that the Rams earned in abundance. The Jayhawks shot just 35.5 percent for the game, including 2-for-21 from behind the three-point line. And they forced Jayhawk post threat Markieff Morris into eight turnovers. The result, of course, is that the Rams went to the Final Four, while the Jayhawks went back to Lawrence. Defense is key.
Texas: No Check
Much like the three-point shooting, the Longhorns have shown the ability to defend at times, but could hardly be called a consistent defensive team. Certainly, offensive teams like North Carolina and Missouri have given Texas issues this year, though you're talking about two of the most efficient offenses in the country (Missouri is No. 1 in adjusted offensive efficiency, Carolina is No. 13). Texas did significantly better against another top-10 offense in Kansas in Austin, but that was before Alexis Wangmene went down. Are the Longhorns poor defensively? No, they're No. 48 in the adjusted defensive efficiency. But they also haven't shown the ability to consistently defend at a high, locked-in level without Wangmene. With Wangmene, the Longhorns had plus defenders at point guard, power forward and center. Without him, Texas has three holes, and potentially more depending on who's in the game. For comparison's sake, last year Texas was able to put out a starting lineup with no defensive holes, and as such, ranked No. 2 nationally in that same category.
Simply put: does a team have one thing that it does well enough to win basketball games? Some teams generate turnovers at an extremely high rate. Others can rebound so well offensively that it's almost a second form of offense. So does the team do one thing well enough to win a basketball game?
What do the Longhorns do well? When they're running the floor and operating as they should offensively, Texas is simply outstanding at getting to the free throw line. Just how good? In a two-game winning stretch against Kansas State and Oklahoma, Texas earned 77 free throw attempts to their opponents' 20. And one of the two games was on the road! Texas has multiple players who can get to the free throw line, and two that excel at driving into contact in Brown and Kabongo. Not only does that give Texas a chance to put up easy points, but if they can draw fouls on the right people, it can change a game. And in the NCAA Tournament, sometimes something little like that is all it takes.