First, what is assist rate? Simply put, assist rate is the percentage you get when you divide assists by field goals made. For instance, If Texas hits 20 field goals, and dishes out 15 assists in a game, the Longhorns' assist rate would be 75 percent.
Now, as to the why assist rate question: there isn't a great statistic out there to show how a team moves the ball. A team can have perfect ball movement, get it into the post for a great look and pop, the other team commits a foul, negating the field goal attempt and thus any chance for an assist. Or a point guard could pound the ball into the floor for 30 seconds, drive to the basket and kick it out for an open look that goes in. Terrible ball movement, though the lone pass did result in an assist.
But generally speaking, assist rate is one of the better ways to look at it. You can see, very directly, how many times a team made a pass that directly led to a basket. Also, generally speaking, Texas hasn't been great in this category in the last several years. The Division I average this season is 51.9 percent, and Texas hasn't hit that rate in any of its last five years.
2009-10 — 48.7 percent
2010-11 — 50.8
2011-12 — 50.1
2012-13 — 50.8
2013-14 (THIS SEASON) — 47.8 (270th nationally)
Fifty percent can be a bit of a magic mark here. Since the 2002-2003 season, Barnes has had four offenses that ranked in the top 10 in the country per Ken Pomeroy's Adjusted Offensive Efficiency. Three of those were above a 50 percent assist rate, which is above this season's 47.8 percent.
Let's dig further.
Five times this season Texas has had what I'd call an "elite" performance from a Points Per Possession standpoint, putting up more than 1.2 PPP. Those were:
Houston Baptist — 1.20 PPP (60.0 percent)
DePaul — 1.24 (34.6)
Oklahoma State — 1.23 (53.8)
West Virginia — 1.26 (54.5)
Baylor — 1.28 (60.7)
As you can see there, it wasn't necessary for Texas to have a higher than 50 percent assist rate to have a strong offensive performance, as the Longhorns had a 34.6 percent rate against DePaul in what was still one of the season's better offensive games. In that game, Texas's two leading scorers (Cameron Ridley had 19 and Isaiah Taylor 14), scored the bulk of their points in unassisted fashion. Ridley scored three of his six buckets off offensive rebounds (hence, no pass), and added seven points at the free throw line. Taylor hit three shots from the field, two of which came on his own drives (so no pass, again) and made 8-of-10 shots from the free throw line.
So those two scored a combined 33 points (18 from the floor), but only eight of those were assisted on. That's an assist rate of 44 percent for your top two scorers in that game.
Look at the best offenses nationally, and you'll see a similar trend. Teams don't have to have a high assist rate to score in an efficient fashion. But more often than not, it helps. Here are the top five offenses in raw PPP, per KenPom.
1) Creighton — 65.1 percent (No. 2 nationally)
2) Duke — 55.7 (82nd)
3) Louisville — 53.3 (143rd)
4) Michigan — 56.2 (74th)
5) Georgia State— 51.1 (184th)
Every team above has a free throw rate higher than 50 percent, and all but Georgia State are over the national average of 51.9. In fact, you have to go all the way down to the 11th best offense, Wisconsin, to find a team that has an assist rate under 50. The Badgers are at 48.7. So once more, is it possible to have a good offense without a high assist rate? Sure. But to do so is to deviate from the norm a bit.
Which brings us back to Texas. The Longhorns have shown an ability to score at a high level. They're 50th nationally in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, per KenPom, which weights offensive efficiency versus a team's level of competition. Put into raw form though (read: without a competition element), and the Longhorns are 113th in PPP.
Both those places show that the 'Horns have plenty of room for improvement, and while other factors are more obvious — Texas isn't a great shooting team, period — one area that could help improve the team is a slightly greater emphasis on moving the ball.