Texas excels defensively
"When you play defense like that, it's not just one guy," said Texas coach Rick Barnes.
Barnes was talking about how well the Longhorns played defense in running up a 35-14 halftime lead over West Virginia in the first game of the Big 12 Tournament, a performance that he said was Texas's best defensive half this season. And it came against a very good offensive opponent; the Mountaineers entered Thursday's game ranked No. 15 nationally in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency.
"We were active," said Texas assistant coach Chris Ogden. "We were fresh."
Texas opted to rest its legs last week, giving the team two days off and not necessarily going full-bore at other times.
"It showed because we had some pop, and we were moving," Ogden said.
That helped Texas deal with Mountaineer guard Juwan Staten, one of the Big 12's most deadly offensive weapons, a point guard who can score and create scores for his teammates.
"Guys were locked in on their assignments," Ogden said. "The biggest one was keeping (Staten) out of the paint, because when he gets in the paint, he makes everybody else better.
"Javan (Felix) did a great job on that, and Demarcus (Holland) did a great job on (Eron) Harris," Ogden said. "And then everybody else did a great job protecting the paint."
Why is that performance relevant? Other than logging a near-perfect defensive effort so late in the season, Texas may try to utilize a similar strategy against Arizona State with point guard Jahii Carson, who excels at penetrating and pitching to other players for buckets.
They aren't quite the same offense — West Virginia is a better team overall offensively, per the stats, while Arizona State has a better low-post scoring game — putting forth another performance like the West Virginia one would in all likelihood help to push the Longhorns into the second round.
What does Texas do offensively?
One of the biggest questions this year is about Texas's offensive identity. The Longhorns pride themselves on being able to put together a lineup that can score from every spot. But at the same time, what happens when the Longhorns are in a tight moment and just have to get a bucket?
Different players have taken those shots across this season, from Isaiah Taylor driving late to Jonathan Holmes hitting the game-winner against Kansas State to Damarcus Croaker taking the last-second shot in a contest to Javan Felix hoisting them up.
In fact, if you'd pick one player who could be considered Texas's go-to-guy, it would probably be Felix, who takes a team-high 29 percent of his team's shots when on the court (a rate that actually plummeted lately). After leading the Big 12 in percentage of shots taken for almost the entire year, Felix finished fourth, behind Marcus Foster, Georges Niang and Cameron Clark. But while those three are all highly respected, efficient scorers with Effective Field Goal percentages over 50, Felix is way down at 43.5 percent.
After Texas's loss to Baylor, Barnes talked about Felix's hesitation — he took just four shots — and how it hurt the offense. When he was asked whether part of the reason he pushed a 36-percent shooter to take more looks was so that Texas could get more attempts at offensive rebounds, Barnes responded affirmatively.
"Absolutely," Barnes said. "We're good at it."
It's not that Felix *can't* shoot. He's certainly shown an ability to score by dropping 20-plus points four times this season and scoring 13.2 points per game in conference play. But when Felix passes up shots, he isn't just passing up chances to score, he's often not taking shots when guys like Holmes and Cameron Ridley have great position to follow up on his misses.
"There's a lot of things you can do in this game and get by with. The one thing you can't do, you can't doubt yourself."
Holland on his jumper
Barnes has lauded Demarcus Holland's work ethic all year. And most of Holland's work this offseason came on his shot. It improved to the point that Holland was one of Texas's top long-range threats in the preseason, and he's hitting a respectable 35.4 percent of his two-point jumpers, right around D-1 average, after he made just 29.5 percent of those a year ago.
So why, when teams are playing off Holland, doesn't he pull the trigger on that improved jumper? While many think Holland needs more confidence, the guard insisted that wasn't the case, and that there's a simpler explanation.
"That's not the best shot we can get," Holland said.
It's so difficult to get players to understand the value of certain shots. How many times in college basketball do we see somebody jack up a three less than 10 seconds into the shot clock, often somebody that you don't want taking that three in the first place. Holland insisted that he was plenty willing to shoot if needed, but that he saw the need to get the ball inside more.
"If it's early in the shot clock, I'll take a couple dribbles and try to get the ball inside," Holland said. "I can get that shot any time."
If the shot clock is running down though?
"Oh, I'd take the shot then," Holland said. "It just makes sense earlier to try and get it in to Cam and Jon."
While there wasn't much that went right in Texas's 86-69 loss to Baylor, one thing that pleased the Texas staff was the play of Kendal Yancy. The backup guard played 18 minutes and scored 12 points against the Bears, shooting 3-of-3 from behind the arc.
It was just the latest step in development for Yancy, who has impressed the coaches with his work ethic and the way that he attached himself to Holland this past offseason.
"I see a little bit of myself in him," Holland said. "He works hard, and he'll do whatever you need him to."
Like many freshmen not named Isaiah Taylor, he's seen his playing time grow and wane over the course of the season, especially as Martez Walker began playing well. In a six-game stretch from Feb. 15 to March 8, Yancy only logged 10-plus minutes once. But he's played 18-to-20 minutes three times in his last four games, and his game against Baylor showed a flash of his offensive potential. Not only did he score a career-high in points, but he did so in an efficient manner with a 114 Offensive Rating while using a career-high 31 percent of Texas's possessions when he was on the floor.
As Texas continues to move forward not just this season, but in the future, expect Yancy to be a valuable piece as somebody who can play either guard spot, play solid defense, rebound and score if needed.
"I just want to do whatever I can," Yancy said. "Whatever is needed."
While Walker and Yancy have seen their minutes go up and down this year, there isn't any doubt that Croaker's minutes have been dwindling of late. The player who logged an average of 26 minutes in back-to-back games against Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, scoring 27 points and shooting 7-for-14 from behind the arc in those games? He hasn't been seen for awhile. He's just 1-for-22 from behind the arc since Jan. 13, and in those 17 games, he's topped the 10-minute mark just three times. Croaker has logged a total of 16 minutes over Texas's last four games, including just seven minutes in the two-game Big 12 Tournament.
"I wouldn't say it has been difficult," Croaker said. "I would say it has been challenging."
Croaker got a chance to take out some of his frustration on a breakaway dunk against West Virginia, though he opted for a simple two-hander* rather than a flashier dunk.
"If I would have had more time to think about it, I might have tried a 360," Croaker said, smiling.
* OK, so there isn't a whole lot simple about jumping 40-plus inches off the ground, but still. Croaker could have brought the house down.
Croaker has all the physical tools to be successful at this level. Strength coach Todd Wright said before the season that Croaker was the best athlete he had coached at Texas, and his ability to score and his basketball IQ give him potential. But he admitted that he had to mature more to give himself a chance to play.