The Texas Longhorns are a different basketball team this year. It’s not just about attitude and experience. It’s about balance.
For the past few years the Longhorns have been a perimeter-dominant team with one singular big man inside. What they didn’t really have was a swing forward that could consistently play outside and inside, thereby stretching out defenses.
Two things have happened to align the Longhorns in a way in which their Top 6 players give head coach Shaka Smart a balanced approach to game planning, and, by extension, they’re giving opponents fits, en route to Top 4 rankings in the AP Top 25 and the USA Today Top 25. That’s not to mention at No. 2 ranking in the Heartland College Sports Big 12 Power Rankings this week.
Points don’t tell the whole story, of course, as the Longhorns host Iowa State Tuesday night. But they illustrate the development.
Let’s look at last year’s team. The top six scorers were guard Matt Coleman III, guard Andrew Jones, guard Courtney Ramey, forward Jericho Sims, guard Jase Febres and forward Gerald Liddell, who just left the program. The four guards averaged 44.4 points per game. Sims and Liddell averaged 14.1 points per game. Heck if you throw Kai Jones in, who came off the bench last year and was the Longhorns’ seventh-leading scorer, the three forwards averaged just 17.7 points per game.
That a chasm in terms of disparity, nearly 27 points between the four guards and the three forwards. That allowed opponents to defend the Longhorns in ways in which they could send extra defenders to help on pick-and-roll action and on guard play away from the basket. Sims was the primary threat inside. Liddell and Kai Jones weren’t that dangerous. Defenses schemed accordingly.
Well, two things happened. First, the Longhorns recruited a top-flight forward in freshman Greg Brown. Second, Kai Jones has developed into a quality forward off the bench.
Both Brown and Kai Jones have the ability to play in the paint and away from the basket (call up some video of Kai Jones dribbling the ball if you don’t believe me). Brown’s arrival and Kai Jones’ development means that both can stretch defenders out of the paint. That creates space for Sims inside, who had an underrated double-double against Kansas. That creates driving lanes for the guards. And that makes it difficult for defenses to double-team any of them.
So now, after nine games, the ‘balance’ is coming into clearer focus. Smart wants his guards to control the game, but the progression of his forwards is just as telling about where the Longhorns are right now.
The Longhorns’ three dominant guards — Coleman III, Andrew Jones and Ramey — are still the team’s three leading scorers, averaging a combined 39.4 points per game. The Longhorns’ three dominant forwards and interior players — Brown, Sims and Jones — are the next three leading scorers, averaging a combined 27.4 points per game.
The gap is now 12 points, balanced between three guards and three forwards. Kai Jones is averaging nearly six points better than he was a season ago. The Longhorns traded in Liddell’s 4.4 points per game last year for Brown’s 11.7 points per game this year.
And do you know what’s incredible about this? The three guards, Coleman III, Andrew Jones and Ramey, are all averaging more points after nine games than they did last season. Coleman III (13.8 ppg this season to 12.7 last season), Andrew Jones (11.9 ppg this season to 11.5 ppg last season) and Ramey (13.7 ppg this season to 10.5 ppg last season) are all scoring at a higher rate.
Why? Well, the balance helps. So does steadier playing time. Febres, one of the Longhorns’ best 3-point shooters, has been out with an injury since the start of the season. Coleman and Ramey have picked up the slack with higher shooting percentages than a year ago. The guards are seeing fewer double teams than they did last year, and that helps their offense overall.
What the additions and improvements have meant is that Texas is shooting 44.8 percent from the floor in their first nine games, which is up from 42.8 percent all of last season. The 3-point shooting percentage is up too, from 33.4 percent last year to 34.4 percent so far this year.
These seem like small things, right? A couple extra points here, a couple of percentage points there. No big deal, right?
Well, that’s until you get to the bottom line.
Opponents are scoring at a remarkably similar clip from last year (63.3 ppg) to this year (62.1 ppg). But the Longhorns? They’ve improved from 64.2 ppg last year to 75.8 ppg so far this year.
A little balance can go a long way.
**Want to win a $25 gift card? Go sign up here and join our conversation! The best poster each week wins a gift card to your favorite establishment!**