Show Me My Opponent, 2021-22: Texas

OPPONENT Texas (15-5, 5-3 Big 12, #15 KenPom)
(19-8, 11-6 Big 12, Round of 64 2020-21)
LOCATION Erwin Center
Austin, TX
TIME Saturday, January 29
Fran Fraschilla (analyst)
SPREAD KenPom: Texas -3
Torvik: Texas -4

Well, they had to play this eventually. Rick Barnes and Tennessee return to Texas for the first time since Barnes was fired in 2015. For all the complaints Tennessee fans have about their head coach and his March record, he has three more NCAA Tournament wins since getting canned than Texas does (zero).

Texas fired their previous flashy new toy (Shaka Smart, now at Marquette) to hire a new flashy toy in Chris Beard, former Texas Tech coach. Beard pulled in the highest amount of transfer portal talent in modern basketball history for a high-major team. It has resulted in an amazing amount of success: beating Kansas State and TCU on the road for Texas’ only Quadrant 1 victories, having one win over a likely NCAA Tournament team three months into the season, wait where are you going come back

Texas’ offense

So: I think it’s worth noting the difference between the Four Factors and your eyeballs here. The stats will tell you that this is a pretty good offense. They’re slow, sure, but they’re an above-average shooting group on the whole. They hammer the boards. They’re bringing the mid-range game back. I like watching Timmy Allen, a 6’6″ wing that plays like a center at the 4. Despite a relatively weak schedule so far, the offense is almost precisely as efficient as the 3-seed version of this team last year that I genuinely enjoyed watching.

The eyeballs tell a different story. I wrote about my watchability metric CBBWAR recently; it brings Texas in at 86th nationally. This is because Texas doesn’t hit many threes, has the fewest dunks of any Big 12 team (after nearly leading the country in dunks a year ago), and…just doesn’t do anything that’s interesting? Among the five players on the roster with 20+ three-point attempts, none hit more than 36% of their threes. Four times in their last five games, they’ve hit 50% or worse on twos. They consistently hammer the boards, but the most exciting thing about this offense is that they hit a lot of mid-range twos. The leading scorer doesn’t crack 12 points per game. Hooooo-ray.

Chris Beard runs an offense that aims to generate lots of cuts to the basket via off-ball screens and motion. There’s also a good amount of post-ups, some ball screens, some ISOs, and a genuinely crazy amount of possessions that go down to the final second. Before we get there: the actual players.

Timmy Allen (Utah transfer, 11.9 PPG) is the one player I do genuinely find watchable and interesting. He’s the 6’6″ small-ball 4 that plays like a 5 yet is sized like a 3. Allen takes about two threes every three games, a very low rate for a starting power forward in today’s game. (Of the 234 6’6″ players averaging 16+ MPG in America, Allen ranks 210th in three-point attempt rate, per Torvik.) More than maybe any other player in the sport, Allen is extremely talented in knowing where and when to cut to the basket; only six players in America have more points off of cuts this year, per Synergy.

Marcus Carr (Minnesota transfer, 11 PPG) and Courtney Ramey (9.3 PPG) comprise the starting backcourt; they’re paired together because they have fairly similar skill sets. Shot Quality ranks both as being very good at creating their own shots and I’d say normal play-by-play data backs that up. 38% of Carr’s makes and 61% of Ramey’s are unassisted. Carr is the main ball-handler on the team and can be expected to pull up off the dribble pretty frequently:

While Ramey’s the best shooter Texas has to offer, coming in at 36% on threes and an astounding 48% on all catch-and-shoot attempts. He was at 44% on catch-and-shoots last year, so I feel pretty safe deeming him a legit, scary threat from downtown. If only he took more than four a game from deep.

The fourth and fifth players to highlight are intriguing because both keep bobbing in and out of the starting lineup. Andrew Jones takes more threes than any other Texas player but is a 33% shooter this year and 35% for his career. For reasons I’m not sure how to explain, Jones has consistently been better off-the-dribble than in catch-and-shoot situations over the course of his career, so making him take a dribble or two is actually the worse option.

Lastly: Tre Mitchell (UMass transfer, 9.2 PPG). Mitchell’s gotten more starts at the 5 as of late, displacing Creighton transfer Christian Bishop. (Recall the note up top about all the transfers, please.) He posts up a lot and is a quality passer for a big man; the notable thing he brings right now is extra spacing due to the fact he’s a decent three-point shooter.

You might notice something among these four GIFs: only one was an attempt at the rim. That’s by design. In the to-be-expanded SEC, Texas would rank 13th of 16 in terms of rim attempt rate. They’re decent at finishing when they get there, but they have almost as many attempts from 5-21 feet as they do 0-4. In terms of pure mid-range jumpers, they average 10 a game. On Bart Torvik’s site, you can compare a team’s statistical profile to those from previous seasons. If you boost the importance of eFG% and 3PT attempt rate, you may snicker at the results.

Ask Tennessee fans how those Marches felt.

CHART! The official Chart Guide is now as follows:

Yes: “Be afraid.” 😬
Somewhat: “They can hit this but not very efficiently.” 🤔
No: “Either never attempts this shot or is atrocious at making it.” 🥳

Texas’ defense

Interesting! This is the side that keeps Texas watchable: the Texas Tech defense with hand-picked transfer portal kings that forces a bonkers amount of turnovers and is excellent at forcing bad shots. The stats graphic spells it out pretty well: terrific at defending twos and threes, good at defending the rim, generally good all around. I like that. There is a problem, however:

That graphic encapsulates every Top 100 offense on the Texas schedule. Something you’ll immediately notice: just four games against Top 100 competition, two of which were losses. Something else: Tennessee is the second-best offense Texas has played. Please think about this edition of Tennessee basketball and speak that out loud. Tennessee is the second-best offense Texas has played. God almighty.

Unfortunately, all efficiency numbers are adjusted for competition, and those seem like useful proof that Texas is smashing the weak schedule it’s been given. (Texas’ offensive SOS ranks 185th on KenPom, which is like playing Missouri, the 181st-best offense, 20 times.) Texas promotes relatively low-variance games by not giving up many three-point attempts and instead forcing a lot of non-rim twos. The same principles that aided Beard at Texas Tech are still helping him here:

The difficulty with playing this defense is that you’re likely to see a variety of ball-screen coverages depending on personnel. Texas will ice to the sideline whenever possible, but as evidenced above, they’ll switch when it makes sense and hedge a ball screen to push you away from the perimeter. Rarely, if ever, will you see a drop coverage employed; I would think they’d learn a lesson from what Arizona did against Tennessee that proved to be a fatal flaw in the Wildcats’ game plan.

Aside from the tons of turnovers, I do genuinely think Texas makes the shots against them at the rim difficult. As much as you can be moderately unlucky in game-to-game rim FG%, Texas probably deserves better results than the middling number you see in the graphic. No one player blocks tons of shots aside from backup Dylan Disu (Vanderbilt transfer), but the backcourt doesn’t get exploited by faster guards terribly often. When they do, the system itself does a great job of making life difficult.

On a lot of possessions, Texas simply doesn’t allow you many places to go that are statistically reasonable or efficient. They’ve been terrific at guarding the perimeter, both by 3PT% and by them allowing an average of just 12.5 catch-and-shoot attempts per game, the lowest average in the Big 12. They allow nearly as many off-the-dribble jumpers as they do catch-and-shoots, which is quite impressive. They’re still struggling with defensive rebounding at times and they do foul a bit, but for the most part, this is a really tight top-to-bottom unit.

The few teams that have experienced success against Texas since the Gonzaga game have either gotten hot from deep (Oklahoma State 8-for-17, Iowa State 10-for-23), rode the wave of Texas having a bad offensive night (Kansas State), or both. For what it’s worth, the hyper-aggressiveness of this defense has its holes. Synergy rates Texas as being in the 45th-percentile at defending cuts to the basket, which is interesting. While Texas doesn’t give up many threes in general, the ones they do give up are open, both C&S (55/45 Guarded/Unguarded) and off-the-dribble (Shot Quality gives an expected hit rate of about 31% on these threes; Texas currently sits at 25.5% allowed). If Tennessee can get the Regression Devil on their side, it could be a happy reunion for Rick Barnes.

Lastly: opponents are shooting 62.2% from the free throw line against Texas. Considering free throw defense is not a thing, I doubt that’ll last.

How Tennessee matches up

I think the obvious hope here is that Tennessee doesn’t fall back into a wave of mid-range jumpers like this defense wants to force. The good news is that the defense most like this is Texas Tech’s, which was a game where Tennessee got 90% of their shots at the rim or from three. The bad news is that Texas Tech is called the Act of God Game on this site for a reason. If Tennessee’s willing to forget that, they can create pressure in the paint the same way Texas does offensively: lots of penetration by Tennessee’s deceptively quick guards that ends in a cut to the basket.

Having a quality paint penetrator like Kennedy Chandler will help with this. I wouldn’t be shocked if Chandler has his own excellent game, but given his penchant for turnovers, I also would not be shocked to see him struggle. The team will go over the Texas Tech film to prepare for Texas, and a thing in Tennessee’s advantage is that Texas is simply not nearly as switchable or as tall at all five positions. Still: they force a ton of turnovers for a reason.

The other side of this equation is that you’re going to have to generate a lot of catch-and-shoot threes. Texas has done an excellent job of ensuring these simply don’t happen often this year, but Tennessee just got done getting off 21 catch-and-shoot attempts against a Florida team. The only side to toss up more C&S attempts against Florida this year: Alabama. Tennessee is deeply committed to the three, and in a road game where some amount of positive variance is needed to win, you’ve gotta get shots off.

An interesting stat to note: per CBB Analytics, of the 17.5 three-point attempts Texas allows in an average game, just 5.2 (or 29.7%) come from the right corner or right wing. 7.8 (44.6%) are from the left corner or left wing. This is likely by design; Texas wants to keep you out of the middle of the floor, and Tennessee has to be creative with where they place spot-up shooters. If Tennessee can find a way to keep getting Santiago Vescovi (or the other obvious shooters) open on the left side of the floor, they could get the extra juice they need to steal one on the road.

Defensively, Tennessee could have a similar concern in directionality. Texas has guards who are pretty good at driving the right half of the court and a frontcourt that can clean up the mess with an offensive rebound or a well-timed basket cut. Most annoyingly, if you keep them out of the paint, the odds they’ll nail a mid-range jumper are higher than anyone else on Tennessee’s schedule. So: pick your poison.

My first instinct is that Tennessee’s got to scheme a way to make Texas feel indecisive when driving. I’m still of the opinion that making the right players take mid-range jumpers is a perfectly fine strategy, and if Ramey or Carr want to take those ~40% shots instead of ~53% ones at the rim, do your thing. Still, Timmy Allen and crew are going to try to get Tennessee’s frontcourt out of sorts early with a basket cut every third possession. Tennessee has been very good at defending these this year, but Texas will try them more often than anyone else on the schedule. If Tennessee shuts a couple down in the first five minutes, Texas may ease up on how often they go to it.

Beyond that, this is a Texas team that has some quality shooters but no lights-out shooter on it. All of Jones, Ramey, Carr, and Mitchell are threats in the mid-range and from deep, but you’re not drawing the Kellan Gradys of the world here. The best and most proven strategy with Texas has been to make them take a lot of jumpers in half-court offense. They’ll hit a decent amount, but it beats letting them get to the rim or the post. As crazy as this sounds, I think I’m fine with the mid-range jumpers. Here’s why:

  • 2021-22 Texas, mid-range jumpers (per Synergy): 86-for-200 (43%), or 0.86 points per shot
  • 2021-22 Texas, threes: 133-for-402 (33.1%), or 0.993 points per shot

No matter how you slice it, it’s 13 points worse per 100 shots. The only player I genuinely don’t want to see pulling up from 17 feet is Marcus Carr. Everyone else: have at it. It’s less-damaging on the whole than threes.

Starters + rotations

Metric explanations: Role is algorithmically-determined by Bart Torvik. MPG is minutes per game. PPG/RPG/APG/Fouls/Twos/Threes are what you’d guess. USG% is the percentage of possessions a player uses on the court. OREB%/DREB% are your available rebounds usurped. Finally, PRPG! is Bart Torvik’s Points Over Replacement metric; the higher the better. If you’re on mobile, zoom in; if on desktop, right click -> Open Image in New Tab.

Three things to watch for

  • How many extra possessions can Tennessee create? I wouldn’t be surprised if turnovers are a stalemate or are slightly in favor of Texas. The more interesting thing is rebounding. Texas’ DREB% on missed threes: 263rd. Tennessee’s OREB% on missed threes: 44th.
  • Can either team crack 60% at the rim? These are both excellent two-point defenses; if either tops 60% down low I would be mildly surprised.
  • Threes. Obviously. Texas is 11-1 when their opponent shoots 35% or worse from deep; Tennessee is 9-1 when they simply crack 30%.

Key matchups

Timmy Allen vs. Josiah-Jordan James. This will be Allen vs. Nkamhoua to start, but JJJ is a near-identical body match for Allen and Tennessee’s been running with JJJ at the 4 more frequently as of late. Allen’s main source of points are cuts to the basket and rebounds; it would be ideal for JJJ to shut one of those valves off.

Marcus Carr vs. Kennedy Chandler. Carr has dropped 20+ twice in conference play, while Chandler hasn’t dropped 20+ since December 4. The points are only one part of this. Chandler must force Carr into tough, low-expectancy shots while avoiding the turnovers that have become unfortunately common on the other end.

Courtney Ramey vs. Santiago Vescovi. Hope you like threes! Ramey’s goal will be to get up 4-5 threes in this one, but Vescovi taking 9-10 genuinely should happen.

Three predictions

  1. Tennessee blocks more shots than Texas;
  2. Multiple times this game, you will be annoyed by a Texas player hitting a mid-range jumper;
  3. Texas 64, Tennessee 61.

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