A roller coaster of performances during Big 12 play left the Longhorns with the slimmest of chances to make the NCAA Tournament. Head coach Shaka Smart’s job security was seemingly on the verge of no return, and the season seemed all but lost. However, an on-court miracle has taken place in Austin, giving a ray of hope to Longhorn fans heading into March.
Since losing to a Tyrese Haliburton-less Iowa State 81-52 on Feb. 15, the Longhorns have rattled off four consecutive wins. Texas has now given itself a decent shot to make the Big Dance, an unimaginable prospect just two weeks ago. So what exactly has gotten into Smart and the Longhorns? This can be answered by looking closely at their performance during their 68-58 win over the Red Raiders last Saturday.
Much of Texas’ success came from redshirt sophomore guard Andrew Jones continuing his aggressive play. Here, his drive draws in three Tech defenders, so he smartly makes the pass to freshman forward Kai Jones in the weak side corner. Two Raiders go to contest Kai Jones’ shot, leaving freshman center Will Baker and his recent hot shooting open enough to make his fifth 3-pointer of the year.
Another instance of this aggressiveness comes off this dribble handoff sequence, where Andrew Jones takes advantage of an unintentional screen and drives to the basket before spinning inside and drawing a foul. Tech sophomore guard Kyler Edwards sees Tech freshman guard Jahmi’us Ramsey initially helping on the drive and decides to cover Andrew Jones to the right, expecting Ramsey to cover middle. However, Ramsey goes back to Kai Jones, leaving the middle of the floor open for Andrew to spin toward the basket and draw a foul.
A final play to look at offensively is a variation of Texas’ infamous high ball screen. A couple weeks ago, my friend’s dad told me, “Shaka Smart only knows two plays: a high ball screen and Romeo and Juliet.” And when opponents scheme for the Longhorns, that has reigned true. Opposing coaches have been able to scheme against that one set, and Texas has failed to adjust — but that wasn’t the case Saturday.
Noticing he didn’t go to the hoop, junior guard Matt Coleman III passed the ball to his screener at the top of the key. Instead of the traditional ball screen, Hamm and Ramey combine for a well-executed backdoor cut, pass and finish.
While many have questioned Texas’ defensive upside due to a lack of personnel for defending forwards, the team has exceeded expectations on the defensive side of the ball in the last two weeks, even with the inconsistencies present.
Forcing a shot clock violation shows their ceiling when locked in. Help defenders do a great job of tagging and recovering on cutters and drives to the basket, stifling the option before Tech has a chance to take advantage.
Another area the Longhorns succeeded in was containing the point of attack and not letting players get to their strengths. To start, Baker makes sure to keep Tech senior forward Chris Clarke in front of him and not get any momentum through penetration.
Once junior Tech guard Davide Moretti and Clarke get into a pick and roll, Baker does a nice job of hedging and recovering. When the ball is kicked out to Tech freshman guard Terrence Shannon, Andrew Jones plays the percentages (Shannon is shooting 27% from deep this season and is very good getting to the basket) and Shannon misses the shot. There is a clear difference in how this team is playing just by looking at the numbers — the Red Raiders went from making 47% of their shots on Feb. 8 to just 39% on Saturday.
The Longhorns aren’t doing anything mind-boggling. But with solid effort and communication across the board defensively combined with shot-making and improved offensive flow, the Longhorns have salvaged the season, and maybe their tournament hopes as well.