Texas' Connor Lammert (21) scores over Texas Tech's Toddrick Gotcher during an NCAA basketball game at the Frank Erwin Center Saturday, Feb. 14, 2015. (Stephen Spillman for AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

Men's Basketball

To beat zones, you’ve got to make outside shots; therein lies UT’s problem …

Posted February 25th, 2016

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Story highlights
  • Texas ranks 202th in the country in three-point field goal percentage, with a shooting percentage of 34.1 percent.
  • Javan Felix, Eric Davis Jr., Tevin Mack and Connor Lammert have more than 100 three-point attempts, but they’re shooting 36, 37, 34 and 30 percent, respectively.
  • Texas has seen a zone from most teams this year, ranging from either a few possessions to an entire game.

The Longhorns enter a danger zone when going up against a zone.

Player movement stalls, drives to the hoop stop, pace slows down. Beating a zone defense is like trying to solve a Rubik’s cube — it requires continuous movement from different angles, and it has to be strategic. A zone won’t get picked apart if players are glued to the ground, if they aren’t penetrating the gaps, if they aren’t getting inside the zone.

“I think, sometimes when you see zone, guys get a little bit hesitant,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said. “And we’ve been a little bit less aggressive against it.”

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Texas (18-10, 9-6), which faces Oklahoma on Saturday, has seen a zone from most teams this year, ranging from either a few possessions to an entire game. Opponents usually deploy it because the Longhorns run an uptempo offense, and a zone can slow the game down.

Unfortunately, the zone has exposed Texas’ mediocre shooting ability. As a team, Texas ranks 202th in the country in three-point field goal percentage, with a shooting percentage of 34.1 percent.

Aggressiveness, as Smart said, may be a factor. But what seems to be the biggest contributor to the Horns’ inconsistency against zones is the lack of making those outside shots. Poor shooting teams tend to struggle against a zone because if they aren’t making shots, the zone collapses and there aren’t many gaps to drive.

When shots are falling, a zone expands, leading to more gaps and lanes, producing more drives and ball movement, which results in a scrambling defense and better shots.

“You just gotta take a great shot in a zone,” said freshman Kerwin Roach Jr., who’s shooting 31 percent on threes. “You don’t really wanna settle for the first one, and you really just wanna make the defense work.”

Texas isn’t a team filled with snipers camping out in the perimeter. The only Longhorn shooting better than 40 percent from three-point range is junior guard Kendal Yancy, but he’s only attempted 25 shots this season. Guards Javan Felix, Eric Davis Jr., Tevin Mack and forward Connor Lammert each have taken more than 100 three pointers, but they’re shooting 36, 37, 34 and 30 percent respectively.

“I feel like a lot of teams feel like we don’t have enough shooters on our team that can make shots,” Mack said. “So they tried to go in a zone to slow us down.”

Texas has been successful against a zone at times, but it was when shots fell, guards penetrated and the ball kept moving. In the Feb. 1 win over Baylor, Texas assisted on all 21 of its field goals and hit eight threes. Against West Virginia on Feb. 16, Davis hit three straight shots when the Mountaineers switched to a zone.

Then there was last Saturday’s rematch against Baylor, when the Horns shot 4-of-18 from behind the arc and lost 78-64; and the second game against Iowa State, where the Cyclones went zone and lost 85-75 and Georges Niang said afterward: “Our goal for the game was to pack it in and have them shoot over us.”

This on-court Rubik’s cube is giving Texas trouble.

“It’s something that we work on in practice,” Smart said. “But the zone that we’re playing against in practice, if we’re playing against ourself, is not necessarily the best in the country.”

The zone on the court at Cooley Pavillion can’t replicate the 1-3-1 in Waco or the 2-3 in Ames; and it can’t mirror the athleticism of Iowa State or the tenacity of Baylor.

“It’s definitely something we’ve got to keep getting better at,” Smart said.

The choreographed spacing, the Spurs-ian ball movement, the long practice sessions — those may not be a factor if the ball doesn’t go through the net. The Horns need Felix and Lammert and Davis and Mack to do what they are known for.

Only one problem.

“You never know who’s going to make shots,” Mack said.

The Longhorns only hope that they will.

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