Basketball was intended as a beautiful team game. But it’s sure been ugly in the Big 12 this season.
Every night’s a rock fight, each team throwing up one brick after another. As a whole, the league has the worst 2-point field-goal percentage (.458) out of 32 conferences in Division I.
The Big 12 ranks 25th in 3-point shooting (.316), so that’s been hit-or-miss as well. Mostly miss. Maybe a few air balls, too.
Texas coaches and players say that shooting — or, more specifically, the act of the ball physically going through the hoop — is out of their control. These last two games, they’ve been focused on spacing, cutting, movement and renewed aggressiveness.
The Longhorns (12-2, 2-2 Big 12) had two of their better offensive performances in the last seven days to dig out of an 0-2 conference hole. Saturday brings No. 6 Kansas, a team that dispatches 7-footer Udoka Azubuike to dunk on your head or a barrage of 3-point shooters itching for target practice.
“I just feel if we carry over what we’ve been doing in practice, build on these last two games, owning the matchups, owning the scouting report and just play free and play for Texas, play to win,” UT guard Matt Coleman III said, “everything will take care of itself.”
The Jayhawks (13-3, 3-1) may be without one of their brightest stars, 6-2 sophomore Devon Dotson. The Big 12’s leading scorer (18.0 ppg) suffered a left hip pointer injury against Baylor and missed Tuesday’s game against Oklahoma.
Texas isn’t worried about who Kansas will or won’t have. It’s about continuing to build on what happened in victories against Kansas State and Oklahoma State.
In losses to Baylor and Oklahoma, Texas shot 36.2% combined. The Horns made eight 3-pointers against the Sooners but also shot 29 overall. They weren’t getting the ball inside enough to Jericho Sims or even driving to the basket and drawing contact.
These last two games were different. Texas moved the ball better against K-State, getting 16 assists on 24 made field goals. The Horns attempted 12 free throws to the Wildcats’ nine. Sims still didn’t get enough shots, though. He had only five attempts, making four, and grabbing eight rebounds.
Against Oklahoma State, Texas had 19 assists on 27 made field goals. Sims had only four shots, but foul trouble limited his night on the whole.
The difference was that Kamaka Hepa drove to the basket, dunking twice and getting 15 points. Jase Febres, UT’s 3-point threat, drove to the rim, putting down an incredible dunk. It helped that Texas made 15 3-pointers, but it was the Horns’ overall demeanor that sparked the offense.
“Our main goal of our offense is to get one great shot,” Hepa said. To do that, Hepa said the Horns must move the basketball and get it to players who are most efficient, like Sims.
The Horns’ goal is to get Sims double-digit shot attempts every game. He shoots a team-high 67.4%, mostly via two-handed dunks and shots off the low block. Azubuike is similar, although he’s shot better than 70% for three straight seasons.
“Obviously making or missing the shot is what it comes down to, but that’s not really our emphasis or focus,” Hepa said. “We don’t have full control over that. So we focus on the things we can control that go into getting us a great shot.”
The last two games, there wasn’t much standing around waiting for someone else to make a play.
“When we have moved and cut with aggressiveness on the offense end, we’ve been able to create good shots,” Smart said. “Haven’t always gone in, but we’ve been able to create those when we cut. We always tell our guys to cut violently on the offense end.”
Overall, Texas is shooting 44.1%, which is third in the Big 12. That looks great on paper, but it’s only fractionally better than UT’s norm under Smart. Texas has shot anywhere from 43.2% to 43.9% the last four seasons, never finishing higher than seventh in the league.
This season, Texas is shooting slightly better than it normally does, but the rest of the league is missing shots with abandon. Kansas is shooting a league-high 49.9%, a key reason why coach Bill Self’s club ranks No. 1 overall in Kenpom’s analytical rankings of all college teams.
Smart’s built his fundamental approach by going defense first. He’d argue the Horns’ 20 blocks in the last two games helped fuel victory. That doesn’t hurt, but the goal is to score points.
“No matter what team it is, you’re easier to guard when you’re stagnant,” Coleman said. “So we made a lot of emphasis about passing, moving, not standing, playing off each other. So we’ve practiced that and it’s carried over. It’s just good to see that.”
Contact Brian Davis at 512-445-3957. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.