Defense will determine if this Texas season is a success

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
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AMES, Ia. — It’s the kind of cold that socks you right in the chest, takes your breath away and leaves you disoriented.

There’s no shaking it. There’s no escaping. The kind of cold that hit central Iowa on Monday, with temperatures as low as minus-20 and wind chills dipping below minus-30, is something that makes simply being borderline unbearable.

In a way, it’s the role model for what Texas wants its defense to be.

“Our team is trying to build a constant mindset of every single day,” junior Dylan Osetkowski said, “that we want to be the best defensive team in the nation.”

There were hints of that Monday when the Longhorns found respite from the frigid temperatures inside Hilton Coliseum, where they sent Iowa State shooting percentages plummeting as low as the mercury in a 74-70 overtime victory featuring little in the way of offensive beauty but plenty of defensive mettle.

“It just shows our fight,” point guard Matt Coleman said.“Just keep fighting. Stuff won’t go your way early, just find a way to win.”

It was a return to form for the Longhorns after Kansas gouged them for 92 points – 1.26 points-per-possession – last week in which the Jayhawks connected on 17 of 35 (48.6 percent) of their 3-pointers.

“I thought we were a step off,” Texas coach Shaka Smart said.

Texas’ defense was in lock-step against the Cyclones. Iowa State was never comfortable, never in rhythm and never productive for anything but spurts. The Longhorns held them to 36.8 percent shooting overall and 25.9 percent from 3-point range. These Cyclones don’t possess the high-octane offense of years past, but to keep them to .959 points per possession in their home gym – where Texas hadn’t won in 8 years – is no small feat.

“Did a really good job embracing our ego,” freshman center Mohamed Bamba said. “We knew how tough it was going to be to play here we haven’t won one year since 2010.

“We dominated the process going into it. The outcome is what we got.”

Bamba, a projected top-10 pick in June’s NBA draft, is as integral to Texas’ defensive stalwartness as anything. Even on a night where he struggled to contain Iowa State’s bigs and his coach said “he looked a little sluggish out there at time,” Bamba made an impact defensively, blocking four shots. His eight-foot wingspan has propelled him to a 16.8 block percentage, fifth-best in the nation.

The Longhorns now rank sixth nationally in adjusted defense, according to KenPom.com. Opponents are converting at just a 30.3 percent clip from 3-point range and 42.7 percent inside the arc. The defensive effective field goal percentage of 43.7 is 15th-best in the country.

Every little bit counts defensively for Texas. Largely because the offense is, well, not very good. It’s hard to have an effective and modern offense in 2018 when you’re shooting 29.2 percent from 3-point range as a team, as the Longhorns are. That’s a big reason they’re outside the top-100 in adjusted offense. Osetkowski abused Iowa State’s troubled pick-and-roll defense Monday to hit 7 of 13 from distance which inched his season shooting percentage from 3 just above 30, joining Andrew Jones (46.3) as the only Longhorn members of that club.

Winning ugly is as big a cliche as it is a reality for Texas as long as that shooting percentage stays low. The Longhorns, though, appear built to win games with shooting percentages only marginally less chilly than an Iowa winter.

“To come back and fight and battle after being down a few different times and then overtime, I thought we really followed the process,” Smart said. “We really systematic about following the plan of what we wanted to do. It wasn’t perfect. It’s usually not going to be. There some stuff left on the table that we want to get better at but I thought our guys did a good job down the stretch.

“The guys earned one. Road wins are hard to come by in this league especially when you’re playing in front of a raucous crowd like this this is a very very hard place to come in and win.”

Texas did it with defense, not much in the way of Havoc that ultimately got Smart the job in Austin, but something more conventional, though the Longhorns continue to create more turnovers each year under Smart. They’re probably not a contender to win the Big 12 and end Kansas’ 13-year run atop the conference this season, but Texas’ defense makes them an interesting follow the next few months. Especially if can continue to improve and keep offenses in a deep freeze into the spring.

“On about 60, 70 percent of the plays we were back to defending with the level of aggressiveness and urgency we needed,” Smart said Monday, “and then there was a third or a quarter where we weren’t aggressive enough.

“Obviously you don’t want to be at 60 or 70 percent. You want to be at 100 percent.”