Under head coach Rick Barnes, the Longhorns have always focused on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, only once in the last ten seasons did the Horns finish outside of the top fifty in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. While Barnes has long used a stingy man-to-man defense to achieve those impressive numbers, depth concerns have forced him to flip the script in the first two games this season.
“Defensively, we’re playing zone because of Myck Kabongo’s situation,” he told reporters after the game. “If we’re going to take advantage of the length of these guys, we’ve got to play some zone.”
That zone defense stifled Coppin State in last night’s victory, limiting the Eagles to just 24.6% shooting on the night. In tempo-free numbers, Texas held Coppin State to just .631 points per possession, the best single-game performance by a Longhorn team since limiting UT-Pan American to .523 PPP on December 15th, 2009.
A big part of that defensive success was due to the improved play by freshman Prince Ibeh. With Jonathan Holmes saddled by foul trouble, Ibeh logged 20 minutes against the Eagles and swatted three shots. On one block, Ibeh seemed to jump so far off the floor that he looked suspended in mid-air. He also was tied for the team lead with nine rebounds, three of them coming on the offensive glass.
At 6’10″ and blessed with great length, Ibeh has so far shown great lateral quickness and springy hops. If Texas is going to utilize the 2-3 zone more often this season, Ibeh’s defensive presence is going to alter game plans for opponents.
Freshman Ioannis Papapetrou was the other Longhorn who snagged nine rebounds, but his impact on the game was far from one-dimensional. After not making a big offensive impact against Fresno State, Papi showed off a variety of skills in a 10-point performance. The Greek product knocked down 2-of-4 from behind the arc and also displayed a nice driving ability when the defense pressured him on the perimeter. When Javan Felix was getting a breather on the bench, Papi even brought the ball up as a point forward. Defensively, he harassed Coppin State players who handled the ball in the corners, and he hustled all over the floor for those nine boards.
For fellow freshman Felix, the second game was rough. Javan failed to score a point in the game and was responsible for eight of the team’s 26 turnovers. The most frustrating aspect of the turnovers by Felix and the Longhorns was that 18 of them came on steals. Lazy passes on the perimeter were intercepted and turned into fast break buckets. The Longhorns also repeatedly just held the ball in front of the nose of defenders while standing outside the arc, resulting in easy steals. Felix had major issues against the tough defense of Troy Franklin, getting so thoroughly embarrassed by one mid-court pickpocketing that Coach Barnes immediately took a timeout to dress him down.
With Felix held scoreless, even more of the offensive punch had to come from sophomore star Sheldon McClellan, and he rose to the challenge. After scoring 14 of his 20 points in the season opener from the stripe, McClellan only tallied 8 of his career-high 25 from the line against Coppin State. He led the team with a trio of three-pointers, missing just one long range attempt. Another basket came from just inside the arc, while his most impressive shot was on a baseline drive where he stopped on a dime and knocked down a turnaround jumper.
Although McClellan and Papapetrou both found success from outside, the team still had its share of struggles beyond the arc. After knocking down just 1-of-13 in the season opener, the Horns made only two of their first 10 attempts against Coppin State. Texas ultimately booked a 35% mark on the night, connecting on seven of 20. Julien Lewis and Connor Lammert were responsible for most of the misses, combining to make just one of their nine attempts.
In our Fresno State game wrap, we quantified just how poorly last year’s team performed from behind the arc. This year, there is clearly the potential for greater success with McClellan playing more aggressively, Papapetrou showing off some long range, and even Demarcus Holland looking like a sharpshooter off the bench. However, Lewis’ 1-for-9 mark on the season is a concerning one, as it reminds us just how often he was an indiscriminate and inaccurate shooter last year. If the Longhorns can get some long-range punch from McClellan and Papapetrou, there is no reason for Lewis to be leading the team in three-point attempts.
While some improvement was seen on threes, the Longhorns looked downright awful at the stripe. McClellan was once again steady at the line, pushing his season mark to 91.6% (22-of-24) on free throws. But for the rest of the team, the charity stripe was far from friendly, as they combined to make just 8-of-19 (42.1%) of their attempts. Ibeh and Cameron Ridley were the worst offenders, going 2-of-9 at the stripe. Ridley had numerous shots clank off the back iron, while Ibeh airballed a free throw and chucked another off the backboard, completely missing the rim. If the Texas bigs are this bad at the line all year, opponents will certainly take a few fouls to make them earn their points.
In addition to struggling at the stripe, Ridley also once again looked awkward and uncomfortable on offense. All three of his fouls came on the offensive end, and he coughed it up on another three occasions. Although Cam has big hands just made for basketball, he’s had major issues handling passes in his first two games. Opponents can already sense that nervousness, as Fresno State and Coppin State both were able to fluster and frustrate the big man with quick, pesky double teams. Ridley obviously still needs to adjust to the competition level, but it’s a very young season and plenty of time to improve. The Longhorns have to hope he takes advantage of that opportunity.
Although there were a lot of areas for Coach Barnes to address in the long week off before the Maui Invitational, Texas did look great in transition. The Horns consistently got out and ran the floor, and Felix repeatedly looked up to find his teammates for easy buckets. Texas also took advantage of defensive lapses by Coppin State, connecting for a handful of rim-rattling alley-oops. All told, the Longhorns logged 14 assists in this game, a vast improvement on the three-assist performance against Fresno State. In tempo-free terms, Texas jumped from 16.7% to 60.9% in the assist rate category.
Up next: vs. Chaminade (Maui Invitational); Monday, 8:30 P.M. CT