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December 23, 2009
Eyes on Texas
The Memphis Parallel

by John Gasaway

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When I was a kid and I’d be watching sports on TV with my older brother, I would often blurt out some kind of sweeping statement (“Don Mattingly is the greatest hitter ever”) that would invariably send my sibling running gleefully for the Baseball Encyclopedia or whatever reference work would demolish my blurt. He would then spend the next ten minutes painstakingly and methodically refuting my sweeping statement. (Today he’s a lawyer. Go figure.)

Now that I’m an adult I get to blurt on Twitter. So last night while I was watching Texas defeat Michigan State 79-68 in Austin, I blurted out that the Longhorns right now are reminding me of a certain team: “Texas 2010 is Memphis 2008: Prohibitive D and hideous FT shooting.”

Last night’s game against the Spartans certainly gave me ample cause to blurt that out. The ‘Horns held Tom Izzo’s team to 68 points in a 75-possession contest, but shot just 8-of-19 from the line. (Meaning, from Michigan State’s perspective, this game was something of a missed opportunity. Dexter Pittman, limited to just 12 minutes by foul trouble, was a total non-factor and Texas’ FT shooting was even worse than usual.) But was I really on solid ground with this comparison?

I decided to find out.

Tigers and Longhorns, then and now
Memphis after 11 games in Dec. 2007 vs. Texas after 11 games in Dec. 2009
PPP: points per possession Opp. PPP: opponent points per possession
EM: efficiency margin (PPP – Opp. PPP)

                         FT%   PPP   Opp. PPP    EM 
Memphis, December 2007   60.2   1.08    0.86    +0.22
Texas, December 2009     61.2   1.14    0.77    +0.37

Keep in mind the preseasons of these two teams are worlds apart contextually. At Memphis John Calipari was scheduling every tough opponent he could find in November and December, mindful of the fact that his team would then play 16 games against a hopelessly overmatched C-USA. Texas, conversely, uses these same months to tune up for what will be a rugged and highly competitive Big 12 regular season. So of course the Longhorns look better in this comparison. Their schedule, even with their recent games against North Carolina and Michigan State, has been much softer than what Memphis played two years ago (to wit: Oklahoma, Connecticut, and USC at Madison Square Garden; a true road game at Cincinnati; and home games against Georgetown and Arizona).

Nevertheless, the numbers that Texas has posted against that soft schedule--outscoring opponents by almost four-tenths of a point for every possession they play--are more than gravity-defying enough to earn your notice. I’m on the record as ignoring polls entirely and thank goodness this sport has a postseason that makes the in-season beauty contest moot. Be that as it may, even a rankings hermit like yours truly has heard some rumblings of a Kansas-vs.-Texas who’s-number-one argument. For what it’s worth, the Longhorns have been the nation’s most impressive team to this point and it’s really not even close. That doesn’t mean they’re a shoo-in to win it all this April. It means simply they’ve been the most impressive team to this point.

I would merely add three qualifying statements to that particular sweeping statement:

The Longhorns’ free throw shooting is bad and it will stay bad.
Most of the Longhorns’ freebies are shot by Damion James and Dexter Pittman, both of whom began their college careers against Alcorn State on November 9, 2006. Starting with that game and running up through last night, the two players have combined to make just 62.1 percent of their 739 free throws. And that is what we in the biz call a large sample size. Obviously to the extent that freshman J’Covan Brown (who is making 97 percent of his FTs) can get himself to the line this season, this team’s overall figure for free throw accuracy will inch upward. But James and Pittman will ensure that this ceiling is a really low one.

And yet….

Texas needs Pittman on the floor.
Let me confirm the less-than-lofty impression that your eyes were delivering during last night’s game. This offense looked anything but “gravity-defying” in its half-court sets against Michigan State. Part of the problem was that Pittman was in foul trouble virtually the entire game. He may be averaging a mere 19 minutes a game, but when he is on the floor he functions as the nearest thing to DeJuan Blair this side of, well, DeJuan Blair. For the season Pittman is getting to 19 percent of his team’s misses while he’s in the game. That number may go down as the competition improves, sure, but the example that Pittman set last year (when he recorded a 17.7 offensive rebounding percentage) suggests it probably won’t fall too far.

Pittman’s presence means a team that doesn’t shoot all that well or that often from the perimeter can space the floor for the occasional three anyway, serene in the knowledge that an unnatural share of their misses will be erased by the big guy. (Not to mention he looks like he’s been working on his post moves.) Simply put, a player who gets this many offensive boards, makes 73 percent of his twos, and is far and away your best shot-blocker is one important piece of your puzzle. Arguably the most important single task facing Barnes and his staff is simply finding a way to maximize the minutes played by Pittman.

Let us render unto Damion James the compliment of accurate praise.
James is an exemplary warrior, one who has long exceeded what someone at his listed height should be able to accomplish on the defensive glass. This season he’s getting to 27 percent of opponents’ misses during his minutes, a level of excellence that’s simply insane for a 6-7 player. Moreover he’s making 55 percent of his twos and taking excellent care of the ball while functioning as his team’s featured scorer. Clearly, James is a star. What he is not, however, is an incomparably efficient shooter, especially not on the perimeter. James had one enchanted season beyond the arc as a sophomore in 2007-08, when he made 41 percent of his threes. Since the line was moved out a foot, however, he has made just 34 percent of his treys. That’s decent and, to his credit, James’ shot selection clearly shows that he knows his strengths lay inside the arc. Still, methinks I hear the beginnings of a nascent James-for-National-POY movement, and I just want to offer some truth in labeling at the top. (Note for example that Michigan State’s Draymond Green was doing precisely what he should have been doing against James last night, giving the senior all the room in the world and guarding against the dribble drive. Which explains why Green went nuts when he kept being called for fouls on James’ dribble drives.)

This is a dominant Texas team, one that plays outstanding FG defense on both sides of the arc, takes excellent care of the ball, and crashes the glass on both ends of the floor. Nevertheless, their Memphis-like free-throw shooting and the limited playing time of one of their best players suggest that the Longhorns’ domination will have its twists and turns. Fans in Austin should be thrilled, expectant, and ready for some anxious moments.

John blurts more concisely on Twitter: @JohnGasaway. College Basketball Prospectus 2009-10 is now available on Amazon.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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