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January 10, 2014

Texas' defense needs to improve after 0-2 Big 12 start...

This wasn't the start to Big 12 play the Longhorns had in mind.

After dropping the opening game of conference play at home against Oklahoma, the Longhorns (11-4, 0-2) flirted with an upset win at Oklahoma State. But a big run to open the second half by the Cowboys ruined any hope of that, and now the Longhorns sit in a bit of a hole to start conference play. One of the reasons why they're in that hole is because of their defense.

Against Oklahoma State, Texas committed a ton of fouls, which led to, obviously, a lot of free-throw attempts for an aggressive Oklahoma State backcourt. At one point, Texas had to go with Demarcus Holland at point guard because of foul trouble, and went with a small lineup that included Connor Lammert as the only big.

"We're having trouble staying in front of the ball," said Lammert about the Texas defense. "We've been really emphasizing that in the last couple practices. The reason we're getting into a lot of foul trouble is because of some of the perimeter defense is lacking and the drives come and we have to take care of them inside. If we improve on that, which we will, it'll cut down on the foul trouble."

A combination of effort, and those lineups on the floor caused the Longhorns to struggle on defense. Oklahoma State opened the second half by making six-of-seven shots from the floor, and all of those makes were either layups or dunks.

"I did not think we had the kind of effort we needed in the Oklahoma State game defensively," Texas head coach Rick Barnes said. "We had just so many makeshift lineups because of the foul trouble and so much of that goes back to our perimeter players getting beat off the dribble and pushing pressure on our inside players. And some of that is created by our offense too. The other night where Oklahoma State hurt us … I can think of four or five different plays where we didn't follow the scouting report the backdoor cuts, the backdoor for the lobs."

Barnes is trying to make it simple for his players, but Texas not taking care of things early in possessions is leading to problems at the rim.

"It's pretty simple, really - you've got to protect your basket," stated Barnes. "How do you protect your basket? You do your work early, you get yourself in position, you don't leave your feet, you don't reach… all those things that are leading to fouls. It's discipline. In practice we can take care of that because we can stop, run, do whatever. It has to come from simply understanding the game. You have to protect your basket. It starts with transition defense getting back, getting set up, and getting ready to play. You have to work at it. I think when you have… we've played enough games that we should know you have to be doing something all the time. It's a matter of just going from one thing to the next thing to the next thing and being able to sustain it."

One player that could improve on going from one thing to the next in Big 12 play is freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor, who has struggled some after looking outstanding in non-conference play. One of Taylor's best attributes early this season was his ability to remain in control and control his pace. Lately, that has gotten away from him some.

"He's played much slower," Barnes said about Taylor. "When teams have changed defense, instead of being aggressive he's backed off, locked into one side. He was a little better last game. He's always had a tendency all year if he comes down the floor and makes a play he's going to try to force it again as opposed to reading the defense each and every time."

And although he's played slow when he probably shouldn't, he's also appeared to try to play too fast, which has led to turnovers and a lower percentage of shots made at the rim, which he was great at finishing in non-conference play.

"People are game-planning for him, and for us," Lammert said. "That's something he's going to have to learn. We've been helping him out. Coach has been helping him a lot in the film room. The main thing is him being the point guard he has to take charge of the team on the court and really lead us and get us into offense and like it or not; he is the guy that makes the whole offense run. If he doesn't get us into an offensive set, we're kind of wondering what to do and are scattered. If he comes down, takes charge, and gets us into sets, that'll be good for him."

One thing that could help everyone on the floor is working the ball into the big men more. Cameron Ridley has been very effective this season, but teams have been able to take away him, and the other big men, because of their game-plan.

"We just have to have that emphasis every time and it starts with the point guard," Lammert said about getting the inside-scoring going consistently. "If we keep running the transition game like we have in the preseason, we have to carry that over to the Big 12. The difference between big 12 and preseason is they game-plan for us. They take away our strengths. We just have to find new ways to get what we want. If we don't make any adjustments, we're not going to be successful. We have to learn from each game, and play to our strengths, which is getting the ball inside."

Although it's early in the season, there could be some heat on the Longhorns because they have such a small margin of error when it comes to making the Big 12 tournament. They simply can't afford to drop any game they shouldn't, and need to win the "coin-flip" type games at a high rate. But are they pressing or panicking?

"We're not in panic mode right now," responded Lammert. "We think we could have won both games. We broke it down in film and you see the plays… you see what we need to improve on. There were things we improved on from Oklahoma to Oklahoma State."

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