In case you missed my wildly popular season preview of the Texas Longhorns that generated literally tens of page views - in the process, lining @BarkingCarnival's pockets with hundreds of cents in revenue - well, you should probably skip it. I wrote it before my heart was broken by a swarthy Greek demigod, thus rendering all the guesses more irrelevant than my libido at senior prom.
With Ioannis Papapetrou going pro, my expectations - like most of the 8 UT basketball fans left on the planet - were understandably low. The team had lost the top 4 scorers from a team that already struggled on offense, were once again one of the youngest teams in the country, and most Texas graduates were overwhelmed by apathy at what looked to be Rick Barnes' last season on the 40 Acres. I still watched the games, partly because I'm a UT fan & partly because I get the Longhorn Network so I'm nearly half their available audience & Kevin Dunn needs somebody to pay his bills, what with him constantly having to bail Greg Swindell out of jail during baseball season.
(If you'll indulge me, it is December.)
The season starts and there arose such a clatter, that I sprang from the couch to see what was the matter.
When, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but Rick Barnes & 12 eager ballers.
With a little old point guard, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be Zay & Felix.
More rapid than eagles & his coursers they came,
And he whistled & shouted & called them by name!
"Now Holland! Now, Ibeh! Now, Lammert & Croaker!
On, Ridley! On, Taylor! On Holmes & Walker!"
Needless to say, this team is pleasantly surprising to this point. They're still flawed in some significant ways and everything about this team still screams 'NIT' until they beat somebody more notable than Vanderbilt, but compared to last season's debacle they're decidedly fun & easy to root for. Let's get started.
Isaiah Taylor (10.9ppg, 3.5apg, 27.9mpg)
I heard some rumblings prior to the season that Taylor was going to surprise us, and he's exceeded almost every expectation we could've had for him so far this season. The fact that Barnes was willing to hand him the keys from the get-go rather than rely on the known quantity(Felix) says a lot about Taylor. His A/TO ratio(28/17, or 1.64:1) is solid for a true freshman & should hopefully improve as the season progresses. His 2 weaknesses at this point are his free throw shooting(just south of 60%) and the fact that he hasn't hit a single 3 so far(0 for 5). If he doesn't improve either of those his ceiling will be Dogus Balbay 2.0, which isn't a bad ceiling, but he's capable of much more. He's fearless going to the rim & reminds me ever so slightly of TJ Ford in that respect; if he can push his FT% over 70% then he's going to cause opponents a lot of problems over the next couple of years as he's already in Ken Pomeroy's top 100 players in the nation at drawing fouls. This kid is flat-out fun to watch.
Demarcus Holland (12ppg, 2.5apg, 33mpg)
If you had told me at the start of the season that Holland would average more minutes/game than anyone else, I would have sighed & frowned while thinking that Barnes hadn't learned anything in the off-season. The thing is, Holland's earned his PT. He's driving to the rim with a purpose & under control(well, mostly), and in my opinion he's easily the best perimeter defender on the team. He's no longer a serious offensive liability; his game is limited, but I'm no longer instinctively screaming 'NNOOOOO' when he takes a 3. I mean, he's only hitting 25% of them, but that's nearly 50% better than last year & the 3s he's taking aren't nearly as haphazardly chosen as they were a year ago.
Javan Felix (11ppg, 3.3apg, 26.1mpg)
I hate this part of the review. Javan was such a warrior for the team last year that I hate to speak badly about him, but the fact of the matter is that he needs to spend more time on the bench. His defense is a significant liability; when he's on the weakside he cheats towards the paint way too far for a guy that doesn't have great recovery speed or length & is subsequently a primary reason the team is irredeemably bad at 3-point defense(297th in Pomeroy's rankings). The upside of that cheating is he has some steals, but it's a net-negative when he gives up so many clean looks from beyond the arc. He doesn't bring much to the offense, either; he's not quick enough to beat faster guards & he's not tall/big enough to get the ball to the rim consistently amongst the trees. He's basically there as the resident free-throw shooter(nearly 86%) and a spot-up 3 point shooter(not appreciably better than Croaker in this respect). The guy obviously loves to play & I wish he had something to offer other than an epic Amish beard, but this team can't afford to give preference to a guy that's 'bled for the program'.
Kendal Yancy (5ppg, 2.4rpg, 13.4mpg)
KY seems to be coming into his own the last couple of games after starting slowly. He's got a decent handle, he's decisive with the ball when he drives, and he stays under control in traffic. He's got solid anticipation(6 steals) and he doesn't get shoved around by bigger players because, well, there aren't many at his position. KY is a grown-ass man as a freshman. He doesn't look 40 like Greg Oden, he's just got a good frame & obviously works hard in the weight room. Barnes seems to be trusting him more at the small forward position, though part of that could be a lineup adjustment to Lammert's foul troubles(we'll get to that).
Damarcus Croaker (4.5ppg, 32% 3-pt, 11.4mpg)
I'm not quite sure what to make of Croaker's game thus far. You see flashes of crazy athleticism(there was a made shot at the CBE tournament where Croaker damn near flew over the backboard going for the rebound, nobody around me understood why I went nuts over an otherwise unmemorable jump shot) & in a limited sample size he's got good mechanics on his shot, he just hasn't quite taken off yet. I get the sense that Barnes wants him hanging out beyond the arc to hit 3s as this team is low on guards with an outside shot, but I don't think Barnes would mind him driving the lane a little more as well. There's going to be a game or two this season where Croaker goes apeshit on a team, I can feel it. He's lurking out there, and at some point he's going to kill a guy with a trident before anybody realizes what just happened.
Martez Walker (Here!)
In any other season, Walker probably redshirts. He's got a quirky but effective outside shot...and that's about all I've got on him. The sample size on him is too small right now to really say much; he's the victim of too many guards & not enough minutes. We probably won't see much of him this season outside of foul trouble issues.
The Big Men
Jonathan Holmes (12.7ppg, 6.7rpg, 22.7mpg)
Holmes is the unquestioned leader of this team. If you don't believe it, watch the one game he missed(UT-Arlington). They struggled without him; not necessarily because he's overly vocal or demonstrative, he's happy to lead by example while making an Austin orthodontist wealthy in the process. He gets the loose rebounds, he has deceptively quick hands(9 steals, 3rd on the team), and converts on free throws(84%). The biggest improvement has been his fouling...or more to the point, the lack thereof. He's on pace to reduce his fouls by roughly 25%, which is significant because the team needs him on the floor doing all the 'glue' things he does. He's also the best 3-point shooter(48%) on the team so far this season, which causes all sorts of issues for opponents when he plays the 4. This is the Holmes we were starting to see last year before his hand injury.
Cameron Ridley (8.8ppg, 7.5rpg, 25.3mpg)
It's amazing what happens to a post player when he gets the entry pass on time, huh? Alright, that's not fair, it's not just the entry passes that are responsible for Ridley's significant improvement this year. He's obviously in better shape, he's more decisive with his post moves, and he's still blocking anything even remotely close to him(top 20 in the nation in block % per Pomeroy). In short, he's starting to look like the 5-star recruit everybody salivated over. AND THE FREE THROWS. I know I shouldn't be excited over a guy shooting 53% from the line, but when you get to the line as much as he does(only Taylor has more FTAs) it's important that he makes teams pay for it. Over the last 3 games he's hitting 71% of his FTs; if he keeps that up - and his form suggests it's at least possible - he's going to give Big 12 coaches nightmares.
Prince Ibeh (4.9ppg, 2.1bpg, 14.1mpg)
While I was at the CBE(if you watched on TV, I was the Texas fan) I watched team warm-ups & the stretching routines Todd Wright put all the players through. One of the things that struck me was just how weak Ibeh's core is. Wright is putting the team through a series of stretches that are similar in concept to yoga poses, and guys like Holmes & Felix are steady regardless of the stretch. Meanwhile Ibeh is behind them, flailing around like an inflatable tube in a hurricane.
(Note: not actual warm-up footage)
I think this is part of the reason for Ibeh's issues with silly fouls, he doesn't have as much body control as somebody like Holmes who has a stronger core. Ibeh also relies a little too heavily on pure athleticism(of which he has a ton) to make up for a lack of anticipation, and it causes him to pick up fouls he could otherwise avoid. Both of these issues can be remedied with time & dedication, and if Ibeh focuses on these two aspects he will make a lot of money playing basketball some day(perhaps sooner than later). I mentioned to Ibeh once that I could see him being similar to Tristan Thompson, though that analogy was a little imprecise. Tristan's offensive game is more refined than Ibeh's. Of course, rock salt is more refined than Ibeh's offensive game. Ibeh's focus this season should be learning the pick & roll(imagine him & Taylor getting that down, hello Sportscenter Top Ten) and stuffing offensive boards home because it plays to his length & quickness advantages over most big men. Prince oozes potential, and I would love to see him realize more of it because he could be a reckoning if he put the pieces together.
Connor Lammert (7.1ppg, 6.3rpg, 21.3mpg)
Connor seems snakebit by foul trouble lately, which is unfortunate because he's the key to a lot of what Texas wants to do offensively. He's at his best killing zone defenses by flashing to the top of the key & passing to the open player or taking the mid-range jumper. He rebounds intelligently, doesn't take dumb shots, and makes the right decision with or without the ball more often than not. The problem is that the 'not' seems to end up with him racking up fouls more often as of late, though some could be attributed to him not being as strong as some of the guys he's defending(it's now legal to barrel over a guy in the lane, apparently). The strength gap is narrowing but still significant, and with the officiating changes this season it's easier than ever for defenders to pile up fouls(and most of Lammert's fouls seem to happen on the defensive end). It would be nice to have him on the floor in crunch time, because even if he doesn't make the shot(he has the highest FG% on the team) he still gets to the line(ditto on FT%). Plus, his passing is severely underrated(1 turnover in 8 games, 12th best in the nation in Pomeroy's ratings).
Rick Barnes(354 wins, 100% FT in practice, 1 haircut in 16 years)
Rick Barnes gets a lot of heat, much of it deserved. The book on Barnes is that he will be fired when the season is over, and so far there's not a lot of reason to suspect that will change. However, I've found little to complain about this season(well, other than his lineup decisions at the end of BYU). He's putting the freshmen out there & rolling with the ups & downs that come with youth rather than playing Felix at the point 36mpg. He's being very positive & encouraging with all his players on the sidelines & he seems to be back on the right side of the 'tough love/asshole' line again. Whether this is him throwing everything against the wall for the sake of saving his job or a realization that the way he's done things the past couple of years isn't what leads to success(I suspect the answer is somewhere in the middle), he's pulling almost all of the right levers through the first 1/4 of the season. Whether it sticks or he reverts to the Carolina Bobby Knight, whether it's enough to save his job..time will tell; but the early signs are encouraging & at the very least, the team is fun to watch again.