By almost any measure, the Texas Longhorns' 2013-14 basketball season was an unqualified success.
Prior to the season, the Longhorns were picked by Big 12 coaches to finish eighth in the conference; Texas ended up tied for third.
Last year, Texas lost in the first round of the CBI; this year, the Longhorns beat Arizona State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, their first tourney win in three seasons.
Texas played a whopping 18 pre-tourney games against teams that went to the NCAA Tournament, going a respectable 9-9. In January, the Longhorns won four straight games against ranked teams: Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor, and Kansas.
Ultimately, Texas won 24 games, including a true road win at North Carolina and a smackdown of basketball rival Kansas in the Erwin Center. It's the ninth time Texas has won that many games in the Rick Barnes era.
After Texas hired basketball fixer Steve Patterson, it appeared the new AD was all set to go Winston Wolf and clean up the hoops program. Instead, Patterson recently gave Barnes, the Big 12 Coach of the Year, a wink, a gun, and a two-thumbs-up vote of confidence. The embattled head coach will be back for a seventeenth season, and it figures to be a promising one.
What went right?
Isaiah Taylor, Texas' next great point guard
Remember this video of Rob Lanier asking Taylor to be the next T.J. Ford? At the time, it felt like recruiting lip service. Prior to Taylor, Barnes recruited three consecutive five-star guards--Avery Bradley, Cory Joseph, and Myck Kabongo--in the hopes of finding his next Ford or D.J. Augustin. Turns out Barnes was aiming too high. He should have been looking roughly 300 spots lower, where Taylor ranked in the 247 Composite.
The unheralded freshman from California, by way of Houston, became a stabilizing force at the 1. Taylor led the team in minutes played (1055, 30.1 MPG), total points scored (444, 12.7 PPG), and total assists distributed (141, 4.0 APG), not an insignificant trio of statistics. His efficiency numbers need improvement (slash line of .391/.263/.748), but Taylor looks well-positioned to be Texas' next great point guard over the next few years.
Jonathan Holmes, the lone
Rivals ranked Texas' 2011 recruiting class the 8th best nationally. In case you don't remember the carnage, here's a refresher. 3* Kevin Thomas, the last recruit from the Canadian pipeline, never made it to campus. His replacement, 3* Jaylen Bond, transferred towards the end of last season. Fellow 3*, late period commit Sterling Gibbs packed his bags after his freshman season. Top 75 Houstonians Julien Lewis and Sheldon McClellan left after last year, Miami-bound. McDonald's All-American Myck Kabongo is still in Austin; he just happens to be playing for the NBDL's Austin Toros. That leaves one guy carrying the mantle: big Jon Holmes.
The 6' 8" junior upped his numbers across the board. Always a plus rebounder, Holmes averaged 7.2 RPG and boosted his rebounding efficiencies on both ends of the court (12.1% OR%, 19.2% DR%). He's improved as a midrange and high post ballhandler, and also sported a nice 5.5% Blk%. Most importantly, Holmes led the team in scoring at 12.8 PPG. He showed a credible three-point shot (28-84, 33.3%) and also posted career highs in 2-pt% (57.9%) and FT% (74.4%). I'm expecting an outstanding senior season sendoff.
Cameron Ridley, tour de force
It's hard to understate how bad Ridley was as a freshman. He shot the same 28-84 (33.3%) as Holmes did above, only Ridley managed to do that from the free throw line. He had 4 assists, and not in one game. All year. His offensive rating of 77.2 would have made a Mendoza line replacement player shirk. In short, it was far from a banner year for the former five-star recruit and McDonald's All-American.
What a difference a year makes. Ridley spent the season terrorizing opposing big men. He led the team in FG% (134-246, 54.5%), rebounding on both ends (115 offensive, 172 defensive, 8.2 RPG), and blocked shots (76, 9.1% blk%). And hey, he at least upped his yearly assist total to 14. Progress! Ridley was one of four Longhorns to average double digits in scoring, coming in fourth on the team with 11.2 PPG. That miserable O-Rtg got a significant sophomore bump to an above average 111.4. Not blessed with NBA 5 size, Ridley's best bet at a productive professional career might just entail four years of school. Think of the impact guys like Adreian Payne and Patric Young had as seniors this year. Now picture Ridley in a Longhorn uni for two more years. Good times.
Demarcus Holland, all-conference defender
At brief glance, nothing about Holland's stats stand out as impressive. But there was good reason that Holland played just 19 total minutes less than Taylor (1036, 29.6 MPG), and it wasn't an A for effort. Barnes and Big 12 coaches knew what's up, as Holland was awarded a spot on the Big 12's all-defensive team.
Holland constantly found himself between a rock and a hard place, either guarding the opponent's primary ballhandler or forced into a size mismatch against a bigger wing slasher. Yet Holland constantly made the best of difficult situations, performing equally well as a suffocating on-ball defender or off-ball denier. He also chipped in 7.1 PPG and finished fourth on the team in total rebounds (165, 4.7 RPG) and third on the team in total assists (84, 2.4 APG). If he develops a credible jumper, there's an All-Big 12 team in his future.
What went wrong?
Shooting, shooting, shooting
Javan Felix, the team's third leading scorer with 11.6 PPG, had some Javanions! moments but otherwise shot a thoroughly disappointing .358/.343/.760 on the year. 34% from distance is a plus at times (see: Holmes, Jonathan), but doesn't require said shooter to attempt 178 of those suckers. Unfortunately, Felix was the only Longhorn willing to consistently try to score from beyond the perimeter. Per hoop-math.com, the Longhorns were mediocre shooting at the rim (59.5%, 177th nationally), but even worse when a jump shot was required to score two points (35.6%, 196th) or three (32.7%, 260th).
In a perfect world, Felix plays a Phil Forte 3-point specialist type role. At worst, he needs to be putting up Keiton Page percentages. But on a team like Texas' where no one can be trusted from beyond the arc, Felix's percentages are what they are. On the plus side, Texas' overall eFG% of 47.4% (263rd nationally) led to many opportunities to be amongst the nation's leaders in OR% (39.6%, 6th nationally). Yay!
Wither the wing
If you want to drive yourself bonkers, imagine this team with Ioannis Papapetrou at the wing. OK, now step away from the ledge, please. Papapetrou's unexpected departure in August left a gaping hole in Texas' starting lineup. Barnes filled it admirably, asking guys like the 6' 2" Holland and 6' 3" Kendal Yancy to play the role of defensive stopper. Barnes' defense first mentality worked fairly well, as Texas held opponents to a 46.5% eFG% (56th nationally) and 42.9 2-pt% (12th) when offenses had to encounter the tall trees of Ridley and Prince Ibeh inside. Still, it would have been super sweet to have some size at the 3, especially when staring down guys like 6' 7" Andrew Wiggins or 6' 6" Nik Stauskas.
The late season "swoon"
Is it a Rick Barnes tradition? Or was it just misfortune that Texas' conference schedule was backloaded with difficult road games? Whatever the case may be, Texas went 4-5 in its last 9 conference games. The Longhorns missed a chance to make it to the finals, let alone win, the Big 12 Tournament. Once bracketologisted as a 6 seed in the NCAA Tournament with a chance at a 5, the Longhorns drew a 7 and looked overmatched in a 12 point loss to Michigan to end the year.
Is Texas a team that's 12 points better than Kansas or 31 points worse? A team that can go into Chapel Hill and win, or hike west to Lubbock and lose? A team that played Michigan to a draw in one half, or got blown out by double digits in the other? On February 15, the Longhorns were one game behind Kansas. A month later, the Jayhawks had won their 10th consecutive regular season Big 12 title. If Texas wants to break that streak, the Horns have to be much more the former next year.
Lack of consistent bench scoring
Is Martez Walker the guy? The freshman came alive in the NCAA Tournament, scoring 16 points against Arizona State and following that up with a 14 point performance versus Michigan. He ended the year shooting a promising 24-68, 35.3% from distance in a better sample size than Yancy's 6-17. The third freshman of the triumvirate, Damarcus Croaker, started the season swimmingly but went into a late-year swoon, ending up 22-74, 29.7% from 3-point land.
Too often, Texas had to rely solely on its starting five plus Connor Lammert, especially since Ibeh's only offensive skill is dunking the ball. That proved to be a big problem with Felix's shot wasn't falling or Taylor was having trouble getting the ball into the paint. Walker, Yancy, and Croaker all have potential. Texas just needs more production.
What needs to happen?
Texas returns errbody
On the plus side, Texas' rotation consisted of 1 junior, 5 sophomores, and 4 freshman. Both Holmes and Ridley have publicly announced their intent to return, which is good since their NBA prospects are essentially nil. With only Croaker being discussed as a possible attrition candidate, the Longhorns return their core rotation next year.
Off-season development is critical. Can a brother get a jump shot conga line in practice? For Taylor, keep those turnovers down and ball-handling crisp. For Felix, discern a good shot from a bad one. For Holland, get that stroke in order. For Holmes, be that alpha dog. And stay healthy. For Ridley, defenders can't guard you. Let it feed your power. And seriously. Line up. Shoot the ball. Rinse. Repeat.
Myles Turner, come on down
Texas currently has just one player committed in its 2014 class, St. Louis native Jordan Barnett. He comes with good size (reportedly 6' 7") and scoring ability (dropped 43 and 20 in his state championship game), but asking a guy ranked in the 100's nationally to be a difference maker is living on a prayer. The Longhorns are a game-changing player away from being considered the Big 12 favorites. Myles Turner is that guy. Texas recruitniks are hinting that the five-star big man favors Texas, though we heard the same things about Julius Randle last year. Here's hoping this result turns out differently.
Barnes just wants to have fun
Barnes has publicly stated the obvious: last season was no fun. But cancers were excised, replaced by a "there's no I in team!" mentality that permeated the culture this year. Though it's still perplexing and impossible to find a picture of Barnes actually smiling on the sideline, that grin exists somewhere. If you cattle prodded him, Barnes would admit he had fun coaching this year's bunch. Keep on that gravy train, Rick. Go get 'em next year.