Is this the end for Rick Barnes? With new management and the two Bobs headed to town, it certainly feels that way.
The last two years have not been kind to Barnes and the Texas Longhorns basketball program. Since the disappointing NCAA Tournament second-round loss to Arizona in 2011, Barnes' tenure has been marked not by incremental progress, but by freefall regression. It goes beyond just the won-lost record.
First, the coaching staff was unable to cajole extra years out of Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson. Those losses were subsequently followed by the early departure of J'Covan Brown in 2012 and Myck Kabongo this past year. While the decisions of Joseph and Thompson felt understandable at the time (first round guaranteed money, holla), the losses of Brown and Kabongo--both undrafted free agents--indicate a willingness to simply get out of the program.
The additional off-season attrition of would-be juniors Julien Lewis, Sheldon McClellan, and Jaylen Bond rubs more salt into the wound. The optimist calls this addition by subtraction. I call it a gross miscalculation in both talent evaluation and talent development. Seven of eight players in the 2010 and 2011 classes have come and gone, with only Jonathan Holmes left to man the sinking ship. Terrible roster management says hi! And culpability starts at the top.
The final kick to the craw came in August. Ioannis Papapetrou, Texas' de facto best player heading into this year, decided that playing for a Greek professional team was a better idea than spending another season in Austin.
The bottom line is this: Rick Barnes isn't having any fun. And the melancholy and the infinite sadness has permeated the program.
That's a shame, because this team looks sort of fun in a sandlot, let's see what they got, kind of way. If this truly is Barnes' last stand, I'm approaching this season like the last charge of the light brigade. Send the troops in, suffer heavy losses, have a ballad penned in their honor. Hopefully, some guys come out the other side barely scathed to make a difference for the next coach.
Javan Felix (PG/SG | So. | 5' 11" | 195 lbs)
Felix was thrown into an impossible situation last year. He came in expecting to back up one of the more heralded returnees in the nation. Instead, a bone-headed Kabongo decision thrust Felix into a starting, leadership role on a dysfunctional, immature team. Upon Kabongo's return, Felix had to readjust his game, playing both backup minutes at the 1 and 2.
Felix performed admirably, but his stats were still nothing short of atrocious. He particularly struggled shooting the ball, not a good sign for a guy who can't break the 6-foot barrier on the roster sheet. Naturally, there are rumors that Barnes will start him at shooting guard. Felix sat all of August nursing an injured hip, losing out on crucial practice time. Only a sophomore, he has plenty of time to develop into a solid starting point guard. Felix just needs to improve a cornucopia of things before he gets to an average level of play.
Isaiah Taylor (PG | Fr. | 6' 1" | 170 lbs)
Taylor has taken over starting point guard duties in Felix's absence, and there's a chance he stays in that role going into the season opener. All that early optimism is nice, and Burnt Orange Nation's Peter Bean is particularly bullish. Comparing a guy ranked 302nd nationally (according to the 247 Composite Rankings) to T.J. Ford seems like praying for Miracle Max to come through in the clutch (but have fun storming the castle!). I hope, like a chocolate coated miracle pill, that Taylor proves me wrong.
He already beat the odds once. Ignored by colleges and recruitniks in northern California, Taylor made the move to Houston to gain more traction in his recruitment. He played for The Village and Texas Pro, the same route as Maryland's Shaquille Cleare. Those decisions has already paid dividends for Taylor. Now that he's in Austin, here's hoping he makes the most of a promising situation.
Demarcus Holland (SG/PG | So. | 6' 2" | 185 lbs)
With Papapetrou plying his trade in Greece, Texas will primarily play a three-guard lineup this year. To that end, Holland will draw starting 3 duties and serve as the "defensive stopper" for this year's team. He better play all-world D, because Holland's offensive numbers from his freshman year are mind-numbingly bad.
Barnes has raved about Holland since the guard stepped foot on campus, calling Holland one of the hardest workers on the team. There's a lot to like about Holland. He has decent size for a college guard, can handle the ball a little, and really does possess waterbug tenacity on the court. Like every other returnee, he has to hit his jumpers and score consistently.
Kendal Yancy (SG | Fr. | 6' 3" | 200 lbs)
Yancy decommitted from USC after the Trojans fired Kevin O'Neill during the season. DeLoss Dodds didn't even know in-season firings were possible. The Trojans' loss is Texas' gain, as Yancy comes in as the highest rated prospect in Texas' four-man 2013 recruiting class. Like seemingly every other guard on the roster, Yancy possesses a combo guard game, with the ability to play anywhere in the backcourt going into this season.
Also like every other guard on the roster over the past three years, Yancy will probably have to play more minutes early than he's ready to take on. Hopefully, he is up to the challenge. Holland seems like the early comparable; like Holland, Yancy led a winning high school program in the greater DFW area. Yancy profiles as bigger and stronger than Holland, and I'm intrigued to see what he brings to the table.
Damarcus Croaker (SG | Fr. | 6' 2" | 185 lbs)
Demarcus Holland wonders why Croaker purposely misspells his name all the time. Must be a Florida thing. Croaker is an Orlando native who received little interest from the Florida schools, presumably because of academic qualification questions. Assuming grades won't be an issue, Croaker is my bet to become the best player from the 2013 recruiting class. He's extremely athletic, plays above the rim, and loves to get buckets, all attributes that Texas' previous iterations have lacked.
His game profiles well as a small forward, except his height is a limiting factor. That said, a three-guard lineup that struggles to score points could use Croaker's instant offense infusion. Right now, Croaker looks like a sparkplug off the bench. If he proves that he can continually put the ball in the bucket, he will be hard to keep off the court.
Martez Walker (SG | Fr. | 6' 4" | 185 lbs)
Walker, a pure shooter from the Detroit area, became the final addition to the 2013 class, committing in April. When Walker received his offer, questions abounded as to why Barnes wanted to bring in a fourth guard so late in the recruiting process. At the time, McClellan had already declared his intent to leave. As it turned out, Lewis followed him out the door soon after, leaving a void in the Longhorns' backcourt depth.
As a late signee, Walker will have to disprove the belief that he was just added to be another body on the roster. It certainly doesn't help that Barnes' late additions to the 2011 class, Sterling Gibbs and Jaylen Bond, fizzled out of the program. Walker can hit a jumper, but the hope is that he's more than just a J.D. Lewis (who couldn't hit a jumper in actual games, but that's another story). Here's another common theme: Walker has plenty of minutes available for the taking...if he can play.
Jonathan Holmes (PF | Jr. | 6' 8" | 240 lbs)
The lone upperclassman on the team, Holmes enters his junior year as the Malcolm Brown of the team. He possesses talent, and has flashed at times during his first two years, but injuries have derailed parts of both seasons. He put together a string of impressive games last year before suffering a wrist injury in early February, then probably returned too soon and was mainly ineffective the rest of the year.
Holmes will more than likely be Texas' leading rebounder. If he can become a consistent scorer (again, stop me if you hear a theme!), he has a puncher's chance at landing on an All-Big 12 team. Like Holland, Holmes gets a lot of publicity for being one of the hardest workers on the team. So he's got that going for him, which is nice.
Connor Lammert (PF | So. | 6' 9" | 235 lbs)
Lammert arguably has the highest basketball IQ on the team, but his limited athleticism hurt Texas last year, particularly on the defensive end. On offense, Lammert operated as his best working in the high post. If he can develop a credible jumper and three-point shot, he can be a devastating stretch 4 and screen-and-roll guy. Lammert's passing ability from outside is an underrated trait.
He looked semi-brutal on defense, not because he didn't know where to be or who to guard, but simply because he lacked the ability to lock down his position. Adding maturity and strength will aid that process, but Lammert may always be a liability on defense.
Cameron Ridley (C | So. | 6' 9" | 285 lbs)
Expectations for five-star big men to immediately come in and be a team savior are always overblown. Ridley didn't even start playing organized basketball until he was in high school. That said, Ridley's overall stat line his freshman year looked like a guy who didn't know how to play basketball.
Expecting better things--especially any sort of improvement from year one--is not unreasonable. Ridley's improvement needs to start fundamental. Burnt Orange Nation's Jeff Haley says it simply, thusly: "For those of us not named Shaquille O'Neal, we all eventually reach a level of play where we can no longer overpower defenders with the drop step. For me, this happened when I was 16. For Ridley, it is happening now. At this point in life, we all need to figure out a new way to play. Ridley isn't the first, or last, player who has to go through this transition."
Prince Ibeh (C | So. | 6' 10" | 250 lbs)
If Ridley looked like a bull in a china shop, Ibeh looked like a bull tearing down the streets of Pamplona. He can do one thing really, really well: jump up and down on either end of the court. When Ibeh times things right, the results are magical: a "not in my house!" rejection, a sky-high offensive board, a glass-shattering catch-and-slam.
But whereas Ridley learned fundamentals that don't really work anymore, Ibeh never really had fundamentals to begin with. He's simply a product of athleticism. If Ibeh can add definable skills, he's a first-round talent. If he can't, well, we'll always have his performance in the CBI against Houston. A game which, umm, Texas lost.
Oy. It's gonna be a long season.