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A Fool's Errand: Texas Longhorns' Path to the Final Four

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Can Texas end the season hoisting this trophy?
Can Texas end the season hoisting this trophy?
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

It's amazing the difference a year makes; as has been mentioned ad nauseam in other articles (and a couple of my own) the outlook for the 2014-2015 Texas Longhorns men's basketball squad is nearly on the opposite end of the spectrum from where it was a year ago. We've gone from measuring Shaka Smart's coat size to extending Rick Barnes' contract, from wondering if Buzz Williams will accept our Texas-sized Tinder swipe to talking about one of the deepest teams in Rick Barnes' tenure. It's remarkable and with few precedents on the 40 Acres (is the Disch technically on the 40?). Texas comes into this season ranked in the top 10 nationally in most major preseason polls and is primed for a very successful season if things break the right way.

As most of you know, making the Final Four is a rare achievement for most programs; even the bluest of blue bloods like Duke miss the final weekend more often than they make it. Texas is no exception, and any discussion of them making a run to the final weekend needs to acknowledge that the odds are against Texas surviving the path to Indianapolis. (Texas is 30/1 odds to win a title right now, if that tells you anything.) I prefer to take a view that's analogous to how our esteemed Scipio Tex looks at the football program; I watch the process more than the outcome. I'm looking at the signposts on this road to March to see where this team might be headed when it comes time for the single-elimination games to begin. To that end, this isn't going to be a study of wins & losses or conference records, rather a series of numbers that will suggest to me that this team is maximizing their chances for a deep March Madness run. The more of these items we can check off the list, the better their odds are come tournament time. These aren't listed in any particular order, BTW.

Signpost #1: Texas is in the top 150 programs nationally in 3PA

The frontcourt is loaded, we all know this. Texas will be swatting balls into the stands all season long; Steve Patterson is probably mulling over painting the first 3 rows of the Erwin Center yellow as a Sea World Splash Zone-style warning to patrons. But really, Texas will go as far as their guards will take them. More specifically, Texas will go as far as the guards' outside shooting will take them. The only obvious offensive hole in this squad is their 3-point proficiency; towards the end of last season most teams packed the paint & dared anyone not named Felix to fire away. This is precisely why Martez started to show out at the end of last year, he was the one guy who could consistently make opponents pay for leaving somebody open. With Martez gone and the frontcourt solid, the PG/SG need to step up. This dovetails with the idea of Taylor taking more 3s(see below); to work their way up into the top 150 nationally requires the team take ~50 more 3s in the season, or less than 2 additional 3s per game. In other words, it's not like we're talking about the team running Hoiberg's Iowa State offense. The idea is making the 3 a credible enough threat that teams have to play honest defense against Texas. A defense that has to respect the 3 opens up passing angles & driving lanes for our guards, which opens up a whole host of options for Texas offensively.

Signpost #2: Texas is in the top 150 programs nationally in steals

Last year, Texas was 229th with an average of 5.7 per game. Another 10-12 steals over the course of the season puts them in the middle of the pack, which isn't a big difference on its own but portends to a defense that's more aggressive, confident, and active on the perimeter. With the block party Texas has waiting in the paint(the law firm of Ridley, Ibeh, Holmes, & Turner are ready to slap your lawsuit into the third row whenever you're ready), the guards should feel free to take a few more chances jumping passing lanes or pickpocketing a hesitant wing. Plus, with the ridiculous depth Barnes has this year, foul trouble shouldn't be a huge concern for anyone not named Taylor.

Signpost #3: Texas is in the top 100 programs nationally in turnovers

Texas wasn't terrible with turnovers last year, 161st is right in the middle of the bell curve. We're talking about roughly a 6% decrease in turnovers for Texas to be in the hunt for a top-100 spot in this category. Consider that 3 of the 4 Final Four teams & 5 of the 8 Elite Eight teams were in the top 100(MSU was just outside at 103) in fewest turnovers per game, it's a solid sign of a focused, disciplined team.

Signpost #4: Texas averages 70%+ from the free throw line

This may be the least likely event of this entire list, but humor me for a minute. Texas shot 909 free throws last year & sank 610 of them for a 67.1% conversion rate. It would take turning 26 of those missed FTs into made FTs for the number to rise up to 70%. If you project modest 4% improvements from Taylor & Ridley(who combined to take 44% of Texas' free throws last season)  you're halfway there, then figure Turner(who shoots in the 75% range from what I can find) takes a chunk out of Prince Ibeh & Connor Lammert's FTs, you start to approach 70% as a team. Of course, Holmes(74.4%) is probably taking the lion's share of the free throws Martez Walker(80%) shot, so you have to drop the percentage down a little there. Plus, Felix(76%) is probably shooting fewer FTs this know what, screw it; this probably isn't happening.

Signpost #5: Isaiah Taylor attempts 70+ 3-point shots

Texas has 31 regular season games on their schedule, which means Zay would need to average...uhm, hang on a second *takes off socks, counts* 2.25 attempts per game to hit 70 on the season. That's not a lot of attempts per game - it's basically how many Martez Walker took last season - and he doesn't need to hit a ton of them. If he can convert on 30% or more of his attempts, opposing defenses will have to stop playing him like he's a black Dogus Balbay. In other words, they'll have to play him straight up rather than a couple steps off, and it opens up lanes for him to do what he does best: get to the paint. If Zay can showcase a respectable outside shot, he'll be the cause of more night terrors than Jeff Madden in Borat's swimsuit. I'm not advocating Zay ditch his floater, either; partly because it's a thing of beauty and partly because most defenses don't know how to react to it other than stare like they just saw Rick Perry spell onomatopoeia from memory. Zay's floater is the screwball of NCAA basketball and I love it. The more variety in his shot selection, the bigger a threat he becomes to defenses.

Signpost #6: Jonathan Holmes averages 60%+ of his minutes at SF

If Holmes is spending most of his time at the 3, then the conversion probably is working well and it frees up some room in the frontcourt logjam for guys like Ridley, Ibeh, Turner, & Lammert to see the floor. Holmes has the shooting range(33% from 3 on 84 attempts is passable, but could stand to improve) and he's spent small portions of time out there in the past, but moving here as his primary position isn't a sure thing. If he's getting minutes at the 3 all season, it's probably a good sign on a number of fronts.

(As an aside, I want to see this work because it sets up the possibility of a lineup I'm intensely interested in seeing on the floor for a few minutes per game: Taylor, Kendal Yancy, Holmes, Connor Lammert, and Myles Turner. Or as I call it, the NBA Jam 'On Fire' Squad. The idea of Zay/KY dive-bombing the lane off Lammert/Holmes pick & rolls with Turner flying in for ALL THE LOBS makes me woozier than a molly-popping ambulance thief.)

Signpost #7: Ridley gets 20+ minutes against Kentucky

I'm not really looking for individual game results in this exercise, but I think the Kentucky game can be instructive in a number of ways due to it being a road game in a super-hostile environment against a top-flight opponent early in the season. (I hear Curry Shoff was kicked out of Rupp Arena as a preventative measure to save everyone time.)  I want to see Cam get quality minutes in this game for a couple of reasons: first, it means he's in good shape early in the season. While he made marked improvements last season in his stamina(all hail Todd Wright), it will be a good sign if he can hang around for longer stretches than last year. Secondly, the UK front-court is the closest thing Cam's going to see to playing a NBA team than arguably any other time this year, so watching how he rises to the challenge will give a little insight into what his ceiling may be this year. He's capable of playing with anybody on a good day, so here's hoping he shines against the Wildcats. Of course, any single-game sign has to be marked with the caveat that NCAA refs are terrible and prone to whistling at eye tremors so some of this performance is out of Cam's control.

Signpost #8: Javan Felix averages less than 22 minutes/game

Here are the most likely scenarios where Felix averages over 25 mpg:

  1. Isaiah Taylor is hurt for an extended period of time, forcing Javan to play point a lot.
  2. None of the other guards have improved their outside shooting, forcing Barnes to emulate last year's plans.
  3. Rick Barnes has latched onto his security blanket again.

None of these are good situations, and that's kinda the point. This sign is less about Javan and more about the rest of the team. Javan busts his ass and seems like a solid dude, but if he's one of the top 3-4 players in minutes at the end of the season(he was 3rd last year) then something went wrong.

Signpost #9: Myles Turner has an O-Rating of 102+

Everybody, let's say it together: Myles isn't Kevin Durant. Come on, say it with me: Myles Turner isn't Kevin Durant. Any announcer making comparisons between the two doesn't know what the hell he's talking about. As Tjarks mentioned in his draft piece, Turner has a world of potential but is still fairly raw in a number of ways. Durant was a generational talent from the second he set foot on campus, Turner's going to take a bit more seasoning. He's a great recruit and Texas is lucky to have him, but let's dial down the hype a couple notches.

OK, with that out of the way, let's talk about O-Rating. The formula is complicated & you can dig up all the details on your own if you like, but basically it's a measure of offensive efficiency. It's very similar to team offensive efficiency, which is the number of points scored per 100 possessions; the higher the number, the better. A rating of 102 for Turner isn't particularly high; it's basically putting him in the area of above average without being elite, which is plenty for a guy that's not expected to be the focal point of the offense. It means he's taking advantage of his opportunities but isn't running roughshod over the rest of the team. I'm essentially saying I want him to fit in well with the rest of the team, and anything he provides beyond that is a happy bonus. Texas doesn't need him to be Superman, but if he comes out with a cape on then all the better.

Signpost #10: Shaquille Cleare redshirts

This isn't a knock on Shaquille as I've heard very positive things about him from people that have interviewed/watched him, but if he's getting minutes then Texas has likely dealt with an injury/academics/suspension issue that probably significantly hampered the season. Either that, or Barnes has lost all control of bench time management. Plus, I'd like to see him get more than garbage time and there's a better chance of that next year & the year after. Giving Shaquille a year to acclimate to Texas & carve out a spot for next season would probably be beneficial for him and for the team if there's a large defection to the draft.

Update: As Billb astutely reminded me, Shaquille is sitting out this season due to transfer rules. So, uhh, check this one off the list!

This is the deepest Texas squad in several years and their ceiling hasn't been this high since 2009, and I can't wait for the season to tip-off this week. For those of us who watched the program hit rock bottom 2 years ago, this squad is manna from Heaven. Everybody should be excited to see how the next 5 months shake out, it could be the start of another 7-8 year run of excellence. Hook'em.