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2014-15 Texas Longhorns Basketball State of the Union

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#LetsContinueRiding

Mike McGinnis

Crow, meet foot. By the laws of gods and men, Longhorn Nation (myself included) decreed Rick Barnes a dead man walking. Verily, he possessed a shorter shelf life than a male heir of Craster. But something funny happened on the way to the gallows.

Picked eighth in the 2013-14 Big 12 Preseason Poll, the Texas Longhorns instead finished tied for third, posting a 22-9 regular season record and winning 11 games in a deep conference. Texas lucked into a tough draw in the NCAA Tournament, but managed to win its first Tourney game since 2011. After dispatching Arizona State on a super sweet Killa Cam putback, the Longhorns ended their season with a loss to 2-seed Michigan.

Texas returns virtually everyone* from last year's roster. (* Thanks, Martez Walker!) Indeed, the cast of characters is deeper than a Too Many Cooks infomercial.

Consequently, expectations are sky high. The Longhorns begin the year ranked 10th in the AP Poll, and were picked to finish a respectable second in this year's Big 12 Preseason Poll.

Barnes was playing with house money last year, plying his trade at an off-the-strip $5 table. After building up capital with new management, Barnes regained a seat with the big boys and rainmakers, plus room and board in a pager-friendly presidential suite where Caesar stayed.

Ipso facto, Texas has a roster capable of dethroning Rock Chalk: King, Consul, and Emperor for Life and making a Final Four run. The question now becomes--fair or not--whether Barnes can translate potential into production.

It's been seven years since Texas last won a share of the Big 12 title and played into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Eight years since Texas last had a Big 12 player of the year. And twelve years since Texas posted its only Final Four appearance.

Longhorn hoops faithful (all eleventy-seven of us) are ready for Barnes to have his magnum opus season, a la Jim Boeheim's 2003 Syracuse squad. This is Barnes' next best chance. Let's continue riding.

Starting Backcourt

Isaiah Taylor | 6' 1" 170 lb | So
Demarcus Holland | 6' 2" 190 lb | Jr

There's a cool YouTube video of Isaiah Taylor, then a high school senior, visiting Texas. In one clip, assistant Rob Lanier insinuates that Taylor could become Texas' next T.J. Ford. At the time, that comparison was chock full of recruiting sound and fury. Fast forward a year, and it no longer feels like an impossible dream. As a precocious freshman, Taylor was Texas' Artful Dodger, combining skill and cunning to lead Barnes' motley crew. After a year of toying with opponents, the SI (regional) cover boy will no longer be sneaking up on unsuspectings. What should we expect from Taylor? Let's take a Bill Simmons association test.

Player A: 10.8 PPG, 8.3 APG, 4.0 TOV, .413/.152/.775
Player B: 9.6 PPG, 5.2 APG, 3.0 TOV, .391/.316/.680
Player C: 12.7 PPG, 4.0 APG, 2.4 TOV, .391/.263/.748
Player D: 15.0 PPG, 7.7 APG, 3.2 TOV, .401/.265/.820
Player E: 14.6 PPG, 5.5 APG, 3.4 TOV, .418/.296/.792

Players A-C are all freshmen. Player A is TJ the great. Player B is Myck the excommunicated. And Player C? It's your boy Zay. To sum up, Player D is Ford's Naismith-winning sophomore year, while Player E is Kabongo's idiocy-truncated sophomore year.

Two interesting points here. (1) The exchange rate between NCAA legend and 40 Acres pariah can be measured in wins. Case McCoy has this patent pending, codename duchess moxie. Also general on-courtedness is nice. Pretty sure Taylor didn't take an offseason trip, gratis, to Cleveland. (2) Ford didn't really improve shooting efficiency, rather shooting volume. He developed the threat of a 3-point jumper (taking 68 as a sophomore versus 33 as a freshman), and attempted 99 more overall FGs, getting him to POY territory. So it's fitting that Barnes had this pair of quotes at Big 12 Media Days.

"We told him a year ago that we need him to shoot the ball when he's open, but his idea was always to try to get into the lane, try to penetrate, and create for his teammates."

"When he's open on the perimeter, when we're screening the ball or whatever it may be, he's got to take open shots, and he will."

In the Ford prototype, Barnes has asked the current Model T to be more voluminous, not necessarily more efficient. Sure, it'd be nice if Taylor could look like Trey Burke circa 2013. But even the small step of Taylor breaking .400/.300 from the field, shooting more and with moxie! confidence, can serve as one giant leap to team success.

Opposing guards trying to score consistently on Demarcus Holland might have preferred a season pass to Carcossa. After witnessing their backcourt scorers undergo their own personal Milgram experiments, Big 12 coaches awarded Holland all-conference D rights, out of sheer respect and night terrors. As Texas' lockdown defender, Holland will get the starting nod opposite Taylor in the backcourt.

The questions on Holland arise on the offensive end. In a perfect world, Holland shoots Bruce Bowen daggers from his wrists, not just his eyes and tripping billies feet. Now a junior, Holland has two years remaining to develop a dangerous, or even usable, jumper. He upped his stats from 3.6 PPG, .344/.174 as a freshman to 7.1 PPG, .414/.292 as a sophomore. That's still more Nerf gun than potato launcher, but hope remains that Holland matures along the experience curve.

Starting Frontcourt

Jonathan Holmes | 6' 8" 240 lb | Sr
Myles Turner | 6' 11" 240 lb | Fr
Cameron Ridley | 6' 9" 285 lb | Jr

Hopefully, good things come in threes. Barnes' veni, vidi, vici campaign features a frontcourt trio considered amongst the best in the country.

Taylor gets the savior tag, Cam Ridley wears the big man pants, and Myles Turner has the phenom buzz. But I concur with BON's Jeff Haley: Jonathan Holmes is Texas' best player. Which also makes him Texas' most underrated player. Look across advanced metrics--PER, O-Rating, Win Shares--and Holmes tops the team. He will celebrate Senior Night this season, and beyond his on-court contributions, what I'll miss most are the "Big Jon Holmes" jokes. Take your bets on this hot ticket matchup in the ill-fated naming rights bracket: Holmes' mother (-3) vs. Mallory Archer and her super secret spy agency.

Per reports, Holmes has slimmed down to a svelte 225 pounds in order to start at the 3. Accordingly, he wants to prove to NBA scouts that he's more versatile than Drake's basketball allegiances. A cursory glance at Texas' 2014 KenPom page ($) notes that Holmes played quite a bit in three-forward sets last year. On offense, Lammert mostly worked out of the high post while Holmes took the wing and elbow. On the other end of the court, Texas would switch its D to play 2-3 zones or "junk" sets. Holmes might occasionally upshift to the 4 when Texas goes into 3-guard sets, but for all intents and purposes, consider him a fobbit at small forward.

Connor Lammert could start the season at the 4, but Texas' Pareto optimal lineup features Myles Turner. If Turner isn't starting and/or playing in crunch time by Big 12 play, something has gone terribly awry. That said, all the usual caveats about frosh bigs apply to Turner. The tantalizing freshman is much more blank canvas than developed product, and comparing him to guys like Jahlil Okafor, who has spent years crafting and honing low post skills, is a foolhardy exercise.

Turner brings to the table what Sailor Ripley best referenced as "LENGTH WINGSPAN TREMENDOUS UPSIDE POTENTIAL." In some games, Turner will explode with a 15 point, 8 rebound, 4 block performance. In others, he'll make a few mental errors and garner the glancing blows of Rick Barnes' eye of Sauron death stare on the long march back to the bench. On offense, Turner is an ideal stretch 4 that takes opposing bigs out of their comfort zones. On defense, Turner operates best with a see ball, swat ball mindset. Even as a raw freshman, he's an asset. The extent to which Barnes can harness and channel Turner's powers will determine just how much havoc he will create.

Of the three towers that represent the Longhorn Horatii brothers, Cameron Ridley is the anchor. The rock. The immovable object. It's hard to adequately put into words just how much Ridley improved between his freshman and sophomore years. As a frosh, Ridley put up an unsightly O-Rtg* of 77.2. (* O-Rtg is an advanced statistical measure of offensive efficiency, where 100 is the baseline.) To put that into context, Demarcus Holland, widely panned as an offensive black hole as a freshman, had an O-Rtg of 78.1. Yes, Ridley took home the participation ribbon for least efficient player in the 2012-13 Big 12 season.

Fast forward a year, and Ridley was a better everything. He raised his FG% by almost a thousand basis points while doubling the number of field goal attempts. He improved his FT% to a big man respectable 62.6%, doubly important since he placed amongst national leaders in drawing fouls. He ran the court longer, rebounded better, turned the ball over less, and became a defensive stalwart in the paint. If Ridley maxed out at last year's production, he would still be a heck of a college player. But if he can incrementally improve just a little bit more across the board, NBA scouts will take notice.

Backcourt Key Reserves

Javan Felix | 5' 11" 195 lb | Jr
Kendal Yancy | 6' 3" 200 lb | So
Damarcus Croaker | 6' 2" 190 lb | So

Backup guards Javan Felix and Kendal Yancy might be tied at the hip as far as playing time goes. Where one ebbs, the other flows. In his two years on campus, Felix has fallen prey to fundamental attribution error from the fans. True, Felix's efficiency stats kind of suck. Thusly, he gets maligned for being a poor shooter and an inefficient player, whereas the overarching problem may have been his situation. He was first thrust to start at point as an untested freshman, then asked to score as a soph in a world of non-shooters. In a perfect world, Felix plays a Keiton Page/Phil Forte "sparkplug scorer extraordinare" role off the bench. In this world, if Texas' other players haven't developed an outside shot, Felix is 3-point option 1, B, and iii.

A lot of folks are counting on Kendal Yancy to take that role. I mean, Yancy did shoot a higher percentage (35.3%) from distance than Felix (34.3%). What's that? Yancy took just 17 3's? And didn't make a single 3-point shot in regular season conference play? Oh. Until Yancy proves that he can shoot and score consistently, Felix will get the lion's share of minutes. Sure, Yancy has the bigger, more athletic frame that serves well as an understudy to Holland. But burying Felix on the opponent's non-scoring guard is often easy to do, and let's not forget that Felix was often tasked with shadowing guys like Forte and Brady Heslip.

The final guard on the roster, Damarcus Croaker, may be Texas' most athletic player. Case in point. He started the season off strong, but come January, Croaker must have felt like he was running the Red Queen's race. Starting from Texas' fourth conference game against West Virginia, Croaker logged just 106 total minutes and scored 15 total points. He didn't get off the bench for either of Texas' NCAA Tournament games. Will Croaker not log substantial minutes until he's an upperclassman (if ever)? Or will he surprise and take an offensive leap forward this year? I've got a guess, but we'll see what happens.

Frontcourt Key Reserves

Connor Lammert | 6' 9" 240 lb | Jr
Prince Ibeh | 6' 10" 260 lb | Jr
Jordan Barnett | 6' 6" 205 lb | Fr
Shaquille Cleare | 6' 8" 290 lb | Jr (redshirting)

As long as we're calling Holmes underrated, we might as well state that Connor Lammert is not even rated enough to be considered underrated. Calls for a redshirt year dismiss the fact that Lammert played 20 MPG last year, and saw time down the stretch in multiple close games. He brings tremendous value to the team. As a result, Barnes will likely have Lammert start this Friday against North Dakota State. Lammert is also the clubhouse leader to start at the 4 next year as a senior. Lammert has a high basketball IQ and has worked hard to develop his athleticism. He is an underrated rebounder and a high efficiency, low usage glue guy on offense. At worst, that sums up to a great rotation player.

If Turner is as good as advertised, I don't foresee Prince Ibeh getting many meaningful minutes. Ibeh did some interesting things last year, including dual 11 point, 6 rebound games against non-cons BYU and Temple, and 4 emphatic spikes in a surprise win over Kansas. But Ibeh is still about three Baratheon bloodlines away from being the illegitimate son to a poor man's Sam Dalembert. Through two years, the only thing Ibeh did really well is jump up and down. When that jump is timed correctly, he gets a board, a bucket, or a swat. And when he doesn't, it turns into a cheap foul or mental mistake. If he makes the leap this year, so much the better, but my best hope for Ibeh is a Gaskamp senior season in 2015.

I'm not quite sure what Jordan Barnett brings to the table this year. But in the long-run, having a 6' 6", 200+ pound guy who thrives on the perimeter is a competitive advantage in college basketball. (Ioannis Papapetrou, where art thou?) Barnett has already taken to the Todd Wright regimen, having added twenty pounds to his frame since arriving on campus. Last we heard from him, Barnett threw down 43 points and 20 rebounds en route to a Missouri state title. If he can score and rebound from the wing, he'll get minutes this year.

Shaquille Cleare is an interesting addition to the team. Cleare and Texas didn't have much mutual interest during Cleare's prep days. He's a native of the Bahamas, and played high school ball at The Village alongside Isaiah Taylor and AAU ball with the Harrison twins' squad, the Houston Defenders. Inroads into Houston via Taylor and John Lucas almost certainly helped get Cleare onto campus. A transfer from Maryland, Cleare's skill set coming out of high school could be described as a rawer Ridley. I'm fully intrigued to see how Cleare develops after a year of conditioning with Todd Wright and daily practices against Ridley and Turner. Cleare will sit out this year and have two years of eligibility remaining.

The Longhorns' season tips off tomorrow night against the North Dakota State Bison. Folks lucky enough to receive Longhorn Network and successfully avoid making meaningful Friday night plans are in for a treat. Here's to a great season. Hook 'em.