Texas controlled the 2K tournament field decisively from the 2nd half of the Iowa game to the final whistle against Cal posting two double digit victories on the big stage despite losing Zeke Taylor in the final minutes of the Iowa game to a chickenshit foul.
It's easy to overreach evaluating early season performances, but two intense games in a tourney environment brought this team closer together and showed us glimpses of what they're capable of when the Texas offense can complement a withering Longhorn defense.
We finally showed a shortened bench rotation - Barnett & Croaker are currently on the outside looking in. For Barnett, it's a simple matter of experience and a log jam for minutes at 3 (Holmes backed by Yancy or even Holland depending on our set) and for Croaker his inability to translate his athleticism into even rudimentary defense guarantees him a seat next to Rob Lanier. Some Longhorn fans will continue to bitch about Croaker's unfair oppression, but I think they're having trouble grasping the difference between average defense and a human lay-up line. If Croaker can raise his game to the former, he'll get some run. If not, sit. Barnett can earn more minutes with good practices and some consistency.
The Front Line
So far, only Cameron Ridley has me concerned about a possible flatlining of his growth. In a very limited sample set, he leads the team in turnovers and is shooting 39% from the floor (our only big sub 50%). Defense has been largely on-point - particularly in his ability claim space and prevent opponent post depth, but the elevation of overall team defense when Ibeh-Turner partner in the paint is notable in my eyes. His free throws are in the 70s, which is fantastic. Let's give Cameron some more time before rendering judgement.
Myles Turner is an impact player on defense with his shot blocking (his 10 leads the team) as well as his ability to cover for his teammates over large swathes of real estate - 6-11 guys shouldn't move and react like that. It's like watching Kevin Garnett circa 2010 playing a one man zone defense in a 12 foot circle around the basket. Fouls are a problem at times, but that should get better. His offense will check in and out all year before establishing some consistency and that's fine. The tools are there. I'm actually more impressed he doesn't try to force things. He's everything that was promised and a hell of a team player with legit hoops IQ. Love this guy.
Prince put on good weight and it's helping him to become a better positional defender instead of just a weak side swat machine. He's finishing with much more authority - I think partly because he knows where to position himself to allow the easy assist now. Many of us speculated Prince may be the odd man out on minutes, but his play has earned his floor time. His free throws are...amazing. I'd best describe his form as speculative. Given that team is shooting 74% overall, we can deal.
Connor Lammert is 2nd on the team in rebounds and leads the team in assists. His D is OK and he's active on both ends. When a 6-9 stretch 3 is giving you a well-rounded box score with the possibility of burying an open 3, no one has to justify his 20 minutes on the floor. If he cedes time to Turner, it will be because Turner has gone fully weaponized.
Taylor's loss is devastating and I'm disappointed in what we lose with respect to transition, finishing off the dribble and creativity in the half court that we'll sorely need against the teams we can't overwhelm with size and toughness. If he returns sooner than is estimated, we'll be a better team in March for it. If it drags, I'm not as hopeful. Reintegration is easier said than done.
Felix was capable at point guard against Cal though he's a player who definitely diminishes in effectiveness beyond 20 minutes of use. He's being asked to do a lot and diminishing his abilities here isn't particularly useful commentary - by now, we know what he is and isn't. On the positive side, he's going to get some open shots deep given how defenses are choosing to play us. There's a 5 of 8 from 3 game coming soon.
Demarcus Holland has been the story in the backcourt so far. His on ball defense is absolutely withering (the officials in the Cal game couldn't ref a middle school game) and he's been supremely efficient on offense. We can't expect 60%+ shooting from him for the season, but 76% from the FT line suggests that his shot has actually improved. In a team full of likable players with greater talent, I hope his contributions aren't overlooked. Opponents aren't shooting 29% from the field against Texas just because our front line is tall. Holland's ability to take away the opponent's best perimeter scorer between 6'0 to 6'6 for key 5-6 minutes stretches at a time is a good way to take control of a basketball game.
Holmes has been as good as I expected him to be. His virtues are self-evident. Deadly from 3, great little post-up game, offensive rebounding, some ability to put the ball on the floor. Leading scorer, rebounder and best field goal percentage. While we fretted about his ability to guard all varieties of opposing 3s, we may have lost sight of the fact that none of them can cover him.
Yancy is doing nice things out there every night despite his shot not yet coming on line. A solid secondary ballhandler with a good eye for a cutting teammate and he has showed sporadic ability to defend at a high level. If he could actually run point 10-15 minutes a game in addition to his 2/3 duties, we'd be a better team. But he'll have to earn Rick's confidence in half court - I just don't think he's there yet.
I like this team a lot. Rallying after losing Taylor to handle a scrappy Cal team fairly easily impressed me. We had every reason to pout and flounder. I don't know how losing Taylor changes our ceiling, but I'm excited about this team nonetheless.