By Corey Tatel, Caden Kinard and Jacob Murphy
Expectations in Austin are high for the college basketball season that lies ahead. At this time last year, many Texas fans were calling for head coach Rick Barnes to be fired. After silencing his critics by leading Texas back to the NCAA tournament last March, Barnes finds himself with completely different expectations this season as the Longhorns come into the season ranked tenth in the country. Texas returns all five starters from last year’s team and landed the No. 2 recruit in the nation in freshman Myles Turner, according to ESPN. With anticipation for the season begin, three members of ORANGE’S sports staff sat down to answer five questions about the upcoming season.
1. What are the strengths of the 2014-2015 Texas basketball team?
Corey: The strengths of the Texas basketball team this year should be its rebounding and defense. Last season, Texas was one of the best rebounding teams in the country. When the Longhorns upset Kansas at home last February, it was because they dominated the Jayhawkson the boards. In the front court last year, center Cameron Ridley averaged 8.2 rebounds per game and forward Jonathan Holmes averaged 7.2 rebounds per game according to ESPN statistics. Each is returning to the starting lineup this year. Throw in 6-foot-11 Myles Turner and this figures to be one of the best rebounding teams in the country. Defensively, Texas should be able to match up with any team. Every single starter except for Ridley can guard any position on the floor. Both Turner and Jonathan Holmes stand above 6-foot-8 and have the agility and footwork to contain guards. Throw in Turner’s shot-blocking ability, and a great defensive team has become even better.
Caden: This team is a matchup nightmare with some big and long bodies that are to play multiple positions. The starting lineup has three players 6-foot-8 or taller. Returning starting center Cameron Ridley is 6-foot-9 and has a 7-foot-4 wingspan. Connor Lammert is a 6-foot-9 power forward who shot 34 percent from behind the arc last year. Jonathan Holmes, arguably the team’s most complete player, will start on a wing position for the first time in his collegiate career and is a modest 6-foot-8 next to Ridley and Lammert. Mcdonald’s All-American and 6-foot-11 future NBA lottery pick Myles Turner comes off of the bench with 6-foot-10 Prince Ideh, a defensive specialist. This length will allow the longer players to not guard the ball as tightly, help in other areas, and still recover quickly to their initial matchup. Coupled with the shooting abilities of Holmes, Lammert and Turner, Coach Barnes has the flexibility to play a tall lineup, while not losing the skill usually associated with playing bigger players.
Jacob: Their size is going to give them a clear advantage over most of the teams they play. Between Cameron Ridley, Myles Turner, Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert, this team has a legitimate front court rotation that no other team has. You can even throw in Prince Ibeh, who will give some good minutes off the bench grabbing rebounds and defending. Rebounding and defensive length are both going to improve from last season.
2. What are the weaknesses of the team?
Corey: I see two potential Achilles’ heels for this team. One is turnovers. As great a point guard Isaiah Taylor was last year, he can, at times, play without control and lose the ball. As athletic as Turner is, he lacks upper body strength. When he gets inside the paint at the collegiate level, the strength of the opposing defenders could overwhelm him and result in turnovers. Holmes figures to play on the outside more this season with the addition of Turner, which could lead to more turnovers because he will be guarded by defenders who are quicker than he’s used to. The other potential weakness I see is the team’s consistent shooting. Taylor and Holmes were the two leading scorers on the team and each is a streaky shooter at best. Holmes shot 33 percent from three-point range last summer and Taylor shot 26 percent. Those percentages need to increase if Texas wants to be a national title contender.
Caden: After watching the first game, the Longhorns have a glaring weakness: Three-point shooting. Isaiah Taylor only made five 3-pointers last year in over 1,000 minutes. The three “shooting” guards returning—Kendal Yancy, Demarcus Croaker, and Demarcus Holland—made 42 out of 139 attempts, or 30 percent as a group last year. The average three-point shooting percentage in the 2013 to 2014 season for the Big 12 Conference was 35 percent. There isn’t a single player on the team who shot that at the collegiate level. The Longhorns offense will be predicated on feeding the ball in the post and working closer to the hoop, but to give post players the space they need to operate, other teams need to respect their outside shot.
Jacob: As of right now, Texas’ biggest weakness is shooting consistency, based off of last season. Last year, outside shooting was not a strength. Many of the young guards are going to have to improve in that area. They might do so with the amount of open looks they will get because of the big men attracting defenders on the inside. The team’s top three guards, Isaiah Taylor (FG% .391, 3P% .263), Demarcus Holland (FG% .344, 3P% .174) and Javan Felix (FG% .358, 3P% .343) (all stats via ESPN.com) all shot really poorly from the field last year, especially from three.
3. Who is the Longhorns’ most important player this season?
Corey: Most people would answer this question with Myles Turner. It’s hard to argue, given that he’s the most talented basketball player to play for Texas since Kevin Durant. But I’m going in a different direction. This Texas team will go as Isaiah Taylor goes. Guard play is so important in basketball today. If you look at the recent national champions, nearly all of them were characterized by elite guard play. Last season, Taylor shocked everyone by coming out of nowhere to lead Texas in scoring. But as I mentioned in my response to the second question, he can, at times, play without control. If Texas wants to compete with other elite teams this season, Taylor needs to play like an elite, efficient point guard.
Caden: This may be Myles Turner’s team. It maybe Cameron Ridley’s. It could even be Jonathan Holmes’s or Isaiah Taylor’s team. The aforementioned four are expected to produce every game, and they own the talent to perform night in and night out. The success of this year’s team comes down to role players and their performance, and Javan Felix is the most important. As an experienced junior guard, Felix will sometimes be the primary ball handler when Taylor is out, and he plays off the ball next to Taylor when they are both in. Despite being the smallest player on the roster, Felix has a natural scoring ability in a game of giants. Felix shot a smidge over 34 percent from deep last year, which will provide spacing for a team lacking room. His passing is underrated, and he is adept at getting the ball to players in scoring position. His defensive shortcomings are obvious, but with better help on the backside, they might not be as noticeable this year.
Jacob: This team would still probably be decent even without Myles Turner, the No. 2 overall high school recruit, according to ESPN. I have to go with Isaiah Taylor. He is the team’s best creator when it comes to scoring. There is not another playmaker of his level on the roster. Look for him to improve even further going into his sophomore season. If this team were to lose a big man, the loss would not be as detrimental as if they lost Taylor.
4. What is the Longhorns’ most important game this season?
Corey: Mark your calendars for Feb. 28. Texas will be on the road against Kansas in the third-to-last game of the season. Kansas has won the Big 12 Championship for ten years in a row, and they are the only team in the Big 12 that is ranked higher than Texas in the preseason rankings. There is a chance that this game could decide who wins the regular season Big 12 championship. The NCAA tournament will be only weeks away, and a win over such a talented team right before the tournament could mean the world to either side. Everyone who watches March Madness knows that the teams who come in hot play better. This game could have huge implications for the tournament.
Caden: Feb. 28 in Lawrence, Kansas. My friend attends the University of Kansas and constantly reminds me that the last time the Jayhawks did not win the Big 12 regular season championship was back when we were in elementary school. Kansas Coach Bill Self has coached NBA bigmen, from Joel Embiid, to Cole Aldrich, Jeff Withey, and the Morris twins. This year Self recruited ESPN’s top-rated power forward, Cliff Alexander. Kansas’s primary scorer, Perry Ellis, is an interior player, as well. For the Longhorns to reach their goal of a national championship, they must first prove they can win in a hostile environment against a Big 12 team that can neutralize the strengths of the Longhorns.
Jacob: Games do not get important until March. We already know that this Texas team is going to have a better record than it did last year. The most important regular season game would have to be the second game at Kansas on Feb 28. The Big 12 is expected to be tight, and this game may be the last chance for Texas to leap Kansas in the conference standings. It would be pretty amazing if the preseason No. 10 team earns a higher seed in the tournament than the No. 5 team.
5. How high is the ceiling for this Texas basketball team?
Corey: On paper, this is one of the most complete teams in the country. When a team brings back all five starters from a team that was competitive the year before, they have a high ceiling. Now throw in one of the best recruits in the country, who has the potential to be a top 5 pick in this spring’s NBA draft, and the sky’s the limit for the Horns. They absolutely have the pieces to win the Big 12 and the national Championship. That being said, I would still pick Kansas to win the Big 12, and I’d take the field over Texas in the NCAA Tournament. The Longhorns definitely have the pieces to capture both titles. Whether they actually do will come down to execution.
Caden: It is well-documented that the Longhorns bring back 92 percent of its production from a 24-11 team last year that exceeded expectations. The bar is high for Myles Turner (although I’m not quite as sold on him), because he his nearly 7 feet tall, with guard ball skills. ESPN Top 100 recruit, Jordan Barnett, might not see the floor with the incredible depth of this team. If the team makes enough outside shots a game to keep defenses honest, the ceiling is a national championship (considering the team was featured on a Sports Illustrated cover, it can only be expected). Coach Barnes has the athletes and the system to impose a stifling defense, which is the foundation for success. The Longhorns’ execution in half-court sets will dictate how deep this team goes in March Madness.
Jacob: With essentially the same group of players returning from last year, plus the addition of Myles Turner, the expectation surrounding the Longhorns is to advance further in the NCAA Tournament than they did last year. I expect no more than eight losses for this team in the regular season. They have the talent to win a national championship. It is just about being hot at the right time throughout March Madness. If last years’ UCONN team can win it all so can this team. I am predicting they get to at least the Sweet 16.