The Texas Longhorns received a dose of bad news on Friday afternoon, just hours before taking the court against Cal in the 2K Classic title game. Point guard Isaiah Taylor, a preseason member of the Wooden Award watch list, took a hard fall late in the win over Iowa a night prior, and X-rays indicated he had broken a bone in his wrist. The injury is expected to keep him out of action for 4-6 weeks.
If there were ever a year for a Texas team to absorb an injury to one of its stars, this year would be it. In addition to having a massive frontcourt, the Longhorns have their deepest bench in ages. With Taylor out, Javan Felix was available to slide back into the starting point guard slot, a role he was also suddenly thrust into as a freshman, when Myck Kabongo missed 23 games for lying to NCAA investigators about impermissible benefits.
While there is a distinct difference in style between Taylor and Felix, the absence of the team’s starting point guard wasn’t enough to cause problems against Cal. The Longhorns jumped out to a 14-4 lead by the first media timeout, and their stingy defense preserved a comfortable lead all night. Although the Golden Bears were able to carve the lead to six points on a few occasions, Texas enjoyed a double-digit lead for more than 25 minutes of game time.
The win gave Texas its first championship at the 2K Classic tournament, where they had previously lost in the 2010 title game to Pitt. It also gave the team its second neutral-court win over a major-conference opponent, something that will come in handy as the NCAA Selection Committee debates seeds in March.
With the Longhorns now sitting at 4-0 and looking ahead to a tough road contest against UConn next weekend, here are five takeaways from last night’s win:
1. This could be the best Texas D of the Barnes era
We’re only four games into the season, and there are still more than 30 to play, but the early numbers for this year’s defense are staggering. The Longhorns have allowed an adjusted 0.878 points per possession, the nation’s fifth-best mark, while they have allowed a raw 0.796 points per possession.
Texas is shutting down opponents without forcing turnovers — their turnover percentage is actually the 35th-lowest in the country — and is instead relying on suffocating interior defense and the clean-up abilities of their stable of shot blockers. The Longhorns have a block percentage of 17.1%, 34th-best in Division I, and they added 10 swats to their season tally last night.
The best team of the Rick Barnes era in terms of adjusted defensive efficiency was the 2011 team, which allowed an adjusted 0.907 points per possession. While Barnes’ teams always pride themselves on defense, the next-best performance by a Texas squad was 0.933 adjusted PPP in 2009, which gives you an idea of just how special that 2011 defense was. That team started Big 12 play 11-0, with all but one of those wins coming by double digits, and reached the No. 3 ranking in both major polls before finally losing a conference game.
There’s still a long way to go, but this defense has the right pieces to put together another historic run. Demarcus Holland provides smothering defense on the perimeter, and is usually able to frustrate the opponent’s best guard or wing. Inside, the shot-blocking talents of the deep Texas frontcourt are there to help clean up any penetration that gets by the Longhorn guards. Add in a strong set of rebounders that have limited opponents to just 28.3% of their offensive rebounding chances so far, and Texas opponents will find it tough to score all season long.
2. Jonathan Holmes is no longer under the radar
A night after powering the Longhorn comeback against Iowa, it was again Holmes who carried the team to victory. The team’s lone senior posted his first double-double of the season, a 21-point, 13-rebound performance. With the Cal zone causing some problems for the Texas offense, it was also Holmes who stepped into that key role in the high post, where he delivered one of the game’s biggest highlights, a great feed to Prince Ibeh on the baseline, which led to a thunderous dunk.
Holmes was unsurprisingly named the tournament MVP, after scoring 40 points and snagging 18 boards in 63 minutes on the court. He also hustled for a pair of nice blocks in the win over Cal, and logged three assists. Although Big 12 opponents are already familiar with Holmes, he is not as well known nationally, having been left off the Wooden Award watch list in favor of Taylor and Myles Turner. After his performance the last two nights, it’s clear that the national media is taking notice.
3. Javan Felix had a mixed return at the point
Although Taylor brings a scoring threat that Felix simply cannot match, the New Orleans native has enough previous experience running the point at Texas that fans didn’t need to be overly concerned. Felix validated that confidence in the game’s opening minutes, guiding the offense as they worked to feed the post and elbow, and even adding in a jumper and a three-pointer of his own.
As the game wore on, Felix seemed to shift out of his role as facilitator and floor general, and revert to more of the shooting guard role that he primarily served in last season. Coach Barnes was repeatedly quoted as telling Felix to take the open shots last year, and in last night’s win, he took a few wide open shots early in the shot clock.
With the definitive size advantage that Texas enjoyed against Cal, it would have been better for Felix to exercise some patience and look for post options before firing up early shots from outside. In addition to leading to higher-percentage looks, taking some time on the offensive end would have also taken Cal out of the up-tempo game that it prefers to play.
Taylor is expected to miss four to six weeks due to his injury, bringing him back just in time for conference play. In the meantime, Felix will be running the point in road games against UConn and Kentucky, and a home date with Stanford. While Texas can get by on pure talent against the rest of its non-conference slate, the Longhorns will need him to embrace the facilitator role against those three tough opponents.
4. Demarcus Holland stepped up
With Taylor out of the game, the Longhorns were missing quite a bit of scoring that usually comes from their point guard. Primarily a defensive specialist, Holland took advantage of the opportunity to shine, putting the ball on the floor and earning multiple trips to the line. Demarcus made all seven of his free throws and had quite a few nice cuts to the bucket, finishing with 11 points and an impressive block of a Cal three-pointer. Although Felix will still be needed to shoulder the point guard duties with Taylor sidelined, Holland’s increased offensive output could not have come at a better time.
5. The rotation is already tightening up
With Taylor out due to injury, it would stand to reason that the guys languishing near the bottom of the backcourt rotation would naturally see more minutes. That wasn’t the case for Damarcus Croaker, who didn’t see action for a second straight game. Wingman Jordan Barnett, whose size matched up a little better with the Cal guards and wings, also didn’t see the court.
While Barnett’s lack of PT may have been the result of some shaky minutes against Iowa, Croaker didn’t do anything egregious enough to remember in the team’s first two blowouts. Even though we’re just four games into the season, we may already be seeing that Coach Barnes doesn’t see much room for Croaker in a very crowded Texas backcourt.
Ibeh also saw a decreased role in the two games at Madison Square Garden, playing just 20 total minutes in the two contests. The big man missed some point-blank shots against Iowa, and also limited his effectiveness with poor post defense that led to unnecessary fouls.
While Turner has yet to repeat his breakout performance from his collegiate debut, he is bound to find a rhythm at this level and earn even more minutes than the 18.8 he’s currently averaging. Unless Ibeh can consistently provide an intimidating presence as a rim protector, it looks like he may find himself in a very limited role moving forward.
Up Next: vs. St. Francis (2-2); Tuesday, 7 P.M. (Longhorn Network)