Posted by Ryan Clark at 12:15PM

Texas Longhorns 76, Mercer Bears 73

A tumultuous offseason came to a close for the Texas basketball team on Friday night, as the Longhorns finally tipped off their 2013-14 campaign with a game against the Mercer Bears. With huge questions surrounding the young, rebooted lineup and fan expectations at their lowest point in more than a decade, the Horns put together an exciting — albeit inconsistent — performance to start the season with a 76-73 win.

Myck Kabongo bolted from the 40 Acres this summer
(Photo credit: Brody Schmidt/Associated Press)

The offseason turmoil was well-documented, with five different Longhorns leaving the program after the 2012-13 season ended with a loss to Houston in the CBI. Forward Jaylen Bond actually announced his departure just before that game, and ultimately landed at Temple. Shooters Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis both hit the bricks shortly after, heading to Miami and Fresno State, respectively. Point guard Myck Kabongo decided to test the NBA waters, and was not selected in June’s NBA Draft. Kabongo is currently on the roster of the Austin Toros of the NBA’s D-League.

While only Bond’s decision wasn’t seen coming a mile away, even that one was understandable considering the pecking order in Texas’ frontcourt. But the biggest offseason blow did come as a surprise, as the versatile forward Ioannis Papapetrou decided in August to go pro in his native country of Greece. The Texas roster was decimated, forcing Coach Rick Barnes to hold an open tryout just to pick a few walk-ons and get enough bodies for practice.

The final roadblock in the soap-opera offseason came when sophomore point guard Javan Felix had sports hernia surgery at the start of October. The Texas program gave no recovery timetable, leading to debates amidst the dwindling fanbase over who would run the point for the Horns as the season tipped off.

The roster upheaval was the biggest storyline of the last seven months, but another had emerged during the disastrous 2012-13 season and it carried over into the summer. Long a topic in the echo chamber of internet message boards, the fate of Coach Barnes was being discussed by mainstream media. With the early struggles of the football team and rumors swirling about Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds, many fans and sportswriters were talking about the inevitable waves of change headed for Bellmont.

Rick Barnes is under the microscope this season
(Photo credit: Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman)

The first of those changes came with last week’s announcement of Steve Patterson as the next Texas AD, and it set an interesting backdrop for Barnes and the Horns as the season tipped off. The consensus from both the media and fans is that the Longhorns are in for another rough season, and many believe it will be the last for Coach Barnes. Others suggest that with expectations set so low, Barnes should be able to meet or exceed them and buy himself more time.

While the big-picture questions will likely be shadowing the program all season long, the Longhorns were at least able to start to answer some of the questions about the team in Friday night’s win. The Longhorns pushed the tempo and showcased a shooting touch that was sorely lacking last season. It was apparent that although Texas may struggle to log wins this year, the team will at least make it entertaining for its fans.

The recap

The Longhorns came out firing, shooting 50% from the field and knocking down six triples to build a lead as large as 12 points late in the first half. The experienced Mercer squad refused to fold, and its leader Langston Hall quickly responded with seven points in a 30-second stretch. The teams traded buckets as the half wound down, and the Longhorns took just a three-point edge to the locker room.

Mercer turned things around in the second half, finally finding its range from behind the arc. After shooting just 3-for-16 on threes in the first twenty minutes, the Bears drilled six of their next nine attempts and stormed to a nine-point lead with 9:44 to play. Staring a season-opening loss in the face, the Longhorns put a renewed focus on their interior scoring and turned up the defensive pressure. Fueled by Cameron Ridley’s second-half surge, Texas went on an 18-2 run in less than seven minutes.

Mercer continued to claw at the narrow margin in the final minutes, and the Bears found themselves with an opportunity to tie the game with five seconds left. Coach Barnes elected not to foul with his team up three, and the Bears found Jakob Gollon on the left wing for a potential game-tying trey. Connor Lammert stood tall and barely left his feet, blocking the final shot to secure an opening-night victory.

What looked good

Isaiah Taylor had a solid collegiate debut
(Photo credit: Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman)

The brightest spot for Texas and its fans was the excellent debut from freshman Isaiah Taylor. The youngster ran the point, shifting Felix off the ball to an undersized shooting-guard role. Taylor made quick, aggressive moves with the ball, and was able to shift gears in an instant to keep the defense off-balance. His smooth handles made it easy to weave through traffic, and he took full advantage of the new emphasis on defensive contact to earn fourteen trips to the line. He also showed an ability to pull up and hit the floater in traffic, something the tiny guard may have to rely on against bigger, stronger opponents. Taylor finished with 17 points in 29 minutes of action.

While Taylor didn’t attempt a three-pointer in the game, the rest of the Longhorns found a ton of success from beyond the arc. Texas made six of their eight three-point attempts in the first half and finished the game with a 46.7% success rate. Last season, the Longhorns made just 29.7% of their threes on the year, and cracked the 40% mark in just five of their 34 games.

Three of the long-range makes came from Texas big men, with Jonathan Holmes knocking down a pair and Lammert adding the third. Holmes showed the ability to hit three-pointers last year when he took them in rhythm, and that trend continued in the season opener. His first came as a trailer in transition, while his second was a wide open look late in the game. Lammert added his on a pick-and-pop play. If the Texas forwards can consistently make their long-range looks, it adds an extra dimension to the Longhorn offense that will spread the floor and open up driving lanes.

Freshman Damarcus Croaker also added two threes on back-to-back possessions, with a defender providing token pressure on both. He threw a pass out of bounds moments later and sat on the bench for the rest of the game, but it’s reassuring to know that the new guards will at least add some long-range pop. Although one game is certainly not a sample size worthy of any true conclusions, there’s reason to believe that Texas fans might not have to struggle through the painful scoreless stretches of last season.

The Longhorn offense also came from the entire stat sheet, as all ten players who saw the floor scored at least two points. Big man Prince Ibeh made two out of three free throws to log his points, which is certainly noteworthy after he made just 37.5% of his free throws last year.

The Texas offense also featured good ball movement, especially right out of the gate. The three-guard lineup whipped the ball around the perimeter as they looked for post entry opportunities. Although the Mercer defense is experienced and generally well-disciplined, when the Bears were caught out of position, the Texas guards were quick to put the ball on the floor and attacked the defense off the bounce. While last year’s team often passed the ball around the arc with little direction or sense of purpose, there was a clear game plan for this one and the team stuck to it.

On the defensive end, there was a ton of energy. The Longhorns used a lot of zone looks, including a 1-3-1 and what even looked like a 1-2-2. They threw out some full-court pressure to force a few first-half mistakes and looked really strong in man-to-man as they mounted their comeback late in the game.

What needed work

On the flip side, that defensive energy didn’t always equal results in the first half. The Longhorns seemed overly amped up, repeatedly biting on head fakes. Texas trapped quite a bit out of their zones in the first half, but players who were supposed to be rotating were often late or lost their assignments. On one particularly poor defensive set, Holmes drifted towards a man flaring to the arc as the Longhorns trapped past the opposite elbow, and he let a Mercer player cut right behind him to the rim for an easy hoop.

Ridley also seemed to struggle in the zone, as his size and conditioning made it tough for him to match the energy and effort of his teammates for long stretches. Mercer was very disciplined when it came to making quick, crisp passes, and his lapses allowed for open midrange jumpers and cuts to the paint. However, when the Longhorns switched to a man-to-man at the end of the first half and again in the second, Ridley actually looked phenomenal. He cleaned up shots from the help-side and also stood his ground to block shots from the Mercer bigs near the rim. Ridley finished the night with five blocks and 11 boards in 27 minutes of action.

While Ridley and Lammert provided a spark down the stretch, it took a while for the Texas interior game to get going. The bigs were working hard to establish post position in the first half, but they simply weren’t clicking with the guards. On some possessions, the bigs couldn’t get position for a good entry pass, while on others they would finally get their spot but the guards couldn’t find them. On the few occasions in the first half where the ball made it down low, the Texas bigs were usually out of position or they struggled to make a good move.

Fortunately, things changed down the stretch, as the guards and bigs worked together to get good angles down low and seal off the defenders. Ridley and Lammert logged some easy layups as a result, while the latter also cleaned up the glass with some key tips from the weak side late in the game.

A recurring problem last season was Felix getting himself into tough situations, and unfortunately that was again an issue against Mercer. Javan had three turnovers on the evening, but also repeatedly had shots blocked when he drove against a set interior defense. He left his feet without a plan on a few occasions early in the game, leading to desperation passes into the teeth of the D. Felix did log nine assists on the game, but his 4-of-14 line is worthy of concern. It will take time for the point guard to settle into his new combo-guard role, so hopefully the decision-making and shot selection improve over time.

The turnover bug was not just an issue for Felix, but for the entire Longhorn roster. Although the turnover rate of 17.9% was an improvement on last year’s 21.4% mark, that isn’t saying much. Texas was in the bottom third of Divison I hoops last season, so it would be tough to match that level of carelessness this season.

The Horns had six turnovers in the first 8:16 of the game, but managed to tighten things up the rest of the way. It’s worth noting, however, that many of the miscues were of the self-inflicted variety. With a young team and a lot of new faces, it’s natural that teammates sometimes won’t be on the same page, but for a Texas team that is going to have to battle for every win, the unforced errors will have to be reigned in.

Up next: vs. South Alabama (1-0); Tuesday, 7 P.M. CT

Posted by Ryan Clark at 3:56AM

Texas Longhorns 79, Baylor Bears 70

For forty minutes on Monday night, the young, beleaguered Texas Longhorns finally looked like a team. Role players made key contributions, stars stepped up to make huge buckets, and the squad that had so often folded under pressure actually responded to adversity with poise and composure. The Longhorns turned back the Bears and their comeback bid at every opportunity, holding on for a 79-70 win in the final home game of the season.

The loss was especially damaging to Baylor, which entered the game as one of the “First Four Out” in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracket Math update. It was the fifth defeat in the last six games for the Bears, and the eighth loss in the team’s last 11 contests. After also squandering an opportunity for a résumé-building win against Kansas State two days ago, Baylor now must put all of its eggs in the “upset Kansas” basket on Saturday. Even with a victory there, the Bears still would likely need a solid win over the Big 12′s No. 3 seed in the conference tournament next Thursday to truly feel comfortable.

Sheldon McClellan led Texas with 23 points
(Photo credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

As damaging as the loss was for Baylor, it meant very little in the grand scheme of things for Texas. The Longhorns now have a better chance to claim the No. 7 seed in the league tournament, but will still need assistance from Oklahoma and Iowa State, who both play West Virginia over the next four days. Outside of helping the Longhorns perhaps earn a marginally better draw for a possible four-wins-in-four days miracle run to the NCAAs, the victory had no tangible big-picture implications.

Still, there was so much to be excited about after watching the Longhorns earn a tough win tonight. Myck Kabongo bounced back quickly from his rough game in Stillwater, scoring 19 points while also leading the team with six boards and eight assists. Sheldon McClellan also turned in a big performance, scoring 23 points just two days after seeing the court for only seven minutes in the Saturday loss to Oklahoma State.

Coming off the bench, Cameron Ridley showed heart and hustle, never more apparent than in a huge play late in the game where he was falling out of bounds and tapped a loose rebound to the corner, where Ioannis Papapetrou knocked down the triple to stifle a Baylor rally. That big shot was one of many clutch plays by Papi, who was aggressive with the bounce and steady behind the arc en route to a highly-efficient 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting. Even Prince Ibeh made key contributions, coming up with two blocks and three important boards.

The Longhorns established their new season high for offensive efficiency, scoring 1.241 points per possession. It was the third time in the team’s last five games that the offense cracked the 1.2 mark, and it was a vast improvement over the even 1.0 points per possession that they scored against Baylor in Waco on January 5th.

Texas also made a huge turnaround on the glass, where the team limited the Bears to reclaiming just 30.6% of their offensive rebounding chances. In the earlier loss to Baylor, Texas gave up 39.1% of those opportunities. The Longhorns also kept the Bears from getting to the line, slashing their defensive free-throw rate from an astronomical 70.3% in the loss to just 38.6% in Monday’s win.

But even with the big plays and solid performances up and down the lineup, Texas’ win over Baylor still left behind a feeling of sadness. Since the return of Kabongo, the Longhorns have pulled off wins over Oklahoma, Iowa State, and Baylor, teams ranked fourth through sixth in the league. Although it’s an incredibly small sample size, those results and the jolt Kabongo has provided the offense make it seem like these Horns could have easily been in the middle of the Big 12 standings had he played all year.

With that in mind, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the full-strength Horns could have won one of the games against West Virginia, if not both. The road loss at Oklahoma was close enough that you can’t help but wonder if that outcome would have changed, too. Heck, the Longhorns forced Kansas into enough second-half miscues that the Jayhawks were on the ropes in Austin, even without Kabongo. Take a step further back, into the non-conference slate, and you can easily picture Texas hanging on against UCLA and hopefully avoiding the detestable loss to Chaminade.

Texas might have been a bubble team with Kabongo
(Photo credit: Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman)

If you hypothesize that Kabongo’s presence flips a few of these games to the win column, you can’t magically create an amazing season, but you do start to add up enough victories to be able to imagine Texas as a bubble team. It seems that every year, the teams filling the bottom of the bracket have résumés that are even more odious than the ones in the previous year. This season has been no exception, with Ole Miss was still only five slots out of Lunardi’s bracket after losing at home to a 7-20 Mississippi State team — the very same Mississippi State team that lost at home to Vanderbilt by 41 points just a week earlier.

There’s no way to know what impact Kabongo would have actually had on the games earlier in the season. Some of the close losses could very well have remained losses even with his leadership. Even with those wins, Texas’ horribly weak non-conference SOS might have kept it out of the NCAA field. The Longhorns’ inability to put together road and neutral-site wins against quality competition might have also left them on the wrong side of the bubble. Unfortunately, the sad fact of the matter is that the NCAA didn’t ever give this team or its fans a chance to find out.

ESPN’s Jay Bilas was the most outspoken critic of the NCAA’s decision to suspend Kabongo, a ban that was reduced to 23 games after initially being set for the full season. But even prior to this particular decision, numerous analysts have been ripping the agency’s enforcement arm for the last few years. Recent scandals surrounding the Shabazz Muhammad and Miami investigations have put more egg on the face of the NCAA, which prodded the league into investigating itself in the miraculous time span of two weeks.

Should Kabongo have been forthcoming with UT compliance officials from the start? Absolutely. But as Bilas and others have reminded us, these 18- to 22-year old kids are thrown into frightening situations where they are questioned without any counsel. These are kids who are playing for no money, only a college education and dreams of making it as a professional athlete. Asking them to handle the stress of a huge institution scrutinizing their possible transgressions is tough enough without also trying to use them as examples to future scallywags when they try to massage the truth in an effort to save face.

As Texas beat writer Mike Finger pointed out this weekend, the Longhorns’ string of 14 consecutive NCAA appearances will likely end because of a $475 plane ride. Kabongo, a kid who was worried about jeopardizing future in which he could make millions, was scared enough to lie about a measly 475 dollars because he might have done something deemed illegal in the NCAA’s arcane rulebook.

It is no secret in the sports world that the NCAA model is a system that is broken in so many different places, it is impossible to even know where to start. There are the issues with enforcement, the gulf between the haves and have-nots, the constant shifting of realignment’s tectonic plates, the debate on pay-for-play…the list never ends. Kabongo’s case is not unique, his problem is far from the biggest one facing college sports, and Texas is certainly not a persecuted victim. But at some point, all of the off-the-court problems, scandals, and distractions take us away from enjoying the game that we all love, the game that brings us all together for five fabulous months every year. When investigations and sanctions earn as many headlines as the contests themselves, some of the magic of college hoops is stripped away.

These are the debates and issues that dominated my thoughts as I watched my 250th consecutive Texas basketball game on Monday. On a night that should have felt like some sort of grand closure to my seven-year journey, a night I should have been swept up in the drama of a back-and-forth game, all I could focus on was how sad it was that none of the effort Texas was putting forth would mean anything. As hard as the Longhorns played and as resilient as they were for forty minutes tonight, nothing that happened between the lines would actually matter. A season that could have been filled with suspense and bubble-sweating and résumé-dissecting and Championship Week pressure was simply over before it even began. Because a college kid made one mistake and compounded it with another, 13 other guys were simply playing for fun from November to March.

There is still the slim chance that Texas could get hot in Kansas City and play its way right in to the NCAAs. The Longhorns had opportunities to prove their worth before Kabongo’s return, and they still have one more week to do the improbable. But after seeing what the Longhorns were capable of with their full roster, it’s a shame Texas fans didn’t get to experience the highs and lows of living on the bubble in February and March. In a thrilling year of college basketball that loudly and undeniably refuted the New York Times’ declaration that the regular season was irrelevant, the Longhorns and their fans had to suffer through a season that never truly mattered.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 1:16PM

Iowa State Cyclones 82, Texas Longhorns 62

The Texas Longhorns entered Saturday’s game with the Iowa State Cyclones boasting the nation’s fifth-most efficient defense. On the perimeter, the Texas D was the stingiest in the country, holding opponents to 23.2% shooting behind the arc.

With the stifling Longhorn defense facing an efficient, sharpshooting Iowa State team, something had to give. Unfortunately for the burnt-orange faithful, it was the Cyclones who imposed their will on Saturday afternoon, as Iowa State cruised to an 82-62 win in front of 14,376 at Hilton Coliseum.

Rick Barnes is still looking for answers this season
(Photo credit: Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

The Cyclones posted an incredible 1.302 points per possession in the win, powered by an impressive 42.3% mark from behind the arc. Iowa State kept Texas safely out of reach for most of the game, holding a lead that often hovered around the double-digit mark. The Longhorns repeatedly chipped away at the lead in the second half, but could never get closer than five points. Iowa State ended the game on a 17-4 run over the last seven-plus minutes, sending the Longhorns to their first 0-3 start in conference play since the Tom Penders era.

What looked good

Jonathan Holmes had another solid performance for Texas, emerging as a team leader as fellow sophomore Sheldon McClellan continues to cool his heels in Rick Barnes‘ doghouse. With McClellan on the floor for a grand total of 59 seconds against Iowa State, Holmes led the team with 15 points.

Texas fed Holmes immediately, as he scored the team’s first hoop on a drive from the baseline. He also added a nice finish a few minutes later on a quick spin move from the block. In the second half, Jonathan drove strong to his left and used a jump stop to get to the rim, finishing as the crowd howled for a travel.

Holmes added a triple on a good shot in rhythm, further underscoring the fact that he could develop into a legitimate stretch four. When the sophomore shows any hesitation before his three-point attempts, he tends to miss in an ugly fashion. As he develops more confidence and takes the open long-range looks without thinking about them, that part of his game should improve and force defenders to follow him to the perimeter.

Freshman Demarcus Holland saw his minutes increase with McClellan riding the bench, and he turned in a generally positive performance. Although Iowa State’s Tyrus McGee poured in 15 from the bench, Holland was the Longhorn defender who had the most success limiting McGee’s damage in halfcourt sets. The freshman guard also showed off his quick hands, poking a few balls free from the Cyclone guards. While none of those plays resulted in steals, that defensive pressure will certainly frustrate Big 12 opponents.

On the offensive end, Demarcus easily had his best game of the season. Although he only scored six points in 25 minutes, Holland showed off a nice driving ability on one slashing layup from the left wing, and he used his dribble penetration to set up teammates on four assists. Texas repeatedly worked to free Holland up with screens off the ball, running him through two and three different picks on some sets.

The Longhorns desperately need another shooter to compliment Julien Lewis, and if McClellan is not going to be able to shoulder that load, the possible emergence of Holland is a much-needed development. He was responsible for a pair of turnovers when he dribbled out of control into a double team and threw an interior pass through Holmes’ legs, but the overall performance was encouraging for a guy who was averaging just 12.6 minutes coming into the game.

Julien Lewis made untimely second half turnovers
(Photo credit: Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

Julien Lewis also chipped in 15 points for Texas, but had a highly inefficient performance. His scoring came on 40% shooting from the field, including just 20% from behind the arc. Lewis elevated well on his jumpers, but was lacking accuracy until he heated up late in the game.

What needed work

Unfortunately, Lewis also coughed it up four times, including a pair of frustrating, unforced errors. On one possession, he was whistled for a five second call as he simply watched the screening and cutters inside the arc. Late in the game, he rolled the ball off of his foot as Chris Babb defended him on the baseline.

Those turnovers were representative of the kind of frustrating afternoon Texas had at Hilton. Every time the Longhorns tried to make a run to make a serious dent in the Iowa State lead, turnovers or questionable shot selection stifled the momentum. With Texas down just six in the second half, Lewis was called for a carry as Texas rushed up the court. Late in the game, he threw a pass behind Ioannis Papapetrou in transition when the Horns were down by seven.

In the first half, the Texas turnovers were just as painful. Holmes dropped a pass off his foot, Papapetrou couldn’t handle a heater from Lewis as he crashed in from the corner, and the team was called for a 10-second violation against backcourt pressure from Iowa State. Although the Longhorns posted a turnover percentage of 17.5%, much better than their season average, the miscues were either unforced or came at the worst possible times.

In addition, the Texas turnovers exposed some very bad transition defense. The Cyclones repeatedly beat the Longhorns down the court, and spread the floor very well. Texas players failed to find shooters as they ran back on defense, and Iowa State knocked down multiple transition threes as a result. On the afternoon, the Cyclones scored a whopping 23 points off of Texas miscues.

The Texas defense gave up far too many easy hoops
(Photo credit: Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press)

The transition scoring wasn’t limited to possessions after a turnover. The Longhorns also failed to get back after missed shots, allowing open threes or easy buckets at the rim. In one instance midway through the first half, Javan Felix drew the wrath of Coach Barnes when he failed to stop the ball after missing a fadeaway jumper. Will Clyburn easily put the small guard on his hip and hit a trailing Percy Gibson in the lane for two.

Texas also had a very difficult time closing out on the Iowa State shooters, although much credit has to be given to the Cyclones for crisp ball movement and hustle plays. A few of the wide-open threes came after Iowa State won a loose ball or long rebound and the Texas defense was caught scrambling. On many of the others, the Cyclones exploited one mistake by a defender and moved the ball quickly to get the Horns rotating and chasing the play.

On the offensive end, the Texas struggles continued in this game. Papapetrou had a few nice plays and knocked down a pair of triples, but at times forced things out of the flow of the offense. In the first half, a few of his three-point attempts came early in the shot clock as he tried to quickly respond to an ISU trey. On the afternoon, Papapetrou sank just 36% of his looks. Texas clearly needs more scorers, and Papi has the ability to boost the offense, but he has to be smarter with his shot selection.

Jaylen Bond also had a mixed performance on Saturday afternoon. He did some excellent work on the glass early, but struggled to put the ball in the basket. Bond showed the ability to drive from the perimeter, but the end result was often an ugly, contested shot in the lane. If Jaylen can actually use that newfound driving ability and convert some short jumpers, the Longhorns suddenly have another offensive option. On the other hand, if those drives end in the kind of looks he threw up on Saturday, that will simply waste possessions.

Texas also had trouble scoring inside on second and third chances, despite the size advantage. The Longhorns reclaimed 36.8% of their missed shots, a very strong showing against an Iowa State team that was ranked in the Top 20 for defensive rebounding. However, Texas missed numerous tip-ins and putbacks, failing to turn those extended possessions into points. With an offense that struggles to score in halfcourt sets, Texas has to start converting those offensive boards into easy buckets.

Up next: vs. Kansas (14-1 overall, 2-0 Big 12); Saturday, 1 P.M. CT

Posted by Ryan Clark at 1:35PM

#20/19 Michigan State Spartans 67, Texas Longhorns 56

In front of a raucous crowd of nearly 15,000, the young Texas Longhorns faced their first true road test of the season in East Lansing yesterday afternoon. While they didn’t escape the Breslin Center with an improbable win, the team responded to adversity and battled down to the final minutes in a game that was much tighter than the final score indicated.

The Horns came out of the gate very shaky, hitting just one of their first nine shots, with the make coming on a simple stickback by Jonathan Holmes. Texas turned it over five times in the team’s first ten possessions, giving fans flashbacks to the disastrous start against Georgetown in New York. After eight minutes of play, the Horns had already fallen behind 12-4 and had gone more than seven minutes without a field goal.

The Texas frontcourt could not contain Derrick Nix
(Photo credit: Al Goldis/Associated Press)

This time, the Longhorns didn’t wither under the pressure. The team suddenly heated up from long range and charged into the lead, while Sheldon McClellan woke up late in the half against a Michigan State defense that was keyed in on denying him the ball. He fought through tight defense, earning six free throw attempts as the half wound down, all of which he converted.

The one player Texas couldn’t stop in the first half was Derrick Nix, who had half of his team’s 28 points when they headed to the locker room. He put the Longhorn bigs in foul trouble early, sending Holmes and Cameron Ridley to the bench for extended periods of time. Michigan State continued to feed the big man in the second half, and the rotating Longhorn frontcourt was eaten alive. Nix finished with a career day, scoring 25 points to go with 11 boards. Eleven of his points came at the line, as he hit 84.6% of his free throws, well above his career average of 51%.

With Nix dominating and the Spartans putting on a run, the Longhorns found themselves down by as many as 10 points. Once again, they relied on stout defense down the stretch to hold the Spartans in check while they slowly mounted a comeback. Texas didn’t allow an offensive rebound and forced three turnovers during a seven-minute stretch where they clawed back to within two points of Michigan State. In the end, an inability to score in the clutch allowed the Spartans to slowly pull away over the final two minutes.

What looked good

Once again, the Longhorns were active in setting screens for their shooters, who had to fight through tight defensive pressure on every cut and curl. Texas has been much more active on the offensive end in their last four games, looking like a completely different team than the one that stood around on the court in the Maui Invitational. Javan Felix logged 11 assists on the afternoon, hitting the shooters at the right time for midrange jumpers.

Julien Lewis was the leading scorer for Texas, putting up 16 points for the game. Ten of his points came in the second half, where he repeatedly knocked down tough, contested jumpers in the lane. He was the only Longhorn who could be counted on to consistently score as the game wound down, and his buckets kept Texas in it until the final minutes.

Julien Lewis came up big in the second half
(Photo credit: Al Goldis/Associated Press)

Lewis is much more reliable this season, thanks to his new role as a catch-and-shoot guy. Last year, he often tried to create his own looks, and especially struggled if he couldn’t get going early. Now, Felix and the Horns are working hard to get Lewis open, and his quick release means he doesn’t need much space. The tight defense he is drawing is also opening up opponents to the shot fake and drive. Julien has done this on a few occasions this year, but with future opponents likely to throw additional pressure at him, he’ll have to mix it in even more.

The most important thing for these young Horns to take from this game was the experience. They are learning to respond to adversity and different players are trying to shoulder the load down the stretch. Connor Lammert had a huge bucket in the final minutes, although it appeared to be released after the shot clock had expired. Jonathan Holmes worked hard inside during the comeback push, but had a key hoop wiped out by a controversial charge. Lewis was a workhorse, and even Ioannis Papapetrou added a key three-point play and snagged timely defensive rebounds.

The Longhorns came up short in close games time after time last season, with most of their final possessions turning into an adventure. Texas’ primary option was clearly J’Covan Brown, and many times the late-game sets were simply him clearing out and trying to drive on an isolated defender. Opponents knew that and help defense was quick to respond.

This year, there are more players who are willing to step up and the team has more options. Unfortunately, the Longhorns are still not shooting the ball consistently, so those opportunities are not being converted. Only time will tell if this leads to a repeat of last year’s close-game frustrations, or if some of the youngsters will emerge as heroes and pull out a few tight victories.

What needed work

The player that most observers expected to take over Brown’s go-to role was sophomore Sheldon McClellan. Opponents have put a lot of energy into denying him the ball and making Texas have to work very hard to free him up. It’s been a struggle for Sheldon to get going in most games this year, as he often seems frustrated by the suffocating defense.

While he fought through the pressure late in the first half and earned some trips to the line, he was forcing things from the field all game long. He knocked down only one jumper on the afternoon, a three-pointer during Texas’ first-half run. His other two buckets came on drives to the rim, and he finished with an ugly 3-for-10 line. Most importantly, he missed two technical free throws with Texas down by one in the second half, energizing the crowd and fueling a nine-point run that gave Michigan State its largest lead of the game. He pressed the rest of the way, forcing terrible, off-balance looks.

Sheldon McClellan was mostly limited to layups
(Photo credit: Al Goldis/Associated Press)

Sheldon is drawing the bulk of the defensive attention, and it is going to be that way all season long. He has to stop backing down from the challenge and continue to fight for his looks, even when blanketed by top defenders. McClellan also has to start taking the ball to the rack. With defenders right on him as he catches the ball, almost all of his shots are contested. Shot fakes and head fakes will get the defense off balance and open up driving opportunities. Even if help shuts off those lanes, it forces opponents to rotate and will open up looks for his teammates.

Felix also forced things at time, taking some of the luster off of his 11-assist performance. The Texas bigs certainly had major issues handling passes in this game, but sometimes the blame rested on the point guard. Late in the game, Lammert bobbled a pass in the middle of the lane, but Felix had thrown it low and right into the middle of a gaggle of Spartan defenders. Also in the second half, Felix zipped an inbounds pass above the head of Prince Ibeh, which the big man tipped out of bounds. Prince often has trouble handling even easy passes, so a high heater only highlighted that weakness.

Javan also failed to make layups once he got to the rim, a problem that has been a team-wide affair in recent weeks. Felix missed a pair of layups after shaking the defense, and he also lost the ball on the way up in the final possession of the first half. Papapetrou also failed to convert his own open look at the rim after deftly slipping through the Spartan D.

The missed layup was the least of the problems for Papi on Saturday afternoon, however. He once again left a ton of points at the line, making just four of his nine free throw attempts. The Longhorns missed five other free throws, hitting only 58.3% at the stripe. A miss by Lammert also came on the front end of a one-and-one in the second half, essentially costing the team a possible two points. In a game that was close until the final minutes and in which the Spartans made nearly 77% of their free throws, the charity stripe played a huge role.

Even with that many points left at the line, the biggest problem for Texas came in defending the post. Nix and sixth man Adreian Payne had their way with the Longhorn bigs throughout the game, scoring against whoever Texas threw out there. They piled up the fouls on the Texas bigs, limiting both Ridley and Holmes to less than 20 minutes.

Ibeh was the only player to find much success against Nix, blocking two shots in consecutive second-half possessions. Nix was whistled for a technical after the second block as he argued for a foul, but Ibeh could have easily earned his own T for staring down the big man as he sat on the floor. When fighting hard for a win on the road, Ibeh’s preening after a good play could have been disastrous. He has to show some maturity and restraint in the future.

The lack of double teams on Nix was mystifying, as the Spartans had struggled with that at times this year. Michigan State players often forgot to help their big man, abandoning him against the pressure when he was doubled in previous games. In addition, the Spartans’ lack of a consistent midrange game and outside shooting meant that they likely would have struggled to beat Texas with the jumper. Instead, the Longhorns waited to offer post help until after Nix had beat the primary defender, resulting in easy buckets and needless fouls.

If one thing can be taken from the Texas struggles against Nix and Payne, it’s that the post players were forced to defend one-on-one. Against a team like Baylor that has length all over the court, doubling would be much less effective. If the Longhorn frontcourt can learn from their mistakes against MSU, perhaps it will pay off against some of the bigger teams in the Big 12.

Texas will also need to lock down the defensive glass in key situations as they move into conference play. On the whole, the Longhorns did an excellent job closing out defensive possessions with rebounds, limiting the Spartans to an offensive rebounding mark of 31%. The Longhorns performed even better in that category than UConn, Kansas, and Miami did against the Spartans, holding them well below their season average of 37.4%. However, the offensive boards that Michigan State did manage to control often resulted in second chance points. One was a big bucket at the end of the first half, and a clutch three by Keith Appling during Michigan State’s second-half push came after the Spartans reclaimed one of their missed free throws.

Texas has done good work on the defensive glass this season, but has struggled when the game is on the line. An inability to box out late in the UCLA game helped fuel that Bruin comeback, and the second chance points given to Michigan State were crippling. The Longhorns have to maintain their focus and close out defensive possessions with strong rebounds when the pressure is highest.

Finally, it must be noted that once again the turnover bug cost Texas in a big way. Although the Longhorns settled down for a long stretch of the first half, the five early turnovers killed their offense for nearly eight minutes. The team wasted 26.1% of their total possessions with miscues, the worst ball-control performance since the Georgetown game, and the third-worst of the season. It’s been said time and again, but for an offense that already struggles to score points, simply throwing away possessions is a recipe for failure.

Up next: vs. Rice (3-8); Saturday, 1 P.M.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 3:38PM

#15/23 Georgetown Hoyas 64, Texas Longhorns 41

Rick Barnes and the Texas Longhorns knew they needed to control the basketball against an athletic, talented Georgetown team at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. “We talked over and over about turning the ball over,” Barnes told reporters after the game.

Those talks didn’t seem to have much effect, however, as Julien Lewis coughed it up on the very first possession. It was the third straight game in which Texas turned it over on their first trip down the court, and it was one of six miscues the Longhorns would log in the first four minutes of the game.

The Georgetown defense flustered Texas all game
(Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/Associated Press)

That disastrous opening to the game set the tone for the entire night, as Texas turned it over 22 times, wasting 32% of their possessions. It marked the third time this season the Longhorns posted a turnover percentage of 32% or more, and it raised their season mark to 28.3%, seventh worst out of 347 Division I teams.

The problems started at the top, with point guard Javan Felix having one of the worst games of his young career. The freshman turned it over five times while logging just three assists, and he was a hideous 1-of-9 from the field. Although Felix was able to drive the lane against the Georgetown defense, he missed numerous shots, had others blocked, and had no touch on his preferred weapon of choice, the floater.

The poor shooting was a team-wide epidemic, with the Longhorns making just 29.2% of their shots on the night. Although Georgetown made Texas work for their looks, there were far too many missed opportunities when the Horns did manage to get the ball to the rim. Texas missed 13 shots that were classified as layups on the play-by-play, while Cameron Ridley actually came up short on an embarrassing dunk attempt.

It’s certainly worth noting that Georgetown has length up and down the lineup to a degree that Texas had not yet faced. The Hoyas started four players at least 6’8″ tall, although big man Mikael Hopkins only ended up playing nine minutes on the night.

While that kind of height and length can make it incredibly difficult to score inside or to get off good outside looks against quick closeouts, the Longhorns will soon face many more teams with similar makeups. North Carolina, Baylor, and Kansas all have rosters loaded with athleticism and length, and the Longhorns will face the latter two teams twice each. If Texas can’t figure out a way to make their opportunities count when they get to the rim, the rest of the season is going to be a long, painful journey.

What makes the team’s woes in the paint even more worrisome is that the Longhorns are also not taking advantage at the free-throw line. Ridley made just three of his nine attempts at the charity stripe, dragging the team’s percentage down to 52.4% for the game. It was certainly productive and a sign of progress that the big man earned so many touches in the paint against Georgetown, but he can easily be rendered useless when opponents can simply hack him to prevent scoring. With his season free-throw mark now under 40%, there’s no reason why any opponent should ever give Ridley an easy layup or dunk.

This game also underscored the problems this team will face if Sheldon McClellan is going to be the only player able to create his own looks. Felix is shooting just 34% on the season, including a horrendous 7.7% mark behind the arc. Defenses don’t have to respect his shot and can easily sag off to take away his driving threat. Julien Lewis has proven to be a catch-and-shoot guy, so he’s not one that can be counted on to penetrate and force the defense to react.

Texas is still trying to answer the same old questions
(Photo credit: Frank Franklin II/Associated Press)

At this point, all the eggs are in the Kabongo basket, as the team waits to learn the fate of their sophomore point guard. Although he struggled at times to capitalize on his drives as a freshman, even the mere possibility that he has improved in that regard is better than the options on the table with the current roster.

Texas is also anxiously awaiting the return of Jaylen Bond, a forward who plays much bigger and tougher than his size. The Hoyas repeatedly beat Texas to 50-50 balls in last night’s game, and even ripped a rebound right out of the arms of Jonathan Holmes. If the Longhorns are going to be a poor-shooting team this season, they simply have to show some toughness on the boards. Being held to 28.9% on the offensive glass isn’t going to cut it against the upcoming schedule, so Bond’s return cannot come a minute too soon.

Texas has to bounce back quickly, as a showdown with UCLA awaits on Saturday in Houston. Although the Bruins are under-performing to a shocking degree this season, the Longhorns will still face an uphill battle to earn the win. If they continue to repeat the same mistakes and show the same lack of focus that they have displayed during the first four weeks of the season, this could be the start of a very long December.

Up next: vs. UCLA (5-3), in Houston; Saturday, 4:15 P.M. CT

Posted by Ryan Clark at 12:47AM

Texas Longhorns 70, UT-Arlington Mavericks 54

The Texas Longhorns used a barrage of three-pointers and another stout defensive performance to dispatch UT-Arlington at the Erwin Center on Saturday afternoon, pushing their winning streak to three games as they head into a daunting week of neutral-site games. Although the final margin of victory was only 16 points, the game was much more one-sided, with Texas holding a lead as large as 28 points just eight minutes after halftime.

What looked good

Texas put forth its second-best offensive performance of the season, and its third-best effort on the defensive end. The Longhorns managed exactly one point per possession and an eFG of 57.8% against a UTA defense that was top-five nationally in eFG coming into the game. Julien Lewis led the way for Texas with 6-of-10 shooting from behind the arc, part of the team’s impressive 13-for-26 day from long range.

For the Longhorns, the success from three-point range is a welcome change. Last season’s team was the worst three-point shooting Texas squad in 13 years, with the five returning members of that team combining to hit just 30.7% of their threes in 2011-12. The beginning of this year wasn’t much better, as the Longhorns managed just an ugly 21.5% mark behind the arc in their first four games. Their fortunes have turned during the three-game winning streak, however, as the Horns have hit 26 threes for a success rate of more than 44%. If Lewis, Sheldon McClellan, and Ioannis Papapetrou can continue to knock down the triples, the Texas offense will actually be multi-dimensional and much tougher to defend.

A big reason why the Longhorns are finding more success behind the arc is because they are working hard to get open looks. Texas is setting numerous screens for their shooters as they run baseline cuts, and using downscreens to open up McClellan and Lewis on flares to the perimeter. While Sheldon is a player who can create good looks for himself with the dribble, Lewis has much better form and is much more accurate when he is shooting off the catch.

The three-point party also opened up the driving lanes for Texas, particularly on the baseline. With the Mavericks closing out hard on the perimeter, the Longhorns were able to put the ball on the floor and drive into the heart of the defense. Karol Gruszecki was the unfortunate victim of two nice baseline drives by McClellan in the first half, as he bit hard on the shot fake while rushing out to the perimeter.

Greek import Ioannis Papapetrou joined McClellan and Lewis in the double-digit scoring club, despite spending the first nine minutes of the game on the bench. Like Lewis and McClellan, Papi had an excellent game from long range, knocking down three of his four long-range attempts. He also put the ball on the floor for a nice drive from the corner, and earned 10 trips to the line as a result of his slashing efforts. Unfortunately, Papapetrou made just four of his free throws, dropping his free-throw mark to 54.2% on the year. For a guy with a nice jumper, the struggles from the line are baffling. If Papi is going to continue to drive to the bucket, he’s going to have to capitalize on the numerous free throw opportunities he will be earning.

Texas also had a solid performance from freshman Cameron Ridley, who once again impacted the game on both ends. He put up six points on 3-for-5 shooting, making strong, confident moves with the ball in the post. He also notched another four blocked shots and altered a handful of others, pushing his block percentage to 16.3% on the year. While it’s still very early, that number puts Cam in the top ten nationally in that category.

Ridley wasn’t the only one providing solid post defense, as Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert both did nice work with help D to cut off baseline drives by UTA. Holmes was unable to make too big of an impact, however, as he battled foul trouble all game long and earned the DQ after only 24 minutes on the court.

Javan Felix once again had a rough start, but was able to bounce back for a very impressive outing. Before the first media timeout, Felix had already thrown two bad passes that resulted in turnovers, and he was sent to the bench at the 15:20 mark. Demarcus Holland took over point guard duties for nearly five minutes before Felix returned, but the New Orleans native did not log a single turnover after that point. He also tallied nine assists for the game, consistently hitting the open shooters on time and in rhythm as they came free beyond the arc.

What needed work

Although Texas was able to build a lead of nearly 30 points in this game, their effort waned late in the game. UTA abused the Longhorns on the glass in the second half and took advantage of turnovers to quickly slice into the lead. For the game, the Mavs grabbed 44.4% of their offensive rebounding opportunities, their second-best performance of the season, and the best one posted by a Longhorn opponent this year.

This problem was an unhappy confluence of two recurring issues for Texas this season. This young squad has done a surprisingly poor job of securing defensive rebounds against smaller opponents, and the team has often lost focus for long stretches. Against Sam Houston State and UT-Arlington, losing focus late in a blowout only affected the margin of victory. But, these lapses in effort are often leading to stagnant offensive sets, which in turn leads to long scoring droughts.

Against Chaminade, the Longhorns didn’t even look like they cared about the game, and their offensive performance reflected that attitude. While fans are hopeful that Texas won’t ever again completely check out for an entire game, even a few possessions of lackluster play could mean disaster for this team. The margin for error looks to be very slim with the current roster, especially considering the buzz-saw of a non-conference schedule that awaits in the next three weeks. The Longhorns can’t afford to take plays off, so they have to take advantage of the opportunity to establish that mindset in these lower-risk games.

Up next: vs. Georgetown (5-1) at Madison Square Garden; Tuesday , 6 P.M. CT

Posted by Ryan Clark at 6:55PM

Texas Longhorns 65, Sam Houston State Bearkats 37

After a harrowing week of basketball on the island of Maui, the Texas Longhorns returned to mainland action on Tuesday night, hoping for a quick recovery against Sam Houston State. Led by a stifling defensive performance, the Longhorns overcame 19 turnovers and long field goal droughts to cruise to a 28-point win.

Sam Houston State was suffocated by the Texas defense
(Photo credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Texas limited the Bearkats to only 0.506 points per possession on the night, while allowing just 21% shooting from the field. The Longhorns used excellent team defense and mixed in a variety of looks and lineup combinations to keep Sam Houston State frustrated throughout. That defensive dominance was never more apparent than in a stretch of eight-plus minutes, spanning both halves, in which the Bearkats managed just one field goal.

Texas stifled their opponents with sound man defense in the first half, hedging hard on ball screens while using a larger lineup. Facing a four-out, one-in look from the smaller Bearkats, Coach Rick Barnes elected to go with a smaller lineup of his own during the first half and the Longhorns began switching screens. In the second half, big man Cameron Ridley saw much more action as the Longhorns shifted into a zone defense that was just as effective.

One of the most impressive players on the defensive end was freshman Demarcus Holland, who earned his first career start. In his 26 minutes on the court, only four points were scored by players he was guarding.

The first bucket came as Sam Houston State rushed down the court and Holland couldn’t find his man, Paul Baxter, who dribbled through traffic before drilling a pull-up jumper from the free-throw line. The other basket came when the 6’2″ Holland was isolated on the block against 6’7″ Erik Williams. Even then, Holland played solid belly-up defense and kept his arms straight up, forcing Williams to take a hook shot as he stepped across the lane.

Demarcus seemed to be making the little plays all night long. In one instance, he bailed out Ioannis Papapetrou, who allowed James Thomas past him on a drive from the wing. Holland swiped at the ball, forcing Thomas to bobble it and ultimately travel along the baseline. Later in the game, Papi returned the favor for his teammate, standing tall to get a blocked shot after Holland was hung up on a screen at the free throw line. Holland also snagged five defensive rebounds, many of them coming as he sagged off to help from the weak side.

Offensively, Demarcus did not perform nearly as well. He missed one three-point attempt and had another one blocked, and he missed his two other shots on the night. He did score five points from the line, earning four of his seven free throw attempts by hustling for loose balls and rebounds. However, Holland was tagged with two turnovers for the game, one coming on an ugly pass at the end of the first half and the other coming when he simply held the ball in front of the aggressive Darius Gatson well behind the arc.

Those turnovers were once again a problem for the entire team, with the Longhorns losing it on 26% of their possessions. That number is ugly on its own merits, but when you consider that 26% is actually an improvement from the last game against Mississippi State, the scope of the problem becomes more overwhelming.

The most frustrating aspect is that many of the Texas turnovers happen because of a lack of awareness by players off the ball, while quite a few others come from making lazy passes. Javan Felix turned it over on a five-second call where he stood at least five feet behind the arc, while the rest of his team waited idly around the lane. Texas also lost one on a five-second call on an inbounds play where the Bearkats doubled to deny the pass, while no other Longhorns came back to help.

When starting the offense, passes between the two guards at the top of the key are far too often deflected or nearly stolen. This has been a problem all season long, and it was once again an issue against the Bearkats. Papapetrou has had numerous soft passes stolen as he gives the ball back to Felix, while Javan has given it away on simple passes to the wings. In this game, Felix was responsible for five turnovers, and could have had a sixth if the Bearkats had held on to one of his telegraphed passes to Holland on the wing.

Another recurring issue for the Longhorns is poor decision-making in the transition game. Texas has the athletes to get out and run, and with an offense that is struggling in half-court sets, easy transition opportunities cannot be wasted. Sheldon McClellan blew two of those chances in this game, while Holland spoiled another. McClellan barreled ahead in a two-on-three situation, trying to sidestep a charge before missing his layup. Later in the game, he had it poked away from behind as he sized up a one-on-one move. No team wants to waste their fast breaks, but an offense as inefficient as Texas’ certainly cannot afford to do so.

Although McClellan wasted those two opportunities, he did manage to lead the team with 16 points. Unfortunately, that came on 4-of-13 shooting, with six of those misses coming from inside the arc. Texas has had a lot of success finding Sheldon on baseline inbounds plays this season, and the same was true in this game. Using a different set from the one they repeatedly abused Mississippi State with, the Longhorns hit McClellan for a wide-open three on one baseline inbounds, one of the two triples he hit on the night.

McClellan came off the bench for the third consecutive game, as Coach Barnes continued to send the sophomore a message about effort, particularly on the defensive end. He ended up playing 28 minutes and contributing to the solid team D, although he did lose sharpshooter Will Bond in transition on one play, allowing him to hit his only three of the game.

Jonathan Holmes found some success inside
(Photo credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

In addition to freeing up McClellan on inbounds passes, Texas also did a good job isolating Jonathan Holmes on the blocks and finding him for easy buckets. While the young Longhorns are still struggling to get the ball into the post, Holmes was the recipient of two nice feeds for points in the paint. He also added a three-point bucket and a nice stickback on an offensive rebound that he grabbed despite being out of position.

Unfortunately, those issues with hitting the post players have cost Texas quite a few points this season. Many post feeds have been thrown at bad angles or zipped past the bigs far too quickly. Other times, the Longhorn guards and wings have just been completely oblivious to a wide-open teammate who has worked hard to get to the right spot on the floor. While the turnover problems are clearly the biggest issue right now for Texas, this certainly must also be high on the priority list for the coaching staff.

The Longhorn coaches will also be concerned by the team’s performance on the glass, as once again Texas could not exploit a significant size advantage. The Horns grabbed only 22.6% of their offensive rebounding opportunities, which was a huge reason why they could only manage a dismal 0.88 points per possession. Fortunately, it is clear that rebounding was a big talking point at halftime, and that the team responded to that message. The Bearkats held a 21-18 edge on the glass at half, but Texas turned the tables after the break, outrebounding Sam Houston State by a 29-14 count in the second twenty minutes.

The Longhorns also had a nice second-half effort from Julien Lewis, who picked up two early fouls and was limited to just 19 minutes for the game. He came out of the locker room and made an aggressive drive to earn two quick free throws in the second half, then followed it up with a nice backcut for a reverse layup and the foul. He also made a strong baseline drive later in the half to draw the defense and free up Ridley on the block, and he earned eight trips to the line with his constant dribble penetration.

Prince Ibeh also made a nice contribution in his limited minutes. Once again, he impacted plays inside by altering shots and keeping rebounding opportunities alive for teammates by tipping balls that were just out of his reach. More important, however, were the two strong, quick moves he made after receiving feeds in the post. After looking panicked with the ball in Maui, where he repeatedly allowed defenses to collapse on him as he froze up, seeing Ibeh exhibit some confidence is a welcome change for Texas fans.

With one more tune-up awaiting on Saturday before daunting games against Georgetown and UCLA, the Longhorns have to hope for even more improvement throughout this week of practice. Although shots weren’t falling for long stretches of the game, there were quite a few possessions where the Longhorns made nice, hard cuts and set solid screens to get the offense going. Although the effort waned throughout the game, it’s clear that some steps are being made in the right direction. Texas fans can only hope that those improvements both continue and accelerate in the coming days.

Up next: vs. UT-Arlington; 3 P.M. CT, Saturday

Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:45PM

Texas Longhorns 69, Mississippi State Bulldogs 55

It took three days, but the Texas Longhorns were finally able to earn a victory in the Maui Invitational, knocking off Mississippi State to take seventh place in the tournament. After an embarrassing loss to Division II host Chaminade and a narrow overtime defeat at the hands of USC, Texas came out of the gate with renewed energy and more of an offensive identity on Wednesday morning.

Julien Lewis has come on strong in his last two games
(Photo credit: Eugene Tanner/Associated Press)

What looked good

Julien Lewis fueled the Longhorns from the opening tip, knocking down a pair of three-pointers in the first 2.5 minutes. Starting late in the USC loss, the Longhorns worked hard to free up Lewis, setting staggered screens to lose his defender. In the corner, at the elbow, and coming off of curls, Julien was consistently knocking down his shot. Against the Bulldogs, he finished 6-of-10 from the field. In his last two games, the sophomore made 66.7% of his shots.

Using Lewis as an off-the-ball shooter in the mold of former Horn A.J. Abrams is a welcome development. Last season, he would often try to create his own shots off the bounce, and he typically struggled to find any consistent success. With most of his makes coming off of catch-and-shoot situations in Maui, Lewis’ driving game improved, as well. On one particular bucket, the defender rushed out to challenge the shot, and Julien blew past him on the baseline for an easy finish.

Sheldon McClellan came off the bench for a second-straight game, but he responded to the challenge this time. While McClellan was clearly frustrated by the physical nature of the USC game and the tight defense the Trojans threw at him, he fought through the contact against Mississippi State. Sheldon knocked down more than 50% of his shots against the Bulldogs, and that offensive success helped him to stay more keyed-in on the defensive end.

Two of McClellan’s buckets came on the exact same baseline out-of-bounds play, and Mississippi State coach Rick Ray was screaming across the court to his defense when the Longhorns lined up to run it a third time. The Bulldogs still didn’t deny McClellan the ball, but he didn’t score easily that time around. Later, on the fourth attempt, Mississippi State finally stuck with the sophomore and forced the Longhorns to go to another option on the inbounds.

Cameron Ridley had his best game as a Longhorn
(Photo credit: Eugene Tanner/Associated Press)

Freshman big man Cameron Ridley had the best game of his young career, just missing a double-double with eight points and 12 rebounds. He also led the Texas interior defense, swatting five of the 12 shots that the Horns blocked on the day. Ridley was confident and strong with the basketball inside, going up strong after most offensive rebounds, and making quick decisions when being fed in the post.

Prince Ibeh was also a big part of Texas’ formidable interior defense, blocking three shots of his own. When Ibeh and Ridley played together, it was almost unfair. While one provided steady on-ball defense, the other would come over to clean up the challenged shot. Ibeh still has a long way to go on the offensive end, and looks genuinely panicked at times when trying to post up. Still, his defense against Mississippi State and for most of the USC game will give fans and coaches a glimpse of the potential he has to alter the game inside.

What needed work

As it has been all season, the biggest issue for the Longhorns was a rash of turnovers. Although Lewis had an excellent shooting day, he coughed it up eight times, including one instance where he simply lost his dribble on the wing and just watched it bounce out of bounds. Texas continued to throw questionable passes and made lazy ones on the perimeter. For the game, Texas posted its second-worst turnover rate of the season, ending 34.1% of their possessions with a miscue.

Mississippi State took full advantage of these mistakes, scoring 20 points off of turnovers. Although that didn’t make a difference in this game, a late turnover and fast-break dunk led to overtime and a loss against USC. Texas did a good job forcing quite a few Mississippi State turnovers, which mitigated their own mistakes. But against tougher competition, those errors are going to result in losses.

Many of those mistakes came on transition opportunities where the Longhorns waited too long to make decisions and didn’t keep spacing coming down the court. Players often got themselves just a few feet from the rim before trying to make a decision, sometimes already airborne. Passes were thrown behind teammates, they were thrown when teammates weren’t expecting them, and multiple opportunities were wasted. This Texas team is very athletic and will need to score often in transition this season, but the youngsters clearly need to get some more reps in order to improve their decision-making skills on the break.

Demarcus Holland saw a major increase in minutes against USC and Mississippi State, but struggled when tasked when running the offense. He did knock down a nice pull-up jumper against the Bulldogs, but typically was far too loose with his dribble when trying to slice down the lane. Holland will learn how to adjust his pace as he plays more minutes, but right now he seems to only attack at one speed.

Defensively, you can see that he buys into the system and is constantly thinking, aware of where he is in relation to the ball and his teammates. However, in one-on-one situations, Holland played too tightly on guards that he could not keep in front of him. USC’s Jio Fontan was able to easy shake Holland and get to the rim on two occasions, while Ibeh had to bail out Holland with a block on one play against Mississippi State. If Holland can’t rapidly improve his lateral quickness, he needs to recognize his own limitations and scale back the pressure just a bit.

Ioannis Papapetrou also played quite a few minutes at the point, giving Javan Felix a nice breather in the team’s third game in three days. Mississippi State did a very poor job turning away Papapetrou’s drives down the lane, giving up some easy finishes at the rack. However, the offense lacked off-the-ball motion when he was at the point, so the second unit will need to avoid ball-watching when he’s running the show.

If Myck Kabongo is reinstated soon, this will likely not matter much this season. On the other hand, if he’s deemed ineligible and Papapetrou becomes the backup point by default, the second unit cannot be a one-man show.

Up next: vs. Sam Houston State; 7 P.M., Tuesday

Posted by Ryan Clark at 1:24PM

Chaminade Silverswords 86, Texas Longhorns 73

There are so many things that can go wrong on a vacation: your flights can get delayed, luggage can be misplaced, local delicacies can disagree with your stomach, you can get the hotel room with the shower that won’t stop dripping. Or, you can lose to a Division II program on national television.

The Texas Longhorns did exactly that last night in Lahaina, falling to Chaminade, 86-73, and becoming just the seventh team to lose to the host school in 83 Maui Invitational games. For head coach Rick Barnes, it was his second loss to Chaminade, having dropped a game to the Silverswords when he was coaching Providence in 1991.

Chaminade celebrated a huge win over Texas
(Photo credit: Eugene Tanner/Associated Press)

There is no sugar-coating this loss, no spin to put on the results. It was an ugly and uninspired game, plain and simple. You could call it the lowest point of the Barnes era, and there would be no argument from anywhere in the burnt orange fanbase. In fact, you could probably widen the scope just a bit when measuring the depths of this low point, as this was the first Texas defeat at the hands of a D-II opponent since the 1980′s.

Despite being much bigger than the Silverswords, the Longhorns were pushed around and out-muscled in this game. Chaminade has just two players listed at 6’7″ on their roster, and used only two others who are 6’6″. They challenged the Longhorns with physical play early, and the whistles were plentiful for both sides. But Texas backed down, failing to exploit their size advantage inside for easy points.

Chaminade took that aggressive, physical approach and used it to turn the tables on the glass, as well. The Silverswords grabbed 38.5% of their offensive rebounding opportunities and held the Longhorns to just 28.2% on their own offensive glass. Texas shot 46.4% from the field, much higher than the 36.8% that Chaminade could manage, but winning the rebounding battles kept the Silversword possessions alive and allowed them to overcome the shooting disparities.

The Silverswords also took advantage of their opportunities at the charity stripe, while the Longhorns continued to struggle. With Chaminade playing aggressively, they posted an impressive free-throw rate of 68.4%, which equates to roughly two free throws for every three field goal attempts. At the line, they logged a steady 34-of-39 performance, while the Longhorns struggled to make just 17 of 30. That number includes misses on the front ends of one-and-ones by both Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes in the second half, costing the team not only two points, but two more free throw opportunities.

The Texas offense looked lost on most possessions until the final few minutes, as players stood anchored to the ground and hoped that others would make a play. There was no inside presence to speak of, as the Longhorns struggled against the physical nature of Chaminade’s undersized frontcourt. Guards waited around the perimeter for cuts and screens that never came, and simple passes were bobbled out of bounds.

On one second half possession, Coach Barnes called a timeout during an unproductive halfcourt set. The players came towards the huddle, arguing about who was supposed to go where. “It doesn’t matter!” Barnes screamed at the team. “It doesn’t matter! Don’t stand around!” After the vitriolic timeout, the Longhorns wasted the possession by turning it over on a shot clock violation.

If you must look for the silver linings in this disaster, there were a few slivers of hope for the future. Although Ridley continued to shoot like Shaq at the free throw line, picked up offensive fouls, and left a baseline drive completely undefended when he ran away from the ballhandler, he did show off some solid moves in the post. On two or three different occasions, he took the entry pass and made a quick, strong move for the bucket. He obviously has a long way to go, but the fundamentals and raw talent are clearly there.

The Texas defense couldn’t stop the Silverswords
(Photo credit: Eugene Tanner/Associated Press)

The Longhorns also made a late charge as they tried to cobble together a futile and short-lived comeback bid. Texas turned up the backcourt pressure to force mistakes, and the Horns actually started knocking down long-range looks. Fans have to wonder why it took 30-plus minutes for Texas to put forth that effort and play with some intensity.

Coach Barnes didn’t feel encouraged by the late-game surge, telling reporters, “Sometimes there is such a thing as phony tough guys when you’re playing with house money now. You’re coming back saying ‘What the heck,’ and you play.”

The coach also shot down any excuses for his roster full of freshman and sophomores. “We’re not going to buy the youth thing. It chalks up to toughness. It chalks up to guys doing their job, chalks up to leadership or lack of.”

With Myck Kabongo still sidelined due to an NCAA investigation and Jaylen Bond limited due to injuries, Texas is still searching for that leader. Sheldon McClellan made some big plays late, but was held mostly in check by the Chaminade defense and had to grind out his points at the line. Freshman point guard Javan Felix led the team in scoring and logged five assists, but turned it over three times and couldn’t get the team running their halfcourt sets. With major-conference opponents looming in the next two days, the Longhorns will need to answer the leadership question immediately.

Up next: vs. USC; Tuesday, 4 P.M. CT

Posted by Ryan Clark at 2:03PM

RV/#25 Texas Longhorns 69, Coppin State Eagles 46

Under head coach Rick Barnes, the Longhorns have always focused on the defensive side of the ball. In fact, only once in the last ten seasons did the Horns finish outside of the top fifty in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. While Barnes has long used a stingy man-to-man defense to achieve those impressive numbers, depth concerns have forced him to flip the script in the first two games this season.

“Defensively, we’re playing zone because of Myck Kabongo’s situation,” he told reporters after the game. “If we’re going to take advantage of the length of these guys, we’ve got to play some zone.”

Fang Mitchell could hardly bear to watch his offense
(Photo credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

That zone defense stifled Coppin State in last night’s victory, limiting the Eagles to just 24.6% shooting on the night. In tempo-free numbers, Texas held Coppin State to just .631 points per possession, the best single-game performance by a Longhorn team since limiting UT-Pan American to .523 PPP on December 15th, 2009.

A big part of that defensive success was due to the improved play by freshman Prince Ibeh. With Jonathan Holmes saddled by foul trouble, Ibeh logged 20 minutes against the Eagles and swatted three shots. On one block, Ibeh seemed to jump so far off the floor that he looked suspended in mid-air. He also was tied for the team lead with nine rebounds, three of them coming on the offensive glass.

At 6’10″ and blessed with great length, Ibeh has so far shown great lateral quickness and springy hops. If Texas is going to utilize the 2-3 zone more often this season, Ibeh’s defensive presence is going to alter game plans for opponents.

Freshman Ioannis Papapetrou was the other Longhorn who snagged nine rebounds, but his impact on the game was far from one-dimensional. After not making a big offensive impact against Fresno State, Papi showed off a variety of skills in a 10-point performance. The Greek product knocked down 2-of-4 from behind the arc and also displayed a nice driving ability when the defense pressured him on the perimeter. When Javan Felix was getting a breather on the bench, Papi even brought the ball up as a point forward. Defensively, he harassed Coppin State players who handled the ball in the corners, and he hustled all over the floor for those nine boards.

For fellow freshman Felix, the second game was rough. Javan failed to score a point in the game and was responsible for eight of the team’s 26 turnovers. The most frustrating aspect of the turnovers by Felix and the Longhorns was that 18 of them came on steals. Lazy passes on the perimeter were intercepted and turned into fast break buckets. The Longhorns also repeatedly just held the ball in front of the nose of defenders while standing outside the arc, resulting in easy steals. Felix had major issues against the tough defense of Troy Franklin, getting so thoroughly embarrassed by one mid-court pickpocketing that Coach Barnes immediately took a timeout to dress him down.

Sheldon McClellan scored a career-high 25 points
(Photo credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

With Felix held scoreless, even more of the offensive punch had to come from sophomore star Sheldon McClellan, and he rose to the challenge. After scoring 14 of his 20 points in the season opener from the stripe, McClellan only tallied 8 of his career-high 25 from the line against Coppin State. He led the team with a trio of three-pointers, missing just one long range attempt. Another basket came from just inside the arc, while his most impressive shot was on a baseline drive where he stopped on a dime and knocked down a turnaround jumper.

Although McClellan and Papapetrou both found success from outside, the team still had its share of struggles beyond the arc. After knocking down just 1-of-13 in the season opener, the Horns made only two of their first 10 attempts against Coppin State. Texas ultimately booked a 35% mark on the night, connecting on seven of 20. Julien Lewis and Connor Lammert were responsible for most of the misses, combining to make just one of their nine attempts.

In our Fresno State game wrap, we quantified just how poorly last year’s team performed from behind the arc. This year, there is clearly the potential for greater success with McClellan playing more aggressively, Papapetrou showing off some long range, and even Demarcus Holland looking like a sharpshooter off the bench. However, Lewis’ 1-for-9 mark on the season is a concerning one, as it reminds us just how often he was an indiscriminate and inaccurate shooter last year. If the Longhorns can get some long-range punch from McClellan and Papapetrou, there is no reason for Lewis to be leading the team in three-point attempts.

While some improvement was seen on threes, the Longhorns looked downright awful at the stripe. McClellan was once again steady at the line, pushing his season mark to 91.6% (22-of-24) on free throws. But for the rest of the team, the charity stripe was far from friendly, as they combined to make just 8-of-19 (42.1%) of their attempts. Ibeh and Cameron Ridley were the worst offenders, going 2-of-9 at the stripe. Ridley had numerous shots clank off the back iron, while Ibeh airballed a free throw and chucked another off the backboard, completely missing the rim. If the Texas bigs are this bad at the line all year, opponents will certainly take a few fouls to make them earn their points.

In addition to struggling at the stripe, Ridley also once again looked awkward and uncomfortable on offense. All three of his fouls came on the offensive end, and he coughed it up on another three occasions. Although Cam has big hands just made for basketball, he’s had major issues handling passes in his first two games. Opponents can already sense that nervousness, as Fresno State and Coppin State both were able to fluster and frustrate the big man with quick, pesky double teams. Ridley obviously still needs to adjust to the competition level, but it’s a very young season and plenty of time to improve. The Longhorns have to hope he takes advantage of that opportunity.

Although there were a lot of areas for Coach Barnes to address in the long week off before the Maui Invitational, Texas did look great in transition. The Horns consistently got out and ran the floor, and Felix repeatedly looked up to find his teammates for easy buckets. Texas also took advantage of defensive lapses by Coppin State, connecting for a handful of rim-rattling alley-oops. All told, the Longhorns logged 14 assists in this game, a vast improvement on the three-assist performance against Fresno State. In tempo-free terms, Texas jumped from 16.7% to 60.9% in the assist rate category.

Up next: vs. Chaminade (Maui Invitational); Monday, 8:30 P.M. CT

Next Page »