11.22.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 5:45PM

#10/10 Texas Longhorns 71, Cal Golden Bears 55

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.

UT won its first November tournament since 2009
(Photo credit: Shelby Tauber/Associated Press)

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.

Jonathan Holmes was named tournament MVP
(Photo credit: Shelby Tauber/Associated Press)

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.

Demarcus Holland starred on both ends of the floor
(Photo credit: Frank Franklin/Associated Press)

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)

11.21.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 6:40AM

#10/10 Texas Longhorns 71, Iowa Hawkeyes 57

After cruising through their first two games of the season, the Texas Longhorns took a major step up in competition against the Iowa Hawkeyes last night. The results were immediately disheartening, as the Longhorns quickly fell behind 13-2. The team missed point-blank looks, played carelessly with the ball, and gave up open three-pointers as they dug an early hole.

Texas coughed it up often in the first half
(Photo credit: Kim Willens/Associated Press)

In the first half, Texas turned it over on more than 25% of its possessions, shot just 32.3% from the field, and allowed Iowa an offensive rebounding percentage of 40.7%. Still, the Longhorns stayed within arm’s reach, and a strip by Javan Felix just before the half led to a fast break layup, cutting the Iowa lead to six at the break.

The Longhorns stormed out of the locker room after the half, looking like a completely different team. Jonathan Holmes played with a fire that was completely lacking during a first half where he looked lost and frustrated. Isaiah Taylor flipped a switch and attacked aggressively with the bounce, while the team also fed the post with purpose and moved the ball quickly in early second-half possessions.

Just 2:20 into the second half, Texas had charged into the lead for the first time, and quickly created a six-point margin. Aaron White tried to keep Iowa in the contest with a hard-nosed effort, bringing his team level again with 13:58 to play. The Longhorns immediately snuffed out the Hawkeye hopes with a 13-0 run and never looked back, building a lead as large as 19, en route to the 71-57 final.

With the Cal Bears looming in tonight’s 2K Classic title game, here are five quick takeaways from Texas’ comeback victory:

1. The Texas D is going to keep them in games

The first twenty minutes of last night’s game were maddening for Texas fans. After the team had looked downright dominant against two admittedly over-matched teams in North Dakota State and Alcorn State, the Longhorns suddenly played like they had in many frustrating losses over the last few seasons. Dumb turnovers, misses in and around the paint, and slow reactions to good, wide-open three-point shooters put Texas in an immediate hole. On some offensive sets, clearly frustrated players waited for others to make something happen.

However, despite allowing the pair of early threes by Iowa’s Jarrod Uthoff, the Longhorns had a stifling defensive performance. Iowa could get no traction inside the arc, missing their first 14 two-point field goals, and finishing just 25% from the field in the first half. Texas also caused miscues on 20% of Iowa’s first half possessions, allowing the Longhorns team to trail by just six after a very tough first half.

The suffocating defense gave Iowa no chance once the Longhorn offense turned it on after the break. Iowa finished the game just 29.6% from the field and scored just 0.839 points per possession. Although the Texas bigs were overly jumpy in the first half as they tried to block everything, and they were often faked into some dumb fouls, it seemed that the only place Iowa could score was at the line.

Through three games, the Longhorns now have the nation’s sixth-best defense in terms of adjusted efficiency, according to Ken Pomeroy. Texas has allowed an adjusted 0.887 points per possession. While that number will certainly climb as the team faces a very tough schedule, it’s clear that the defense is going to keep them in games when the offense goes stagnant.

Jonathan Holmes was unstoppable in the second half
(Photo credit: Kim Willens/Associated Press)

2. Jonathan Holmes is a bad, bad man

When Texas stumbled through the first half, even Holmes was not immune to the struggles. The senior was just 1-for-4 from the field with a pair of turnovers in 13 first-half minutes, and the frustration was clear on his face as he headed to the bench for an early breather.

At half, either Coach Barnes said the magic words to his lone senior, or Holmes found some vials of Five Hour Energy with Spinach. Jonathan scored the team’s first eight points after the break in just 85 seconds, and finished with 19 points and five boards. He drained 3-of-4 from behind the arc on the night, pushing his season total to 7-for-10, and giving him an offensive rating of 154.2 on the year.

While the Longhorns have a slew of weapons to choose from, and freshman Myles Turner has earned a ton of preseason and early-season ink, the team clearly finds it tough to get going without Holmes. When the senior is scoring and stretching the floor with his outside shot, things open up for the rest of the Longhorns.

3. Taylor overcame a rough start

The sophomore point guard had a frustrating first twenty minutes against Iowa, going just 1-of-7 from the field. Although he missed jumpers, Isaiah also was missing point-blank layups after making good moves to get the rack. He added a pair of free throws during the first frame, but scored just four first-half points.

With Holmes and the Horns revitalized at the break, Taylor continued to attack with the bounce. Unfazed by his early misses, he posted a perfect 4-for-4 line in the second half and added another three free throws. He finished with 15 points, matching his season average, but did fail to log a single assist on the night.

A hard foul from Iowa’s Gabriel Olaseni sent Taylor crashing to the floor in the game’s final minutes, and the point guard had his wrist heavily iced after the game, according to multiple media reports. Although Javan Felix has more than enough experience to run the point if needed, Texas would certainly miss Taylor’s slashing ability if he’s unable to go against Cal.

4. Lammert is quietly posting solid numbers

On a night where it seemed like quite a few defensive boards were just out of reach for the Longhorns, Connor Lammert managed to again be the most consistent rebounder on the floor for Texas. The junior big man led the way with eight rebounds in just 20 minutes, with six of them coming on the defensive end.

On the season, Lammert has a 22.6% defensive rebounding percentage, ranking him just outside the Top 200 nationally. Lammert also added two more assists, giving him a season assist rate of 31%, which does crack that Top 200. Oh, and have we mentioned that he has yet to turn it over?

5. The shot blockers have to stay grounded

Turner and Prince Ibeh each picked up a pair of first-half fouls against Iowa, and added three more fouls in the second half. On the year, Ibeh is averaging 7.7 fouls per 40 minutes, while Turner is not far behind with 6.2 whistles.

Both are clearly great shot-blocking talents, with Ibeh blocking nearly 9% of the two-point shots taken when he’s on the court, and Turner cleaning up an incredible 14%. However, both were overly jumpy last night, biting on the lightest shot fake, which led to foul trouble for them and free points for the Hawkeyes.

Turner and Ibeh both have a ton of length that makes it tough for opponents to score inside. They need to trust that length and stand tall when isolated as the primary defender. If they can do that, they’ll be able to spend more time on the court, will force opponents into some very tough shots, and can save the highlight-reel swats for the times they’re coming over to clean things up as secondary defenders.

Up next: vs. Cal at Madison Square Garden; Friday, 6:30 P.M. CT (ESPN2)

11.17.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 8:39AM

#10/10 Texas Longhorns 85, Alcorn State Braves 53

For the second straight game, the Texas Longhorns dominated an over-matched opponent, throttling Alcorn State in the Regional Round of the 2K Sports Classic, 85-53. The Longhorns jumped out to a 15-0 lead to open the game, and didn’t allow the Braves to score their first field goal for more than 10 minutes. Texas comfortably cruised the entire way, enjoying their largest lead of 37 points with less than two minutes left in the game.

Since this should be one of the two worst teams Texas faces all season — the other being Rice — it’s important to not draw too many conclusions from such a one-sided affair. Undoubtedly, Texas fans will know much more about their team after games against Iowa and either Cal or Syracuse later this week. With those words advising cautious optimism still fresh in your mind, let’s take a look at eight notes and observations from last night’s win:

1. Texas controlled the half-court

It’s fair to say that the Longhorn half-court offense has been tough to watch at times over the last few seasons. As the team would endure lengthy scoring droughts, most possessions were long, drawn out affairs with little motion, and they typically resulted in a poor, challenged shot. Last night, those memories seemed miles away, as the Longhorns made good cuts without the ball and moved the ball quickly.

On the night, Texas finished with 24 assists on 32 baskets. The Horns constantly shifted the defense with good passing, and they played unselfish basketball, repeatedly passing up good looks to get teammates even better ones. This was exemplified in one play midway through the second half, when Prince Ibeh found himself double-teamed on the baseline. Jordan Barnett crashed to the rim from the opposite corner, and when Ibeh found him for an outlet, Barnett barely touched the ball before dumping it to Myles Turner in the lane for a dunk.

2. Improved three-point shooting continued

While good cuts and unselfish play are going to be key to finding holes against defenses that will likely sag off against Texas, good outside shooting will be just as important. With the Longhorns making only 32.7% of their threes last year and 30.1% the year before that, long-range shooting was a huge concern coming into the year. Without an outside threat, defenses can pack it in against a massive Texas frontcourt, forcing the guards to shoot over the top.

In the first game, Texas was actually below last season’s average, making just 32% of their attempts, although three of the team’s misses came while the four walk-ons were on the court. Most importantly, however, Isaiah Taylor and Demarcus Holland made 3-of-4 against North Dakota State. The two guards continued that success against Alcorn State, as did the rest of the Longhorns. Taylor and Holland again made 3-of-4, while Texas sank 12-of-25, with two of those misses coming from the walk-ons.

Fouling was the only way to slow down Jonathan Holmes
(Photo credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

To further underscore the level of improvement we’re seeing, consider these two stats: Last year, Taylor and Holland combined to make just 28.4% of their threes, with the point guard making just five all season. Through two games, Taylor already has four makes, and the pair has nailed 75% of their attempts. While the long-range looks might not be as open in conference play as they were last night, it’s a very promising sign in an area that appeared to be a major concern heading into the year.

3. Jonathan Holmes still incredibly efficient

Against the Braves, Holmes needed just 21 minutes to post a nine-point, nine-rebound performance. He was a perfect 3-for-3 from the field, including two three-point makes, pushing his season totals to 8-of-9 from the field and 4-for-5 from behind the arc. In just 36 total minutes, he has logged 24 points and 15 boards, and his offensive rating is a sky-high 174.5, putting him in the Top 50 nationally.

4. Connor Lammert stretches the floor

Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Lammert worked on his three-point stroke, which paid off in a 34% success rate last year. With the big man often used in the high post to set ball screens, he was a constant threat on the pick-and-pop. Through two games, his three-point shooting has continued to impress, as he’s knocked down 3-of-6 from behind the arc.

Last night, Lammert showed off another skill that we’ve only seen flashes of in previous years. The big man logged seven assists on the night, picking up six of them in just the first twelve minutes of action. With Lammert already spreading the floor thanks to his three-point threat, his quality passing will certainly help to pick apart defenses once they are stretched out.

5. Isaiah Taylor set the tone early

Alcorn State’s transition defense was clearly ripe a problem in their season-opening loss to Cal, and Taylor took full advantage of that from the opening tip on Sunday night. He charged at the Braves repeatedly in the opening minutes, leaving them on their heels and scrambling. Taylor scored four of the team’s first eight points with his aggressive play, and his ability to easily attack the gaps of the Alcorn State defense also helped him dish out five assists.

Isaiah Taylor scored 12 against Alcorn State
(Photo credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

If the aforementioned improvement in Taylor’s three-point shooting continues as the competition improves, it will only serve to open up more driving lanes for the sophomore guard, and force defenses to choose between trying to stop him and trying to stop the Texas bigs.

6. Foul trouble didn’t slow down Turner

Although early fouls limited the freshman phenom to just five minutes in the first half, he made a big impact after the break. Turner scored 10 points on the night, eight of them coming in the second half, and added seven points and six blocks. It’s clear that Turner’s presence in the paint is going to give opposing offenses nightmares, so Myles just needs to ensure that he can provide stifling defense without picking up fouls that limit his minutes.

7. Lapses in focus were quickly rectified

One of the overlooked benefits of having such a deep bench is the ability to easily swap out players who aren’t playing smart basketball. It’s always tough to maintain focus and execute with a huge lead, something that showed up on the defensive end in Texas’ opening night win against North Dakota State, and cropped up again last night.

Rick Barnes didn’t like what he was seeing from his team at the start of the second half, and he utilized a line change almost immediately. Within the first thirty-five seconds of the second half, Barnes had subbed out four of his starters. The second unit turned up the defensive intensity, and with that renewed focus, the Longhorns were able to extend their lead throughout the second half. Barnes has always been a coach who will sub out a player to give him some extra coaching, but now he has the depth to help ensure his team stays focused.

8. Free-throw shooting regressed to the mean

The Longhorns surprised fans on Friday night by sinking over 85% of their free throws. Even Demarcus Holland and Ibeh combined to make 5-of-7 against NDSU, an absolute shock after they combined to shoot 53.6% from the line in their first two seasons.

Last night, the free-throw percentage plummeted back to normal, with those two players struggling at the line once again. The pair made 4-of-10 at the line, with Ibeh completely airballing on one of his attempts, and barely scraping iron on another.

Ibeh has earned solid minutes in these first two games, thanks to his defensive presence and his improved hands in the post. However, if he is still completely unreliable at the line, his effectiveness and minutes will be severely limited in close games.

Holland has the ability to quickly slash to the rim, something that will be even more dangerous if he continues to hit threes. Like Ibeh, if Holland can’t covert on his free-throw opportunities, there’s no reason for opponents to not foul him hard once he gets near the paint.

Up next: vs. Iowa at Madison Square Garden; Thursday, 6 P.M. CT (ESPN2)

11.15.14
Posted by Ryan Clark at 4:58PM

#10/10 Texas Longhorns 85, North Dakota State Bison 50

The most anticipated Texas basketball season in recent memory tipped off in impressive fashion Friday night, with the Longhorns cruising to an 85-50 victory. Despite the Frank Erwin Center currently sitting as an isolated island in a sea of construction, over 9,000 fans showed up, with the lower-level student section completely filled. While the media has been bullish on this Texas team ever since Myles Turner donned a Longhorn bucket hat at the end of April, it’s clear that for the first time in years, Austin is already on the Texas hoops bandwagon in November.

With one game now in the books, here are eight notes and observations from the 2014-15 tip off:

1. Taylor unfazed by early miscues

The Longhorns were led by Isaiah Taylor, who was pulled in favor of Javan Felix less than four minutes into the game, following a turnover. Taylor coughed it up again a few minutes later and finished the first half just 1-of-6 from the field.

Despite the slow start, Taylor exploded after the break, finishing with 18 points in 28 minutes. The point guard logged just two assists, but he did have multiple drives that opened up the lane for the Texas bigs and resulted in trips to the line. He also tightened up his ball control, not allowing a single turnover the rest of way.

North Dakota State gave Taylor a ton of cushion when guarding him, yet he still managed to slash to the rim and draw additional defenders. He also knocked down outside jumpers — including a pair of threes — to keep the Bison honest, something certainly worth noting after he made just 26.3% of his threes last year.

2. Everything they said was true

With everyone returning for Coach Rick Barnes — with the exception of dismissed guard Martez Walker — and big man Turner added to the lineup, it was clear that the Horns would have a very deep bench and a massive frontcourt. That was on display early in this one, with North Dakota State settling for long jumpers and finding it difficult to reach the paint in the first half, regardless of who the Longhorns had on the floor.

Texas used multiple defensive looks, including some 2-3 zone combinations that were borderline unfair. With Connor Lammert, Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh, Jonathan Holmes, and Turner all available to choose from on the Texas bench, easy looks inside were few and far between for NDSU, while most corner threes had to be hoisted over one of those giants as they quickly closed out on the Bison shooters.

3. Free-throw shooting was steady

The Longhorns made just over 67% of their attempts at the charity stripe last season, a troubling number that was part of a larger trend for the Horns. That mark was actually the second-highest free-throw percentage for Texas in the last five seasons, with only the 2012 team serving as an outlier with its 73.3% success rate.

Myles Turner impressed in his debut
(Photo credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

Last night, Texas sank 18 of 21 attempts (85.7%), although one miss by Prince Ibeh did come on the front end of a one-and-one. Even though it’s a very small sample size for a season with 30-plus games, it was reassuring to see multiple Longhorns confidently knock down their freebies.

4. Myles Turner made a quick splash

The heralded freshman instantly made an impact when he entered the contest just 3:55 into the game. Only 24 seconds later, he drilled a turnaround jumper, and scored in a variety of ways en route to a 15-point performance. One one first-half possession, he knocked down a face-up 17-footer when passing lanes were closed and the defense didn’t stay in his shirt. Later, Turner patiently backed his man down the baseline before popping a step-back jumper in front of the frozen defender. Myles played with a poise that often escapes freshmen, who sometimes try to play at 100 MPH in their early games.

On the defensive end, Turner’s length caused problems both inside the paint and out. He had no problem stepping out from the lane and forcing Bison players to retreat to the perimeter, using his length and good angles to severely limit their options. Down low, he altered numerous shots and officially recorded two blocks. Turner’s interior presence was a huge reason why NDSU managed to make just three shots inside the arc during the first half.

5. Holmes re-defined efficient

The lone senior on the roster has always been a phenomenal catch-and-shoot guy behind the arc, and he showed that early against the Bison. Holmes knocked down a pair of triples, plus sank all three of his attempts inside the arc, and was perfect on three free throws. He finished with 15 points in just 15 minutes, posting an insane 206.2 offensive rating on the night.

6. Lammert was unforgiving on the defensive glass

While the Texas defense was forcing miss after miss early in the game, Lammert was making sure that the Bison had no second chances. Lammert snagged five defensive boards in nine first-half minutes of action, and finished with seven on the night. With NDSU chucking up long-range shots, many of the caroms were long, but Lammert was on his toes and reacted quickly to every funny bounce.

Cameron Ridley slimmed down in the offseason
(Photo credit: Eric Gay/Associated Press)

7. Ridley unveiled a new look

Big man Ridley didn’t just shed some hair in time for the season opener, as he clearly had shed some pounds, too. He looked lean and mean, and was able to react quickly on the back line of the Texas zone when NDSU worked it into the corner for a three. Ridley has always been good at running the floor in transition, but he also seemed to be even a bit faster on the break last night, which resulted in a highlight-reel dunk following a behind-the-back assist from Taylor.

While Ridley probably won’t be required to play a massive amount of minutes thanks to the Texas depth, it’s good to know that if foul trouble requires him to absorb more playing time, the big man looks like he has the conditioning to handle it.

8. The D used some vacation hours in the second half

With a lead in the 20 and 30-point range in the second half, it probably isn’t too surprising that the Texas defensive pressure was a little lacking. After the break, the Horns allowed more dribble penetration, and their rotations were often slow, resulting in close looks or trips to the line. The Bison found it much easier to get to the paint in the second half, and they were simply quicker with their ball movement, allowing them to exploit the Texas D for wide open threes.

On a team with a ton of players looking for time on the court and a coach who highly values defense, that may result in some changes to how the minutes are distributed on Sunday against Alcorn State. The Longhorns still only allowed .930 adjusted points per possession, according to Ken Pomeroy, but obviously had some breakdowns they can work on.

Next up: vs. Alcorn State; 7 P.M. CT, Sunday (ESPNU)

11.10.13
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

3.05.13
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.

1.13.13
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

12.23.12
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.

12.05.12
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

12.03.12
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

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