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)

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)

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)

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.

« Previous PageNext Page »