Following two home games to get acquainted with this new group of Longhorns, we've seen enough to start talking meaningfully about the personnel Texas has on hand this season and how all the pieces might fit together.
In the season's first edition of the Texas Basketball Report, I'll offer a collection of thoughts based on notes I scribbled down at the Erwin Center during the first two games. Because my notes are running long, I'm breaking it into two posts.
Though no one will confuse Mercer and South Alabama for Kentucky and Duke, the Longhorns got to open the season against a pair of strong mid-major squads who are expected to finish 1st or 2nd in their respective conferences and rate in the 120-130 range in the early season Pomeroy ratings.
Obviously, it's good that Texas was able to win both games, but there was a lot to like in what we saw from this group of players and how they got the job done.
Bottom line? This team has a chance to turn out to be quite a bit better than anyone was expecting. I'm officially excited. On to the notes...
Finishing games. Raise your hand if you think last year's Texas squad comes back from either of the deficits that UT faced in its two wins to open this season. Anyone? No? Yeah, me neither. The nice thing is that Texas fell behind two pretty good squads who built their leads by playing well, and by shooting the lights out from beyond the arc during stretches of the game. But this young Texas team didn't fold in either instance, and better yet, was able to bear down and finish the game strong to close out a win: with 8 minutes remaining in each game, the Longhorns trailed Mercer 62-59 (after trailing 62-53) and South Alabama 70-64, but rallied with a 17-11 run to close out the Bears and a 20-7 run to put away the Jaguars.
How'd they do it? Take a look:
A big part of the difference owes to Texas' frontcourt, as Cameron Ridley, Connor Lammert, and Prince Ibeh were all instrumental in Texas' outstanding defense and rebounding down the stretch of both of these games. You also have to credit Texas' guards for their shot selection. Even when Texas was trailing, the Longhorns kept looking for scores in transition and didn't settle for contested jumpers in the halfcourt. It was a great mixture of good coaching and good execution, and it's the reason this young squad won two tough tests in which they trailed late in the game.
Well served, and quickly moved. I arrived at the Mercer game about 2 minutes after tip, and almost immediately one of Texas guards delivered a solid entry pass to Cameron Ridley just off the block. He held the ball too long without making any sort of move, was doubled by a perimeter help defender, and turned the ball over after being stripped. One of my very first thoughts of the season was thus dismay that Ridley looked exactly like he did as a freshman a year ago, making the exact same mistakes.
Much to my delight, that turned out to be the low point of the evening, because since the first 5-10 minutes of the season opener, both Ridley and Prince Ibeh have been doing something that eluded them all of last year: upon receiving the basketball in or near the paint, they made quick moves -- either to the basket or rotating the ball out.
Not long after his turnover, Ridley received an entry pass in a similar spot, but instead of holding the ball and waiting to be doubled, he immediately spun into the paint and released a quick jump hook over his right shoulder. Just after the under-8 timeout in the first half, Demarcus Croaker made a beautiful entry pass to Ibeh on the low blocks, who upon receiving the pass also immediately made a move towards the basket, with his spin move drawing a foul and two shots at the free throw line.
We're not talking about an NBA-caliber post offense here, but seeing Ridley and Ibeh act decisively -- if not always effectively -- was one of the biggest potential developments that I've seen through two games. Here's to hoping it was a sign of development that sticks. They don't need to be post-up kings to deliver offensive value; more of what we've seen so far would represent a big step forward.
Defensive experimentation. As far as defensive looks we've seen so far, Texas mixed things up throughout both games. We opened up against both Mercer and South Alabama in a match up zone, which was fairly effective in the first half against Mercer, but caused us problems in the second when the Bears went on their run to open up a 62-53 lead. Likewise, the various zone defenses Texas threw at South Alabama were largely ineffectual, ceding far too many open three point looks.
On a handful of occasions we've shown a 1-2-2 three-quarters court trapping press that looks like it could be pretty promising with the right personnel grouping. I could see us being very successful with that trapping pressure defense using Taylor, Holland, and Yancy up front, with two of Holmes, Lammert and Ibeh in back.
In both games, however, it was Texas' man-to-man defense that turned the game around for the team. I've written about this a dozen times before so I won't belabor the point, but in order to play strong zone defense on a consistent basis, you have to make an incredible commitment to playing it -- pretty much all the time. If you're any less committed than that a zone is fine to sprinkle in as a change of pace or in order to protect your front line for a spell, but I've never been convinced a team is likely to be successful playing zone some of the time. Playing a great zone requires too much practice, coordination, and chemistry to play sporadically.
Moreover, while I think this team could be developed into one that plays strong zone defense, this isn't a group that needs to play zone to hide anyone. Our man defense in both games showed me a group that -- top to bottom -- is at worst an average defender playing man-to-man. Among the freshmen, Kendal Yancy is the most developed defender, Taylor and Croaker are assets, and Martez Walker looks the most like a freshman. But even he looks like he's going to develop into a solid defender with physical training and game/practice experience.
Demarcus Croaker's debut. The freshman combo guard didn't get into the game until the 7:38 mark of the first half against Mercer, but boy did he make an outstanding immediate impact. Croaker got it started with a beautiful entry pass into Ibeh in the post, who was immediately fouled by the beat defender. Croaker then hit an in-your-face step-back 3-pointer, then followed it up by knocking down another three in transition on the very next possession to extend Texas' lead to 33-23. It was a truly spectacular sequence.
Croaker wasn't able to recreate that magic against South Alabama, turning in 8 more or less empty minutes. Based on what I've seen from him thus far, though, I do think Barnes will need to steadily up his involvement, because the most important thing that shone through to me during his limited minutes is that he isn't just highly athletic: the kid has really good basketball instincts. I've written about the difference between athletes and basketball players at this blog dozens of times over the years. Well, Croaker is a basketball player. I'm eager to see just how good his instincts are, but I could tell immediately that he's a natural basketball player. His transition three and, especially, his entry pass to Ibeh, were A-grade plays. I suspect he's a player who needs some minutes to get in a rhythm, so I'll be interested to see how Barnes manages his playing time.
Now you know why I loved Isaiah Taylor so much. When I profiled Isaiah Taylor back in May, I teased the article with a promo headline that read: "Can Isaiah Taylor Save Texas?" It was a headline meant to grab your attention, but if you went on to read the post, it was blindingly obvious that I thought he was an immediate-impact, difference-making point guard who had a real chance to be special at Texas:
You may also recall the money quote that I highlighted in discussing his outstanding makeup and infectious charisma:
Well, after spending hours on end drooling over the film of a kid I saw as a highly underrated prospect, Texas fans finally got their first look at him live in the gym. And though it's just a couple of early-season games, the early returns validated everything that I said I love about him and what I thought he brought to the floor.
Taylor started at point guard against Mercer, with Javan Felix slotting in over at the shooting guard slot, which to my mind was the first really good sign about this season. For my money, Taylor is the best and most important player on this team, and to limit or otherwise diminish his opportunity to contribute value by playing him off the bench or off position would have been a very troubling sign either that Taylor isn't the player I thought he was or that this coaching staff didn't see it well enough to know how to use him.
No problem there, as Taylor ran the point and played a full 29 minutes against Mercer, followed by 32 minutes logged against South Alabama. Rather than rehash all his strengths and weaknesses, I'll refer you again back to my original profile of Taylor, which after two games looks pretty spot on -- both in terms of what makes him great, and some of the areas where he'll need to improve.
As a coda, I'll just let the stat line do the talking: through 2 games, Taylor has averaged 30.5 minutes, 15 points, 3.5 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 3.5 turnovers. Most impressive of all, however, has been his answer to one of the questions I raised in my pre-season profile:
The early answer? Taylor is able to punish defenses both ways. He gets to the rim (and has finishing ability with both hands) that undersized Javan simply doesn't possess, and in this admittedly small sample size he has outperformed Myck Kabongo in his ability to draw whistles, which is saying something. Kabongo was elite in that regard, but Taylor is outpacing his predecessor at point thus far, with 20 free throw attempts on just 19 attempted field goals -- an absurdly high rate. He may be unlikely to sustain that pace, but his understanding of how to attack the rim and use his body to get a good shot off or draw contact is plainly superior.
Needless to say, the 12-20 shooting fro the charity stripe has been a disappointment, but based on his stroke, I'm comfortable projecting him to shoot around 75% the rest of the way.
Bottom line on Taylor? So far, he looks like the player Texas was hoping Myck Kabongo would be. Let that sink in a bit.
Still to come... Much more still to come in Part 2 of the season's first edition of the TBR, including some thoughts on Jonathan Holmes, Connor Lammert, and Rick Barnes. Speaking of whom, I'll leave you with a pair of interesting video segments featuring Barnes, provided to us by the Seth Davis show ahead of the airing of the full interview with Barnes on Friday at 12:30 pm CT at CampusInsiders.com.
Rick Barnes will be featured on The Seth Davis Show this Friday, November 15, at 12:30 apm. CT/ 1:30 p.m. ET. The show airs on CampusInsiders.com.