Texas Basketball Report 7.2: Retooled Roster Thriving Early (Part 1)

Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Rick Barnes bet his job on cleaning house and starting fresh. So far it's working far better than anyone expected. And Isaiah Taylor and Cameron Ridley are a big reason why.

Following the transfer of Sterling Gibbs, the early departure of J'Covan Brown, and the graduations of Clint Chapman and Alexis Wangmene, the Longhorns sported the 5th youngest team in the country in 2012-13. The hope was that last year's young team would take its lumps but mature into a deep team with experience a year later.

Instead, the wheels started to come off before the season even began, with Myck Kabongo being suspended for 23 games, and a dysfunctional Texas team finished the season with a losing record and without a bid in either the NCAA or NIT Tournaments. At a time when UT hoops fans were used to watching the team compete in the Big Dance, they instead watched four sophomores announce their departures from the program, as Sheldon McClellan, Jaylen Bond, and Julien Lewis all announced their intent to transfer and Kabongo declared early for the NBA Draft. Two months later, the team lost its fifth member of the 2011 recruiting class when Ioannis Papapetrou was lured away with an offer from a Greek professional club that he couldn't refuse.

Losing Papapetrou stung, but make no mistake about it: the transfers reflected a mutual desire to separate. Although he bears some of the responsibility for the attitude problems plaguing the team, Rick Barnes wanted a different roster, with a different identity. In hindsight, it's clear he arrived at that decision during the CBI game against Houston, which ended with a bizarre, almost incoherent Rick Barnes interview unlike any I'd ever heard him give. He was flustered and frustrated, sputtering haphazardly about rebooting the team to a group that wanted to play hard, play together, and put in the hard work.

Give the man credit: Barnes knew he'd be coaching for his job this season, but he made an honest diagnosis of the problems plaguing the program and attacked them decisively without being influenced by short-term considerations: Even though Julien Lewis would have helped this year's team in the early going and was on the fence about whether or not to transfer, Barnes nudged him out the door, concluding that Lewis didn't fit with the direction Barnes wanted to go. To address his growing problem with in-state recruiting, he hired Jai Lucas, establishing a direct connection with the most important man in Texas high school basketball. And he closed out the 2013 recruiting class by securing the commitment of Kendal Yancy, who epitomized the new attitude and work ethic that Barnes wanted to define this year's team.

The end result was a retooled roster devoid of the players with cancerous relationships with Barnes. And devoid of returning scoring after losing its top four scorers from a poor offensive team: Kabongo (14.6 ppg) McClellan (13.5), Lewis (11.2), and Papapetrou (8.5). A year after sporting a team that ranked 347th out of 351 D1 teams in experience, the Longhorns tipped off the 2013-14 season with a roster that ranks 344th.  From the 5th-least experienced team to the 8th-least experienced team.

So far, it's working far better than anyone expected. This group plays hard, plays together, and plays for each other. They're good and getting better, and it's a really, really fun and interesting team to watch develop, in no small part because of its freshman point guard and sophomore center.

Can Isaiah Taylor Save Texas Basketball?

That was the question I posed in the front-page headline of my profile on Isaiah Taylor back in May, in which I explained why I thought Texas had quietly stolen one of the most underrated 3-star prospects I'd ever seen.

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Ten games into the season, Longhorns hoops fans have had a chance to see for themselves why I was high enough on the kid to compare him to TJ Ford, at least in terms of his potential impact on the team. Where last year's team was being run out of the gym by Chaminade, this year's squad has gotten off to a terrific start, winning 9 of its first 10 games, and Taylor is a big reason why.

If you read my profile of Taylor, you may recall the quote of his that I highlighted as central to my enthusiasm about him as a collegiate point guard:

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That quote perfectly captured why I was so enthusiastic about him as a college prospect and the value he's brought to the floor so far this season. Taylor is a relentless attacker, but more than that he is an effective one. Long time readers of this site have heard me talk about the difference between great athletes and great basketball players a hundred different times, and I'll do it once more to discuss what makes Taylor such a valuable player. Taylor is essentially playing as a freshman at the level Kabongo was playing as a sophomore, and it's not because he's more physically gifted. (By way of comparison, Taylor's 104.1 Offensive Rating is nearly identical to Kabongo's ORating of 104.5, and right there with Arizona super-frosh Aaron Gordon's 105.7 ORating.)  Taylor is just a better pure basketball player than Kabongo, with superior natural instincts and feel for the game.

Amazingly enough, Taylor is actually outshining his predecessor in getting to the free throw line, which was Kabongo's strongest asset. Where the five-star point guard from Canada produced a terrific 70.0 Free Throw Rate (FTA/FGA), the three-star freshman from Houston has delivered an even more incredible 90.0 FTRate, the 36th best mark in the country among players with similar usage rates. And if he can start making a few more of them (and Taylor's stroke suggests he can do better than his current 61% shooting from the line) he's likely to raise his 11.7 points-per-game scoring average, which already leads the team.

As his ability to get to the line makes clear, Taylor is comfortable operating in traffic, and along with drawing contact he's proven himself to be a crafty scorer with a deft touch from 10 feet in and the ability to finish at the rim with either hand.  And he's still growing into his full potential, with room to improve as he adds experience and the body strength his frame suggests he'll easily be able to carry without sacrificing quickness. Put it this way: Taylor is only going to become more and more of a nightmare for opposing defenses with each season he comes back to Austin.

As valuable and needed as are Taylor's contributions as a scorer, it's what he does opening up opportunities for the team as a whole where his impact is greatest. For starters, Taylor gets the Longhorns into transition better than any Texas point guard in recent memory, as perfectly illustrated by this highlight from Texas' OT win over Temple. But while Taylor's open court excellence was something I knew we were getting, it's been his ability to break down the defense in the halfcourt that has exceeded my already lofty expectations. Getting back to the body strength I mentioned a moment ago, while Taylor isn't yet as dangerous a scorer as he's going to be as he develops physically, it's impossible to overstate the value of his ability to penetrate.

Even when he drives himself into a position where he can't score the bucket himself, he is consistently doing so by drawing help defenders away from teammates. And that's where his instincts, feel, and skill come into play: just by being able to get a shot to the rim, he's putting Texas' frontcourt players in prime position to clean up on offensive boards. It's no fluke that the Longhorns are grabbing 38.5% of their own misses (the 29th-best rate nationally). It's also no fluke that Cameron Ridley is starting to play like the five-star prospect that fans thought Texas was signing. (More on that in a moment.)  I'll have to ask our friend Jeff Haley if the data set he uses to populate Hoop-Math can be mined to tell us how many buckets Taylor is creating off of missed shots, but I'd wager it's a meaningful contribution.

One final note on Taylor before I end this slobber-fest: I noted in my season preview that "I'm a bit concerned about Taylor struggling [as a freshman] with turnovers to the point where he either cancels out his positive value or retreats to a more passive style of play that doesn't enable him to contribute the maximum potential value." We'll see how he holds up as the level of competition ratchets up, but the early returns have been most encouraging: Taylor's 17.1% Turnover Rate is well within the acceptable range and a vast improvement over last year's crippling rates from both Javan Felix (26.4%) and, to a lesser extent, Myck Kabongo (22.1%).  By way of comparison, DJ Augustin finished with a 23.1% TO Rate as a freshman, while Kabongo's freshman rate was up there with Felix's (26.1%).  In sum, then: Taylor's excellent 24.9% Assist Rate understates the opportunities he creates for teammates, and he does it all while protecting the basketball and scoring as effectively and efficiently as players with more hype and/or experience.

I love this kid.  I loved him before he set foot on campus.  And I'm ready to bear his children after watching his first 10 games as a Longhorn.

Can Isaiah Taylor save Texas basketball? In some important ways, he already has.

Cam Ridley: Look Out

I'll be honest: as much as Isaiah Taylor's first 10 games have confirmed my optimistic evaluation of his potential, Cameron Ridley's first season in Austin caused me to doubt whether my evaluation of the hefty center had been badly misguided. The McD's All-American from Houston had a freshman campaign as disappointing as the season as a whole, as he struggled badly to play effectively for any sustained amount of time. He looked lost in the halfcourt offense, but much more troubling than the indecision and discomfort he frequently displayed was how little we saw of the skills fueling my optimistic evaluation of him as a high school senior.

Fast forward a year and those doubts have all but vanished. Ridley has improved by an order of magnitude since the end of last season, emerging over the past six games as a genuine force in the paint:

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Nearly 12 points, 9 boards, and 3 blocks across 28 minutes? That'll work just fine, thank you very much. But as much as the production, it's been the way that Ridley has been getting it done that's most encouraging. In profiling the big fella, I highlighted his good footwork and fluid motions that he demonstrated in the pick-and-roll game, noting that it was a shame we wouldn't get to see him play with J'Covan Brown and hoping that Kabongo was ready to take a big step forward as a sophomore. We saw none of that last year, but it's starting to show up more and more as his sophomore season unfolds.

Re-reading that profile after his freshman season, it was hard to reconcile the player I was describing in the article with the player Texas fans saw on the court. Re-reading it today, all the strengths and attributes that I excitedly wrote about align with the forceful presence we've seen emerge over the past half dozen games. Ridley is playing lighter on his feet, he's moving with purpose and refinement, and he's translating his strengths into production.

A big part of that owes to the superior space and balance that Texas is employing in the halfcourt this season. I've already talked about the ways Taylor is creating opportunities for teammates with his ability to break down the defense, but there's more going on than just that. For one thing, Taylor's teammates are also excelling at taking the ball to the rim. Demarcus Holland has done a terrific job this year utilizing his length and strong first step to get to the rack, and Kendal Yancy isn't far behind. In addition, this year's Longhorns squad is proving to be markedly better at interior passing than last year's abomination. Javan Felix and Jonathan Holmes are both doing capable jobs getting the ball inside, and Demarcus Croaker makes entry passes like a senior.

All told, Ridley's emergence is a product of a concerted effort by Rick Barnes to have this squad work inside-out. We're doing some of that in the traditional entry-pass-to-a-posting-forward sense, but complementing that with relentless penetration -- a necessary blend at the college level, where the players aren't developed enough to run a pure post offense. Where recent offenses have stagnated around the perimeter, this year's group is all about pounding the paint to attack the rim. Whether it's making an entry pass to Ridley to have him make a move or pass out of a double, sending Taylor, Holland, or Yancy to the rim on penetration, or working a two-man game on the pick-and-roll with Taylor and Ridley or Holmes, the consistent factor in all of them is getting the ball to the rim, where this roster is well-suited to good outcomes: drawing fouls, setting up big men to score, and/or securing offensive rebounds. It's a great example of utilizing your assets to maximize your strengths. Ten games in, the Longhorns are shooting 40.8% of their shots at the rim (compared to the D1 average of 38.3%) and have a FT Rate of 50.1% (well above the national average of 42.1%).

It's not as surprising that this group is excelling on the defensive end of the floor, but the better-than-expected offense thus far owes to the key points I've discussed so far: Taylor's contributions at the point, Ridley's emergence as a feature player in the halfcourt, and the entire team's concerted effort to attack the rim.

Coming up in Part 2: We'll start by continuing the team evaluation with a series of notes on individual players. And following the team's strong start against lesser competition, the Longhorns will get to see how far they have to go this week as the team will be tested against a pair of Top 20 teams with size and experience -- surging North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Wednesday, followed by a somewhat shaky of late Michigan State squad in Austin on Saturday. We'll look at how Texas matches up with their two big non-con tests and set out the key questions for this young-but-game Texas basketball team.

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