Click here to read Part 1 of Texas Basketball Report 7.2.
We've already touched on the strong starts by Isaiah Taylor and Cameron Ridley thus far this season, so let's turn our attention to checking in on the rest of the roster with some brief individual player notes.
Jonathan Holmes -- He's probably not getting the love his play deserves at this point, as Holmes has been the team's best overall player thus far (with Taylor being the most important). Through each of his first two seasons, Holmes drove me a little crazy with his shot selection and his propensity to accumulate pointless fouls, but his development has been steady and substantial. He's putting it all together this year and despite the occasional dumb foul that causes me to grind my teeth, he's been pretty well terrific so far this season.
Holmes' outside shot selection last year was a constant problem and he finished the season an abysmal 13-45 from beyond the arc. Fast forward a year and Holmes has nearly matched his made shot total from last season, having connected on 12 of his 25 3-point attempts so far. He's no specialist, though, stuffing the stat sheet with a variety of valuable contributions: he's been as big on the boards as Cam Ridley (grabbing 12.3% of available offensive rebounds and 18.6% of opponent misses), he's helping to protect the rim (excellent 8.0% block percentage), and scoring with terrific efficiency (resulting in a 124.9 Offensive Rating).
Holmes is Co-MVP of the non-con season so far (along with Taylor), and has quietly developed into a better player than I expected him to become. I thought he might be a tweener who struggled to thrive either inside or out, but right now he's excelling in both. I'll take it, and if he can sustain his level of play throughout the season, this Texas team has a shot at making a run at the Big 12 title this year and getting into the NCAA Tournament. On the other hand, if he starts going cold from the outside, this team will feel it offensively and could start to struggle.
Javan Felix -- After a pretty frustrating start to the season, Felix is starting to settle in better to his off-ball role. He's a liability on defense and remains too inconsistent and turnover prone, but if he can shoot 38%+ from beyond the arc the rest of the way, he'll provide value. His limitations are substantial, but he's mentally tough and his shooting stroke is pure -- nice to see him starting to get results in games.
Kendal Yancy -- As I noted in my player profile in March, Yancy is a grown ass man, and he's had a very promising start to his career, earning Barnes' trust in the rotation as a willing defender, an asset in transition, and as-good-as-expected in getting to the rim. He's also playing smart basketball, demonstrating good court awareness and shot selection, while providing leadership through his attitude and work ethic. Watch next time a Texas player hits the floor: if Yancy is out there, he'll be the first one there to help him up, even if he has to run over to the fallen player to do so. It's a small thing, but not unimportant when you think back to the moping group of malcontents roaming the floor a year ago.
Demarcus Holland -- I mentioned in one of the early season game recaps that we know what Holland isn't, but don't focus enough on what he is. So far this season he's been a net positive player who chips in solid value in a variety of ways, in large part by understanding his assets and playing to his strengths. The one area he can really improve to increase his value to the team is cutting down on turnovers. It's the one area where he can give away too much value to justify playing him 25+ minutes a game. The kid works hard at his game, though, and it shows up in the games. I've been pleasantly surprised by his play thus far.
Demarcus Croaker -- Is it me, or does Demarcus Croaker have some Terrence Rencher in him? (Speaking of which: how much fun would Croaker be to watch on a Penders team?) Rencher hit the ground running more immediately than has Croaker, but he's flashed the skill set that made him an enticing prospect. He has the greatest capacity to improve within this season of any player on the team, and as the college game continues to slow down for him, I predict we'll see him drop 20 points a time or two down the back stretch of the season.
I know some want Croaker to be playing more of Holland's minutes right away, but I actually approve of the way Barnes has been using him thus far. Croaker's being brought along across a schedule, being given increments of playing time and discreet tasks to execute. It gives Barnes an opportunity to teach him, provides Croaker with a structured development plan that prevents him from playing Penders-ball (fun, but ultimately unrewarding), and gives him the greatest opportunity to improve within the season. Expect his minutes to continue to increase as the season progresses.
Prince Ibeh -- His rawness is still his predominant quality, but it belies the very real progress he's made. It speaks to his ultimate upside, which is tremendous, and assuming we can get at least one more year out of him, he's creeping towards the cusp of being a frightening force in the paint. A lot of his development into a more complete offensive player won't come until five or six years down the line, well into his professional career, but his potential to wreck shop in the paint at the college level is closer than it is far away. Like Croaker, I like him to take his game up a notch come February.
Connor Lammert -- He's in the midst of a mini-slump right now, but over the first six games of the season he showed exactly how valuable a player he can be. If he played at Duke, you'd be sick of hearing Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas gush about how much they "love this kid's game." He's not a star, but Texas has needed more excellent role players like Lammert -- guys who will play four years, get better each year, can shoot the ball inside and out, and will contribute value both on the boards and on defense. He'd be miscast in a feature role on a different team, but he's a perfect complement to Ibley. It'll be huge for this team if he can continue to knock down 35-40% of his threes all year.
Martez Walker -- It'd be nice if Walker was a sharpshooter we could bring in situationally right now, but he's not ready. That being said, he also has more long-term upside than a pure situational shooter, so his roster spot isn't a waste. I do like his shooting stroke, and who knows, if he can improve his defense substantially and the game starts to slow down for him in a meaningful way pretty soon, he might even find himself with a situational shooter role down the back stretch of the season.
Horns Prepare for UNC and Michigan State
I'm sure my colleagues will have game previews for both of these opponents, so I'll be brief here and try just to touch on a few high level points heading into these two big tests.
* Winning in Chapel Hill is going to be a tall order; temper your expectations accordingly. The Heels are on a roll now, and after getting routed in Austin last year they aren't likely to overlook us. I'd give us a solid shot at winning at home, but I'm less optimistic about stealing one on the road. The Tar Heels are surging following big wins at Michigan State and versus Kentucky.
* If we are to beat UNC, it'll likely be because we do most or all of the following things well. First, this isn't the most transition-oriented team, at least by Roy Williams standards, but giving up easy scores in transition is a surefire way to get in trouble on the road. They tend to catalyze a virtuous cycle by firing up the crowd and energizing the team. Second, we need to hit a few outside jumpers. This Texas team isn't shooting the ball great from the outside so far, but this isn't a roster without shooters. Connecting on a half dozen threes efficiently will do wonders to open up the paint, where we're strongest. Third, we need to be more focused on dominating the boards than we are trying to totally shut down Marcus Paige. He's going to get his points and that's okay. Where we can't afford to get beat is on the offensive boards. So far, this Texas team has been outstanding in that regard, and they'll need to be at their best again on Wednesday night. And finally, there's a real opportunity for Texas to pick up offense at the charity stripe against UNC, and I'd love to see an attack-oriented offensive game plan that seeks to exploit that potential advantage.
* Unlike the surging Tar Heels, the Spartans are sputtering a bit at the moment, after losing by 14 at home to UNC and squeaking by Oakland by 4. Part of the struggles owe to injuries, as Gary Harris has been out with a severely sprained ankle, Keith Appling has been battling a sore hip, and Adreian Payne has been slowed down by plantar fascitis. Harris could be available by Saturday, but I wouldn't bet on it; barring setbacks between now and the weekend, however, both Appling and Payne will be on the court.
* The big thing against Michigan State will be finding offense, as the Spartans are -- as usual -- a physical, disciplined defense that makes you earn buckets. It's on the other end of the floor where Sparty has been struggling a bit, but as the season progresses I think they'll prove themselves to be a good bit better offensively than they've shown so far. Part of the problem is that Michigan State just isn't getting to the free throw line (they're 28.1 FTRate ranks 337th nationally). That's like tying one hand behind your back, and both Appling and Payne shouldn't be struggling to draw whistles. If their early-season trend continues into Saturday, however, I like Texas' chances to keep MSU's scoring in the 60's, and this becomes a winnable game.
* Predictions: UNC 80 Texas 73 / Texas 70 Michigan State 66
Thoughts? Questions? What are you looking to see from the team during its two big tests this week?