And there it is: win number 10.
After knocking off Baylor 74-69 on Wednesday night in Austin [BOX SCORE], the Longhorns have reached the 10-win mark in Big 12 play. Before the season began, we were laboring to find 9 wins on the conference schedule; this young group got there with three games still to play, and did it with a second win this season over a team that was considered among the pre-season favorites to win the conference.
It feels as though the universe is a little bit more orderly tonight, doesn't it? Rick Barnes is coaching up a young, cohesive group and sweeping the season series with Baylor, while Scott Drew is manically conducting the Underahievement Express down the stretch as he tries to avoid another trainwreck season. And this group of Longhorns once again responded to adversity like the veteran team that they aren't, rebounding from consecutive losses with a solid, important win that keeps their strong season on track.
Let's start with the Bears. Scott Drew and his squad have very much been in scramble mode after losing 8 of their first 10 conference games, but coming in to tonight's contest against Texas, Baylor had won four in a row to claw their way back to 6-8 in Big 12 play. Squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. With an opponent in Texas that offered them an opportunity for not only a fifth straight win, but a Tier 1 road win, at that. In other words: Baylor entered tonight's game with a lot of momentum, and a lot to play for.
It didn't matter. It didn't matter that Texas' opponent was hungry, dangerous and talented, nor did it matter that the Longhorns' previous game at Kansas had been a magnificent disaster. One of the BON authors circulated an email this week trying to gauge how worried to be about the blowout loss in Lawrence on Saturday night. I didn't get a chance to respond, but this is a good place to share my take. Rarely am I particularly concerned by any single lousy game -- even a performance as thoroughly weak as the no-show in Lawrence. I'm much more interested in whether, and if so how, the loss will affect the team going forward. Was it a bad night for a good team, or a good sign that things are starting to go bad?
I've been anxious about things taking a turn south on two separate occasions this season. The first came after our promising non-conference season, when we opened Big 12 play by dropping our opener at home to OU and a road tilt in Stillwater to open the conference season 0-2. Were we in for a rocky conference season as this young team learned how to compete in the rigorous Big 12? We responded by grinding out victories over Tech at home and West Virginia on the road, not because we played our best basketball, but because we were focused and tough on defense and on the boards. That's what you hope a young team learns over the course of a season. This group absorbed that lesson from Rick Barnes following those two losses to open Big 12 play, put it into action to get past Tech and West Virginia, and then took off the training wheels, ripping off four more wins in a row, each over a team ranked in the Top 25.
The second, of course, was heading into this evening's match up with Baylor. Even though I felt like we were ready to compete with Kansas on their home court on Saturday night, I wasn't particularly discouraged by the egg we laid. As soon as Holmes picked up his second foul and Wiggins erupted for 15 points in the first 11 minutes, our guys looked (and played) like they were about to drown under a tidal wave. Which ensured that they would. As they did.
It was one of those nights, and we looked just as lost as Wiggins did in Austin, and he looked just as unstoppable as we did on our home court. I wasn't happy about the fact that as soon as the going got tough, mentally we seemed to head for the bus, but again, my real concern wasn't that we got whipped by Kansas on their home court, but how we would respond to the adversity. I was concerned about a surging Baylor squad handing this group its fourth loss in six games, and about this young group potentially hitting a February mental and/or physical wall.
Instead, this team once again showed up focused, coordinated, and physical to secure another must-have win on its home court. Since dropping its home opener to OU, the Longhorns have been a perfect at the Drum, winning all 7 of their home contests by an average score of 79-69.
A month ago, it was the Isaiah Taylor show in the Longhorns' victory in Waco. Zeke played well again tonight (13 points, 7 assists), but for the third straight game on our home floor, it was the Javan Felix Show from beyond the arc, as the sophomore with the textbook shooting form buried Baylor by ripping 7-of-9 three pointers for a team-high 21 points. After tonight's blistering performance, across the team's last three home games against Baylor, West Virginia, and OSU, Felix has connected on a brilliant 17-of-27 (63%) from deep, and after a pretty pedestrian start to the season, his offensive rating has steadily climbed and now sits at 107.7, thanks to 36% shooting from beyond the arc, a healthy 22% Assist Rate, and a sparkling 12% turnover rate. Right now Felix's game is mirroring 2009 AJ Abrams: he's a defensive liability, and not someone you want to depend on to create his own offense, but at his best and playing within his proper role a highly valuable offensive asset. Felix's limitations are well known, but his shooting stroke is legit and the kid is a gamer who isn't afraid to score the basketball. Cast in a more suitable role this year, Felix is having a strong sophomore campaign.
As for the guy Javan largely has to thank for his new role, Isaiah Taylor wasn't the one-man wrecking crew he was in Waco, but I was so impressed with his overall game tonight. We're at our best when Zeke is keying us in transition and setting the tempo offensively, and he came out of the gates firing on all cylinders, helping propel Texas out to a 15-point halftime lead. This time he got to see Baylor point guard Kenny Chery at his best, and he rallied Baylor back to within striking range of Texas in the second half, but Taylor again delivered the kind of play we need from him, and when that happens we're tough to beat, especially at home.
On the interior, I was proud of Cam Ridley's effort tonight. After a frustrating performance in Lawrence representative of how off the whole team seemed to be, Ridley worked his ass off in the paint tonight and finished with a double-double of 20 points and 10 boards, along with 2 blocks.
Ditto Jonathan Holmes, who continues his fascinating evolution as a basketball player, where at the same time that he's expanding the range of his offensive game to include more territory away from the rim, he's simultaneously strengthening his play as an interior force around the rim. That's a neat trick, and like Damion James, not one I expected him to be able to pull off as well as he has. Holmes is skilled, but dude is a beast, as well. He's got a nice little professional career ahead of him if he can keep refining that jump shot.
All in all, this was a win to feel really good about. Baylor was a dangerous opponent with a lot riding on the game, and we were coming off a thumping that had the potential to be deflating. But we did what has always been the hallmark of the best teams in this conference: we protected home court. That -- not an ugly loss in Kansas -- is what matters most.
Next Up: Saturday at Oklahoma, 3:00 pm, Big 12 Network