With another exceptionally young team following on the heels of last year's debacle, heading into the season the focal point of discussion among Texas basketball fans was whether Rick Barnes would survive what looked like a down year rebuilding project. Indeed, last year's team was so dysfunctional that Jeff and I -- notwithstanding our skepticism regarding the wisdom of making a change -- were compelled to engage in an in depth review of Barnes' ongoing viability as the Longhorns' head coach. And Barnes decision to blow it all up and start over, combined with the losses of Ioannis Papapetrou (Greece) and Myck Kabongo (NBA Draft) to the professional ranks, resulted in the departure of each of the team's top four scorers and a roster just as young and inexperienced as last year's mess of a team. The optimists among us struggled to find 9 wins on the Big 12 schedule and mostly hoped the team managed to play its way onto the NCAA Tournament bubble.
It didn't take Barnes' revamped squad long to begin exceeding expectations, however. Texas opened the year with encouraging wins over Mercer, Stephen F. Austin, and Vanderbilt (all KenPom Top 100 teams right now) and a competitive loss on the road to a solid BYU team, before picking up a signature non-conference win on the road over North Carolina. A pair of losses to open Big 12 play -- including a home floor defeat to OU -- seemed to foretell that getting to 9 conference wins would be every bit the uphill struggle that had been expected prior to the season.
It takes most young teams the bulk of the season to learn how to win the mentally and physically tough battles that define conference play, and had this group struggled to win more than 8 games but learned what it takes to be an NCAA Tournament team next year, most would have considered that a mild success. As I chronicled in Texas Basketball Report 7.3, however, Barnes challenged this group to start doing what it takes to win these Big 12 games now...
And holy sh*t, that's exactly what they did. Since the loss in Stillwater to fall to 0-2 to open conference play, Texas has been the most aggressive team in the Big 12, looking more like a veteran team asserting its predominance and defending its title rather than a surprising challenger without any experience. This group defends the paint as well as anyone in the country; they play hard, physical, and together; and they attack the rim relentlessly on offense.
Seven games later, Texas has pushed its overall record to 18-4 and sits alone in second place in the Big 12 at 7-2, one game behind the Jayhawks. After knocking off Baylor in Waco for its fifth consecutive win, Texas found itself ranked in the AP Poll for the first time since the 2010-11 season, and has now climbed all the way to No. 15 after cruising past Kansas.
As for the NCAA Tournament, Texas is nowhere near the bubble, and the only way this team could fail to earn a bid is if Scott Drew takes over as head coach. Where UT hoops fans were hoping to spend February talking about the team's position on the bubble, the conversation now is about whether this group can make a run at the conference crown and/or earn a protected seed in the NCAA Tournament. (The Tournament selection committee is supposed to place the teams teams earning No. 1 - No. 4 seeds in friendlier placements for the opening two rounds. Naturally, the 2011 Longhorns, whose resume deserved a No. 2 seed -- No. 3 at the worst -- were given a No. 4 seed and shipped to Anaheim, to play the best No. 5 seed, Arizona. Awesome.)
How competitive is Texas for a protected seed as of today? For that we turn to the essential Bracket Matrix, which aggregates the seeding from 70(!) bracket projections to calculate the average seed position for each team. As of Thursday evening, Texas' average seed across those 70 bracket projections is 5.19, slotting Texas just behind Iowa and ahead of Oklahoma State and St. Louis on the No. 5 seed line. If you limit the sample to the 20 blogs that the Bracket Matrix identifies as "Tier 1 Bracketologists" (defined as having a three-year track record and above average accuracy in their final projected bracket), Texas' average seed dips down to 4.7. A snapshot of the aggregate seeding data is provided below; visit the Bracket Matrix for the full data set.
The common refrain among Longhorns fans the past two weeks has been that this has been the most enjoyable stretch of Texas basketball to watch in years. From the coaches to the kids, this group has been a treat all season long.
As well as things have gone the past month, it will be interesting to see how both the team and fans handle the team's next loss -- or several losses. Because the stretch run presents a daunting challenge that could make the seven-game win streak seem like a long time ago. Starting Saturday in Manhattan.
Keys Against Kansas State
The challenge begins right away -- as in, Saturday -- when the Longhorns travel to Manhattan for the rematch with Kansas State. You may recall that Texas won the first meeting in Austin, 67-64, when Jonathan Holmes... well, you remember:
Holmes came through when it mattered most, but the narrow, low-scoring victory came after both he and Isaiah Taylor struggled through difficult nights on the offensive end, finishing with just 12 points between them on 4-14 field goals and just 1-2 from the line.
That was prior to Taylor's outbursts against Baylor and Kansas, and the timing is not coincidental. Barnes got after Taylor to start attacking the rim like he had earlier in the season, and in the three games since the freshman point guard has racked up 22 free throw attempts -- and better yet, made 20 of them (91%).
Important as it is that Taylor continue to being attack-oriented, Holmes may well be the most important offensive player against K-State on Saturday. It will depend on what Wildcats head coach Bruce Weber decides to do defensively. KSU is almost an exclusively man-to-man defense, and in all likelihood we'll see the Wildcats open the game in that extended pressure man defense that we're used to seeing from them. In that case, Taylor is without question the key player to the game, and if he's able to slice and dice the K-State defense like he did Baylor and KU, Texas will have a great shot to win another one on the road.
I think you have to wonder, however, whether Bruce Weber will let that happen. It doesn't take much film to understand very clearly that Texas is a much more dangerous and diverse offense when playing against man-to-man defense, with both guards and frontcourt personnel that thrive getting to the rim and the free throw line. As Tuesday's win over TCU highlighted, however, the offense is much less fluid operating against a zone defense, to a great enough extent that Weber at least has to be considering it -- and would be hard pressed not to play it if the Texas offense is grooving against KSU's man-to-man defense.
Zone defense (not coached by Scott Drew) succeeds in limiting Taylor's ability to penetrate and packs in the defensive help around Cam Ridley, who's proving to be more and more difficult to keep off the scoreboard when he catches the ball with two feet in the paint. Against a zone, Holmes becomes even more valuable and important, as he has the skill set to: (i) flash to the high post in the middle of the zone, to serve as the trigger man; (ii) extend the zone with his three-point shooting ability; and (iii) capitalize on the offensive rebounds to which a zone defense is vulnerable. Needless to say, it will be important that Holmes continue the improvement he's made with respect to avoidable fouls that land him on the bench.
For me, there are two big concerns with this game. The first is simply the road venue: the Wildcats are good-not-great team this year, but they're far more potent at the Octagon of Doom. Kansas State is 5-4 in Big 12 play, but a perfect 4-0 at home, with wins over Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Texas Tech. And in case you'd forgotten, the last time Texas won at Bramlage? That would be 2008.
My second big concern relates to what I was getting at with the discussion of Holmes. Particularly if Kansas State focuses its defensive attention on the paint, Texas desperately needs a player or two to provide some points from beyond the arc. Holmes (22-56, 39%) has been great in that capacity all year, but especially with Felix out, Rick Barnes needs someone else to step up and provide some scoring punch from the perimeter. The player who could make the biggest difference in elevating this team to the next level is Damarcus Croaker, and we've seen the huge potential in some pretty enticing flashes. It's the consistency that's lacking -- no surprise for a freshman -- but as he's gotten the message about the kind of defense Barnes expects him to play every second he's on the court, he's earning more playing time. It's a matter of when, not if, for Croaker, and even a modest step forward during his freshman campaign would provide a huge boost to a Longhorns offense that is on the brink of being dangerous.
If it's not Croaker, that leaves Walker, Lammert and Yancy. Walker has his moments, he's doing a nice job contributing value in a variety of ways (including around the rim), and I do love that sweet lefty stroke, but the game is still moving a little bit fast for him right now. Although he's not as explosive as nor a pure scorer like Croaker, if Walker can take an intra-season step forward before the year is done, that would be a terrific bonus to the offense, as well. As for Lammert and Yancy, the truth of the matter is that both of their perimeter games are lost right now. Connor's problem right now is mental, and if he continues to not let his lack of confidence shooting 20-footers affect his ability to contribute value in other areas, I'm not going to stress about it too much -- if it comes around, it'll just be gravy. Yancy's strength is, well, his strength... and using it to get into the teeth of the defense, where he can attack the rim or distribute. His jump shot isn't there right now.
On a closing note, let's briefly discuss Thomas Gipson, who had a brilliant game against us in Austin. I know some were wanting Barnes to double-team the hefty power forward, but I can't say that I agree. Gipson does present a difficult match up for our frontcourt (with the body strength to move through Ibeh and Lammert, and quickness that gives Ridley trouble), but we're not talking about Adrian Payne here. Gipson may get his -- as he did in Austin -- but that's something you can live with -- as we did in Austin. He's not going to single-handedly beat you going off for 30+ points scored from all over the court (like Payne did). Much more dangerous to Texas is a lax perimeter defense that allows Marcus Foster, Will Spradling, and Shane Southwell to put points on the scoreboard three at a time. The best defense against Gipson is to clear the defensive glass; if he has to earn all his points in halfcourt sets, there's a limited amount of damage he can do.
Last but not least, it's not a preview without a prediction, although I'm torn on this one. Texas is the better all-around team, but this is a game where we might really miss Felix, Taylor is dinged up (ankle, wrist), K-State badly needs this win, and the game is at Bramlage. Tempting as it is to pick the Horns to make it eight in a row, years of Big 12 basketball tell us that, more often than not, being a bit better all-around team isn't enough to overcome all that on the road. Not at a road venue like Bramlage, which so heavily favors KSU.
As with our trip to Waco, I will be delighted to be wrong, but I worry that foul trouble and a few prolonged offensive droughts lead to a rough performance for the good guys. K-State protects home court, 71-63.