Halfway through the 2012-13 non-conference season, the youngest team in the nation has shown its age, but also its potential.
Texas basketball knocked off UT-Arlington 70-54 [Box] on Saturday afternoon for its third consecutive victory since dropping back-to-back contests to open tournament play in Maui, improving the Longhorns' season record to 5-2 heading into Tuesday night's match up with the Georgetown Hoyas in the Jimmy V Classic in New York City.
I noted before the game that I liked Scott Cross's Mavericks as an instructive intermediate test for this young Texas team, and the Longhorns responded well against a legitimately challenging defensive squad, playing their crispest offense of the season in burying UT-Arlington by halftime, with a 38-18 lead by intermission. As for the defense, other than the no-show against Chaminade, this Texas squad continues to show its potential to be an excellent defensive team, and now rates No. 2 nationally in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, behind only Louisville.
Nice as it's been to see Texas recover and play some good basketball over these last three wins, the competition has been light and the victory over the Mavericks officially marks the end of the tune up period for Texas. The Longhorns haven't even played a KenPom Top 100 team yet this season, but now embark on a brutally challenging five-game slate that starts with Georgetown on Tuesday, continues with UCLA in Houston (Reliant Stadium), and then after a breather against Texas State at home, closes with North Carolina's visit to the Erwin Center followed by a road trip to East Lansing to take on Michigan State.
The transition between the two halves of the non-conference schedule marks a perfect time for the season's first Texas Basketball Report and a global assessment of the team at this point, with an eye towards identifying team strengths and key areas for improvement, while assessing the team's likely growth curve in each regard. In the next edition of the TBR, we'll turn to individual player reviews.
The Chaminade Loss
Texas could lose to a group of blind 7th grade girls and most UT fans wouldn't pay any attention if it came during football season. But as someone who not only cares about Longhorns basketball, but cares enough to fly out to Hawaii to watch the team play in the Maui Invitational, I want to weigh in briefly on the loss to Chaminade, because I think some have made a little too much of it.
Texas' performance was a passive, forgettable one that exposed our weaknesses both in the experience and leadership departments. It was a bad loss -- no question about it -- and one that revealed how this season could be a long and difficult one for this team without improvement.
Maybe it's easier to embrace when immediately after the game you can go drink cocktails on a beach in Hawaii, but as far as I'm concerned the illumination of key areas for improvement is the only real takeaway from the game, which otherwise merits a shrug. It's college basketball, and I cringed reading various attempts to translate the loss into a college football equivalent. One writer suggested it would be like Texas football traveling to Georgia to lose to Valdosta State; another characterized the loss as being worse than Michigan's to Appalachian State.
I'm not sure there's anything useful to be gained comparing it to football at all, frankly, but so long as we are, it doesn't work to say that Texas' loss to Chaminade is the same as the football team losing to a similarly out-resourced small school. It's simply not. The comparative advantages in the two sports are different, and in football a huge resource advantage translates to overwhelming in-game advantages much, much more so than in basketball.
The proper comparison is not tied to resource disparity but on the odds that the underdog wins. Valdosta State would defeat a powerhouse football program once every, what, 100 tries? 200? If the game were simulated 1,000 times, would they win 10? I doubt it would be more than that. In basketball, however, the odds that an underdog like Chaminade defeats a favorite like Texas are much higher -- probably closer to 1 in 20. (For context, Chaminade has now won 7 of their 83 Maui Invitational games, or 1 out of every 13.)
If you absolutely must have a football analogy for Texas' loss to Chaminade, then, it should be a loss to a program that would be expected to pull out a win once every 20 or so tries. The football equivalent is probably a loss to program like Rice or Tulane. (UT's all-time record in football is 74-21 against the Owls and 17-1 against the Green Waves.)
Overview and Early Team Assessment
Setting aside the problematic comparisons to football, the important question raised by the Chaminade loss relates to its implications for the team's potential this season. Is my friend JC25 right in his grim assessment of the NCAA Tournament potential of a team that loses to a Division II school? It's definitely not going to do anything to help, but again, you have to be careful of making too much of one game in college basketball. Case in point? It was just three years ago that a Syracuse team much more experienced than this young Texas squad was in the news for losing a November exhibition game to Division II Le Moyne. That group of Orangemen would proceed to go 28-3 during the 2009-10 regular season and earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, before falling to Butler in the Sweet 16. (Fire Jim Boeheim?)
This Longhorns squad is not nearly as experienced as that excellent Syracuse team, and isn't likely to rip off 25+ wins or contend for a top Tournament seed, but in evaluating the team's prospects to earn an NCAA Tournament berth this year, we need to look beyond the bad loss to Chaminade and undertake a more holistic analysis of the squad. As JC25 also notes, there's a lot of basketball to be played and plenty of time to turn it around.
Starting with the troubling signs, lots of college basketball teams are missing would-be upperclassmen who have departed early for the NBA, but few, if any, have been impacted quite as severely as this Texas team, which by several measures is the youngest, least experienced team in the entire country.
That extreme youth and inexperience is showing up on the hardwood in several important ways in the early going. First, the offense has been choppy and uneven, as a bunch of freshmen who aren't used to being active on offense without the ball in their hands struggle to execute their roles consistently. Sometimes they look confused about their roles, but the bigger problems are inconsistency and executing tentatively. They forget not to stand and watch the ball, or execute their role without great purpose -- a skill that players learn with time and experience. A lot of that's to be expected, is already improving, and should continue to get better as these freshmen gain experience, but if that growth hits a plateau, inconsistent offense in the halfcourt could be a sufficiently large problem to snap Texas' 14-year NCAA Tournament streak.
The other big component of the offensive struggles has been turnovers, which have absolutely killed the Longhorns thus far. Texas is coughing up an atrocious 18.7 possessions per game, turning the ball over on a full 28% of their possessions on the year, nearly the worst such rate in the country. Javan Felix's numbers (44 assist against 24 turnovers) buoys the overall numbers for the team (85 assists, 131 turnovers) and especially the other five freshmen, who have a ghastly 12-to-57 assist-to-turnover ratio through 7 games, with Cameron Ridley (0 assists, 17 turnovers) leading the way.
On that note, the team has been limited by the rough go of things that Cameron Ridley has had in the early going. The five-star center has struggled mightily on the offensive end of the floor, where he presently sports a dreadful 72.9 Offensive Rating -- in no small part thanks to those 17 turnovers and no assists -- is shooting a horrendous 42% from the free throw line (10 for 24), and has struggled to establish much of a rhythm due to some difficulties avoiding offensive fouls. The good news is that he's a lot better than he's played thus far, and even as he's struggling in this adjustment phase you can see from his size and skill set that improved production is imminent. It's coming game by game already, and by February the Longhorns should be getting 10 points and 10 boards from their freshman center. And no player would benefit more than Ridley from an improved Myck Kabongo rejoining the team.
Texas should see a lot more of this when Myck Kabongo returns.
Speaking of whom, the absence of Myck Kabongo has contributed heavily to all of the struggles discussed above. One of the neat things about watching the team up close in the Maui Invitational was the opportunity to see the way the kids interact with one another and their coaches. Even in his street clothes, Kabongo was the clear leader on the team, and prior to getting their ass kicked by Chaminade, you could almost sense the team waiting for Kabongo to return and assume the lead role for the team. After the loss to Chaminade, Rick Barnes got his message through that they can't sit around and wait for anyone to give anything to them, and there's been improvement each game since, but there's no question about how much the team has been impacted by Kabongo's absence.
I wrote before the season that I thought Javan Felix would surprise some people with his ability to step in and play right away, mitigating some of the damage of losing Kabongo, and he's done a hell of a job for how much is being asked of him, playing a team-high 35 minutes per game as the only pure ball handler that Barnes can trust right now. Kabongo's return would benefit Felix and every other player on this team, immediately improving this group in every area in which it's been struggling so far.
That was a lengthy discussion of what the team has been struggling with in the early going, but the list itself wasn't very long. If the team can improve in each of those areas -- and with so much being tied to youth and Kabongo's absence, there are good reasons to believe it can and will -- this group has also flashed its considerable upside, with a deep, balanced, and skilled roster of contributors who offer value individually and can be mixed and matched together very productively and advantageously. If there's a silver lining to Kabongo sitting, it's been in forcing his teammates to try to be successful without him -- using the only manageable portion of the schedule to accelerate their growth. When he does return, the rest of the team will be better for having been forced to play without him.
The Longhorns haven't faced much in the way of offensive firepower just yet, but with the exception of the nightmare game against Chaminade the team has been thoroughly dominant on the defensive end of the floor. Opponents own a 33.3 Effective FG% on the year -- the lowest mark in the country -- with Texas blocking a full 19.8% of opponents shots on the year (4th nationally), broken down as follows (courtesy Hoop-Math):
We'll find out a lot more in the month ahead, but thus far this Texas team is proving to be every bit as capable a defensive squad as we discussed they had the potential to be in the preseason. Fans who haven't seen the squad yet and tune in to watch the Longhorns take on Georgetown will be surprised at how much length Texas has out on the floor -- bolstered by wings like the 6-4 Sheldon McClellan and 6-7 Ioannis Papapetrou. Based on the roster alone, I wrote before the season about why I thought this group could play a strong zone defense if Rick Barnes committed them to learning and playing it right from the get go, and thus far that's exactly what he's done with this group, who have proven to be as challenging a zone to shoot cleanly over as you'd expect, and are playing zone cohesively and in a way that doesn't concede the advantages that a poor (or undersized) zone often will.
Texas has also done a pretty good job utilizing their size to rebound the ball well, where they've enjoyed a substantial advantage in most games this season. As much zone as the team is playing, I don't expect their defensive rebounding numbers to be as strong as they could be, but it's an acceptable trade off if teams continue to shoot the ball at such extremely low percentages. Texas has been a good rebounding team so far, but looks like it has the potential to be very good or great, in an area that will remain all the more important to the extent the team continues to struggle with turnovers.
I've written previously about the meaningful step forward Sheldon McClellan has taken between his freshman and sophomore seasons, but after a quiet start it's been Julien Lewis who has provided the most pleasant surprise in recent games. After Texas' sputtering performance against Chaminade, Lewis has become much more assertive on both ends of the floor, and over the last four games has averaged an impressive 15 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game, shooting an excellent 59% from the floor overall (20 for 34), including a blistering 58% (11 of 19) from beyond the arc. Particularly impressive has been the aptitude Lewis has shown running around in the flex offense Texas likes to run in the halfcourt, as neatly illustrated on this elbow curl against USC in Maui:
Julien Lewis nets a jumper from the elbow out of Texas' flex offense.
I also have lots of nice things to say about Sheldon McClellan and Ioannis Papapetrou, but we'll save those for the review of individual players in the next edition of the Texas Basketball Report.
Tying it all together, the first half of the non-conference season has been a mixture of red flags and reasons to feel optimistic about what's ahead. In the discouraging ledger, a young and inexperienced team has struggled to perform consistently, and the results themselves have been underwhelming; a 5-2 record looks good enough in the abstract, but is a barely passable result against such a weak group of opponents. On the bright side, a lot of what's been holding the team back in the early going is the kind of thing that can, has been, and is likely to continue to improve over the course of the season. The roster itself is attractive, full of valuable players and considerable unrealized upside -- including a sidelined Myck Kabongo.
The early season has shown us where this team could really struggle, and I can tell you right now that if this team both doesn't get Kabongo back and fails to improve substantially in the turnover department, Texas is likely to miss out on the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years. On the plus side, Kabongo isn't ruled out -- just frustratingly suspended in limbo -- and this team owes a great deal of its biggest struggles to youth and inexperience, making it reasonable to expect improvement as these young players continue to add experience, make adjustments, and grow more comfortable playing at the college level. As they do, these young players will increasingly be able to draw on their underlying skills, and that's a department in which this group is not lacking.
The big question, then, is one of time. How quickly will these young players adjust and develop? How long will Myck Kabongo continue to sit out? And if he returns, how much time will it take the team to mesh? This team isn't a very strong one just yet, but they're a very interesting one to watch develop, and an exciting group to think about down the line, both towards the end of this season and in the seasons ahead.