What a difference a year makes.
At this time a year ago, the Texas Longhorns basketball team was 9-10 overall, with just one win against five losses in Big 12 play. Fast forward to today, and following the team's buzzer-beating win over Kansas State last night, Rick Barnes' squad boasts a 15-4 overall record, winners of four straight in Big 12 play, where their 4-2 record places them in a tie for second place with the Wildcats. The same head coach who looked completely out of control of a dysfunctional team is now pushing all the right buttons on a team that continues to improve, and continues to win.
What on Earth changed?
The one thing that didn't change was Texas' youth, as the departures of Sheldon McClellan, Myck Kabongo, Julien Lewis, Jaylen Bond, and Ioannis Papapetrou left the Longhorns with just a lone upperclassman and sporting the youngest team in the Big 12 (and one of the ten youngest teams in the country) for a second straight year. Beyond the shared inexperience, however, the two squads have been night and day. Let's take a look at why this year's young team is thriving where last year's failed.
Without Myck Kabongo for much of the season, last year's squad was dreadful in terms of maximizing possessions, with a full 21.4% of Longhorn possessions ending with a turnover, among the worst rates in Division 1. This year's group doesn't rank as one of Rick Barnes' elite squads in terms of protecting the rock (the 2007-08 Elite Eight squad ranked 1st nationally with a 14.1% TO Rate), but their 17.8% TO Rate (120th nationally) represents a meaningful improvement that is partly responsible for the team's improved offensive efficiency. Javan Felix has nearly halved his ghastly 26.8% TO Rate from his freshman season (13.8% this year); Isaiah Taylor (20.8%) has held his own while getting Texas into transition better than any point guard since TJ Ford; both Croaker (18.5%) and Yancy (15.8%) are logging solid minutes without losing excessive possessions; and Holmes, Ibeh, Ridley, Holland, and Lammert have joined Felix in posting meaningful improvement to their turnover rates from a year ago, which in each case exceeded 20%.
This year's squad is also doing much stronger work rebounding the ball on both ends of the floor, both scooping up more of its own misses and limiting opponents' second chance opportunities. Last year's team ranked acceptably in terms of grabbing its own misses (80th nationally) but consistently struggled to keep opponents off the boards (259th nationally). A year later, Texas is thriving in both areas, ranking 35th in offensive rebounding percentage and 49th in clearing the defensive glass.
One way to improve your offense is to make more of the shots you take, but another is to take more shots, and fewer turnovers and more offensive rebounds result in precisely that: more opportunities to score on each possession. So even while this year's team is only slightly better in terms of making more of the shots it takes, the offense is producing more shots per possession.
Although I'm not surprised by the substantial improvement in turnovers and rebounding to rates more aligned with the strong numbers Rick Barnes squads typically post in those categories, consider me floored by the magnitude of improvement we've seen from Texas' frontcourt players. Even as someone who thinks most of the critiques leveled at Barnes for failing to develop players are overblown, the improvements we've seen from Ridley and Ibeh, to say nothing of Jonathan Holmes, have been far greater than anything I considered possible.
For his part, a year after one of the most disappointing and forgettable freshman campaigns imaginable, Ridley is asserting himself into the First Team All-Big 12 conversation as a sophomore, emerging as a powerful force who routinely impacts the game on both ends of the floor. His footwork, soft hands, and soft touch around the rim have all been outstanding and getting better all the time. And I'm not sure I've ever seen such dramatic improvement in free throwing shooting from one year to the next -- elevating from a crime against the sport in one year to an impressive display of consistent motion and soft touch the next. Ridley's improvement in conditioning, awareness, and production allow him to play more minutes and stay on the floor in late-game free throw situations, and when Ridley's in the paint he provides Texas with a force in the paint who both provides a legit scoring threat and -- by commanding extra attention -- creates greater space for his teammates to operate.
And then there's Prince Ibeh, whose development has flown under the radar a bit, in part because of Ridley's more pronounced breakout and in part because he's still so incredibly raw, which can mask the real progress he's made. Statistically, Ibeh's rate statistics this season very closely mirror his numbers from a year ago, but he has (i) cut down his turnovers (17.5% TO Rate this year, down from 22.3% as a freshman), (ii) managed to increase his block percentage to 16.0% (up from 12.0%), and most importantly, (iii) maintained or improved all his rate statistics while playing 40% more minutes and a much more involved role in the offense. That he has so much more room to grow speaks to his ultimate upside and the length of his development curve, but shouldn't prevent us from appreciating the solid step forward he's taken, which both has been valuable this season and bodes well for the season(s) ahead.
MULTIPLE SCORING THREATS
Particularly when Myck was still suspended, last year's team struggled mightily to score, in part because the team had exactly one true scoring threat (McClellan), and his make up was that of a complementary (rather than alpha) player. Without anyone who could consistently create his own offense, no interior scoring threat, miserable shooting from beyond the arc, and little ability to create scoring opportunities in transition, the offense frequently stalled, hoping that an overmatched gunner (Felix, Lewis) had a hot night or the guy with the true physical ability (McClellan) brought the mental game to match it.
It's been a different story this season. Although no one would confuse this young group for a great offensive team, they feature a multitude of legitimate scoring threats. Thanks largely to Taylor, this group is one of Barnes' most aggressive teams ever with respect to attacking in transition, with a full 32.4% of their initial shot attempts coming in transition (way up from 24.9% a year ago). This group is more diverse and dangerous in the halfcourt, as well:
- Ridley's breakout provides the team with a legitimate post threat through whom Texas can run an inside-out offense.
- With a year of experience and without having to take on a bigger role than he's capable of providing, Felix's scorer mentality is a mild asset rather than a crippling liability.
- Texas' four freshman guards, Holland, and Holmes all relentlessly attack the rim on penetration, where good results abound -- whether in the form of a made basket, a trip to the foul line, or even a missed field goal, which often creates a second chance opportunity by forcing a help defender out of rebounding position.
- A growing cadre of viable three-point shooters is helping to keep defenses honest, as Holmes (39%, up from 29% last year), Felix (33% and rising of late, up from 26% last year), Croaker (37%) and Walker (41%) are increasingly getting results that match their sweet shooters' strokes.
- With the rebounding prowess of Ridley, the attention commanded both by Ridley and Texas' attacking guards, and the versatility of both Holmes and Lammert, this roster is built to thrive on the offensive glass, and they've proven to have the mentality to feast on the opportunities.
Add it all up and you've got an offense that has two or three go-to options, a legitimate post scoring threat through whom offense can be run, adequate outside shooting to keep defenses from Dogus-ing the paint, a punishing transition attack, and an abundance of offensive rebounding capacity. Again, there are a number of ways to be effective on offense, and if this group isn't going to bury teams with efficient shooting like the Durant-Augustin team, it is producing above average offense that is markedly improved from a year ago by taking better care of the basketball, gathering more of its own misses, connecting on a few more three-point shots, and finding higher percentage scoring opportunities in transition.
That'll work, and the best news of all is that this young team is not only ahead of schedule but has demonstrated considerable room still to grow. Damarcus Croaker is starting to show why we've been touting him as a pure scoring threat who can light up the scoreboard in bunches. Cam Ridley's confidence and production are increasingly catching up to his raw skill. The outside shooting abilities of a number of our players are starting to shine through.
And to end where we began: this team is incredibly young. With the possible exception of Holmes, not a single Texas player is playing at or over his ultimate college capacity. For most or all of these guys -- and this group if it sticks together -- the best is yet to come.
TEAM MAKE UP
Finally, although it's easy to assign undue credit or blame to a team's intangible qualities -- we're fond of saying that good chemistry produces winning when more often than not it's the other way around -- but where comparing last year's Longhorns basketball team with this year's, there's no danger in overstating the importance of team make up in evaluating the discrepancy in results.
The change starts at the top, with Rick Barnes, who literally found himself unable to coach the team that he had assembled last year. Barnes was responsible for crafting that roster, and he was responsible for blowing it all up to chart a drastically different course. From the savvy job he's done with some less-heralded recruits like Taylor and Holland, to the team- and work-oriented approach around which he built this year's squad, and yes, to his own approach to teaching and motivating a group that is working hard and playing together, Barnes has pulled off a remarkably drastic turnaround that has highlighted all of his strengths as a head coach. It's been impressive, and certainly timely after a disheartening stretch during which his weaknesses as coach were taking center stage.
We'll see how this team responds to the rigorous challenges that it will surely face down the back stretch of a brutal Big 12 schedule, and how well Barnes does in coaching this team to take the next big step forward (the area where he faces legitimate questions and has more to prove), but for now, this much is indisputably true: for those of us who live and die with Texas basketball every bit as much or more as we do UT football, we couldn't have asked for anything more from this season so far. 15-4 overall, 4-2 in a loaded Big 12, finding ways to win the tough, tight games that define the brutal conference season, with some dynamic underclassmen, an exciting and entertaining brand of basketball, and a ridiculously young roster brimming with potential.
I'll just close with this: if you're not enjoying the hell out of watching this young team go to battle each game, you're doing it wrong.