The basketball season is about ready to get in swing for the Texas Longhorns and the Big 12 media day on Wednesday was one of the first official signs of its coming.
With the team returning largely intact from last season and ranked No. 10 in the preseason Coaches Poll, the expectations are as high as they have been in seasons.
Head coach Rick Barnes spoke with the media about his team on Wednesday in Kansas City.
On freshman Myles Turner
Barnes admitted that there are high expectations for the 6'11, 225-pound stretch forward who told the coaching staff during the process that he wanted "wanted to be a part of the program where he could be a part of it but not necessarily him be the program."
A comfort level with the current team helped convince Turner that he wanted to stay in his home state for college, which hasn't exactly been the popular decision with recruits from Texas in recent years:
I think he would also tell you that, when he visited campus, the one thing he felt was that he was able to be around other players that felt the same way, that they just wanted to have a great team. They wanted to win, and they would know that their individual goals would be met by buying into each other and really wanting be to the best team that they could be.
The decision sheds some potential insight into Turner's psyche as a player.
Is he overwhelmed by the potential of being the top option for a team, as former Kansas star Andrew Wiggins appeared to be at times last season?
Without seeing him play in burnt orange yet, the more charitable assumption is that he simply wants to be part of a team and able to develop at his own rate without having to force himself on the game. Given his shot-blocking ability, even if he's not aggressive on the offensive end in the early days of his Texas career, he should still be able to have an impact on the game as long as he plays hard and uses his immense physical tools.
On point guard Isaiah Taylor's development
Just like the quarterback position in football, the point guard in basketball has to be the leader in between the lines and that's not always an easy task for a young player.
As a freshman, Isaiah Taylor was thrown into the mix and asked to run the team as he adjusted to college basketball. And though Taylor ultimately acclimated well in making himself a threat in transition and scoring 12.7 points per game and four assists, it was a learning process.
Barnes said that Taylor has improved as a communicator since last season:
Where Isaiah has improved most of all is he's become more verbal. He's really starting to understand what that position calls for...His teammates will tell you that he's a player they have a lot of confidence in because he's a confident player. He's a player that he wants to win. He's very, very competitive. But the biggest change that I'm seeing right now is the fact that he's become much more verbal in practice talking.
Of course, the leadership thing is something intangible and it won't make the difference between many wins and losses this season.
What could make the difference is the ability of Taylor to hit outside jump shots. He shot only 39% from the field as a freshman and that number dropped to only 26% on three-point attempts, though he took only 19 on the season.
Taylor has been working to improve that shooting stroke, which is good enough to shoot almost 75% from the free-throw line, and his head coach believes that he's made strides in execution and understanding the need to keep defenses honest:
People have always questioned the fact, can he shoot it? He can shoot it. We told him a year ago that we need him to shoot the ball when he's open, but his idea was always to try to get into the lane, try to penetrate, and create for his teammates.
He does have a really need midrange floater type game. He's great around the basket, but he is willing to shoot the ball, and he's capable. He's a guy that we really believe, when he shoots it, it's going to go in. So he's improved there a lot.
The confidence equation factors in here, too, as having the confidence to command the offense in communications with teammates is similar to the confidence that it takes to know when to shoot the basketball.
Since Taylor will spend quite a bit of time playing with junior shooting guard Demarcus Holland, who will likely remain a non-shooter, opponents are going to play zone defense or run under screens with Taylor until he can prove that his jump shot is effective.
And even if he can do that, teams will probably still scheme at all costs to keep him out of the lane, where he's so dangerous hitting floaters or dropping dimes to teammates.
On the hard work of forward Jonathan Holmes
As the only senior on the team, combo forward Jonathan Holmes has a unique spot as the only player from his class to remain with the program for four years and as the member of the front court who can play both forward positions:
Jon really gives us the opportunity to be a versatile team. He can play both inside out, and arguably over the four years and he's really our lone senior this year he's been as hard a worker and as committed to our program as any player that we've coached. He really is a guy that is focused. He's done a tremendous job of getting himself in shape. I think he's changed his body greatly, and I think that's going to give him the opportunity to let us be more versatile in terms of because we do have a big team, a tall team, and a long team.
The Horns will have one of the deepest and longest front courts in the country, but opening up playing time for all that talent will depend on Holmes being able at times to continue his transition to the perimeter as a small forward, a move that will likely force Texas to play zone when going to those big lineups.
Barnes added that Holmes will be able to help some of those shooting concerns because he can force opposing big men to defend on the perimeter, though the lack of shooting from the guards will probably result in many opponents opting for zone defenses.
Dropping as much as 15 pounds should help Holmes maximize his quickness to defend smaller players at times if necessary and help his first step on pump fakes when heading to the rim. With his size and shooting ability in those situations, he may now be able to dunk after one bounce instead of laying the ball up.
Perhaps that's an optimistic projection, but expecting Holmes to have a tremendous impact on this team is not.
On the improvement of forward Connor Lammert
Make no mistake, this isn't an easy situation for junior forward Connor Lammert -- he's been a part of the rotation for the last several seasons, playing over 20 minutes a game as a sophomore.
Myles Turner is now in the mix commanding minutes, but Barnes said that the San Antonio native has responded, saying that Lammert is the most improved player on the team.
There's no questioning the shooting ability of Lammert, who made 18 shots from distance last year and finished No. 4 on the team in three-point shooting percentage. Much like Connor Atchely, the issue has been pre-shot preparation and confidence.
Having Lammert as a volume shooter in pick-and-pop and ball reversal situations could add outside shooting to a team that needs it. With a high release and pure stroke, there's no reason why Lammert should only take 53 three-point shots this season, as he did as a sophomore.
On the shooting woes
The Longhorns finished No 8 in the conference in field goal percentage and No .9 in three-point field goal percentage, but managed to compensate by rebounding 40% of their own misses. With another excellent offensive rebounder added to the team in Turner, the strategy of throwing the ball up on the rim should remain an effective one.
When asked about the shooting woes, however, Barnes thought that the root problem wasn't just missed shots, but the quality of those shots and the result of those bad shots:
I think, when you look at it statistically, you would say that. I think, when you go back, if you analyze our team from a year ago where we have to improve, we got hurt defensively with transition defense, and that was a direct result of not taking care of the ball and, I think, our shot selection.
We know we've got to improve there, and I do think we have guys that can shoot the ball. They take good shots. I think it's hard when they take bad shots and expect to make them. Isaiah has the ability to score in some traffic and so some of those type things. I think we can shoot the ball. That really is not I'm not concerned about it. My biggest concern, again, is understanding good shot selection and protecting the ball from the offensive side.
In terms of taking better shots, Texas is in the unusual position in college basketball of only having to replace shooting guard Martez Walker as a result of his legal issues, while adding a big-time recruit in Turner and a wing in Jordan Barnett -- this is a pretty experienced team that should have a deep understanding of what Barnes wants from them offensively.
On attacking with the big frontcourt
Over the last few years, the ability to make entry passes hasn't always been a strength for the Longhorns or for most teams in college basketball with a legitimate post threat.
With junior Cameron Ridley capable of scoring down low and Turner representing a possible threat on the box along with whatever happens with the post game of Lammert, the entry pass will be a big part of the Texas offense:
So, yeah, we want to play inside out. We do. We want to put it in there, and when you do that, you hope to get fouled. You hope to get to people's benches. On the other hand too, you've got to make free throws, which we did a better job of that a year ago. We have to continue to improve there because we definitely want to get fouled and get to people's benches.
Ridley made huge strides in making free throws last season, looking much more fluid in improving his from the stripe by nearly 30 points, jumping from 33.3% to 62.6%.
The pace in transition will come from Ridley and benefit from the shot-blocking ability of the bigs, while the half-court offense will have the option of dumping it down to the big man in the post. When opponents go man-to-man, at least.