At this time last year, many were wondering whether Texas basketball coach Rick Barnes would survive what appeared to be a multi-year rebuilding effort in front of him. But a team that most forecasted to finish in the bottom half of the league was one of the nation's most surprising teams, picking up wins over UNC on the road to open the year 10-1 in nonconference play, followed soon thereafter with a stomping of Kansas at home that was the team's fourth straight victory over a ranked opponent (only the second time in the last 20 years that a team has managed the impressive feat).
When the regular season drew to a close, the Longhorns had compiled a 22-9 overall record and finished 3rd in a deep conference with an 11-7 ledger in Big 12 play. After an exit in the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament, the Longhorns returned to the NCAA Tournament after a one-year hiatus, earning a No. 7 seed and match up with No. 10 seed Arizona State. Texas found the offensive firepower to win their opener before being outclassed in the Round of 32 by a scorching hot Michigan squad. The final loss of the season always stings, but virtually every Longhorns fan felt good about the surprisingly successful season, and optimistic about what might be ahead for the young team comprised of four freshmen, five sophomores, and a junior.
We're about to find out...
I thought it might be fun to tip off our season previewing series than with a mailbag, so thanks to all those who responded to me on Twitter, Facebook, and email with so many great questions. If I didn't cover your question and you want to ask again in the comments, I'll be glad to jump in.
@PBatBON Should I go ahead and purchase some Final Four tickets? If yes, can I borrow some cash?— Richard C. (@Writchurd81) September 19, 2014
It appears that there are expectations for this basketball team...
Alright, let's indulge the fantasy for a moment, if only to establish why -- with very few exceptions (think: 2007 Florida Gators) -- making the Final Four isn't something that should be expected, well... pretty much ever. Making the Final Four depends on a hell of a lot of different factors, many of which are not within a team's control. You need to be a very good team to win four games in March. But you also need to be lucky: even after a great season that earns a team a No. 1 seed, they're still more likely to fall short of the Final Four than make it. Just think about poor Wichita State last year.
Or to bring it a little closer to home, consider Bill Self's 11 seasons at Kansas: he's won at least a share of the Big 12 title each of the last 10 seasons, earned a No. 1 seed 5 times, had an average seed of 2.1... and made the Final Four just twice. Indeed, given the average wins by seed, Self's 26-10 NCAA Tournament record at KU falls short of the 29 expected wins for teams with Kansas's seedings. But unless you want to argue that Bill Self is in over his head in March, you're left with the unsatisfying but undeniable truth of the matter: the NCAA Tournament is in many ways wild and unpredictable.
That's what makes it great, of course, but it's also why I have to advise you not to open up your wallet for those Final Four tickets just yet. No go on the cash loan, my friend, but I tell you what: if Lady Fortune is kind to us this year and the Horns do wind up cutting down the nets of their Regional, I'll buy your plane ticket to the Final Four in Indianapolis. Believe me, I will be thrilled if I have to pay off that debt.
PB, am I the only one who sees the high expectations for this team as a reason to worry?
--Mark R., via e-mail
Over the years, Jeff and I have spent a lot of time and words dismissing all manner of baseless and/or useless criticisms of Rick Barnes, and at least once a season we get accused by a reader of being blanket apologists for Barnes.
We are no such thing. Jeff can and does speak for himself, but you've touched on one of my worries heading into the season: will Barnes manage this team in a way that allows them to be their best?
The origins of that concern, of course, is the disastrous 2010 season, when Barnes became an oppressive tyrant and managed to turn a high flying Final Four contender and first-in-school-history No. 1-ranked team into an 8th-seeded team that was wound tighter than a drum, playing not to make mistakes. There's such a thing as wanting it too bad, and in doing so, Barnes totally destroyed one of his peak seasons in the talent cycle, when the roster is deep with talented upperclassmen and impact freshmen.
Texas is entering into another favorable point in the cycle this year, with a deep roster that returns all but one player from a year ago (Martez Walker), bolstered by two talented freshmen who can play right away in 7'0 forward Myles Turner (No. 2-ranked recruit in the country) and 6'7 wing Jordan Barnett (top-ranked player from Missouri). It's only natural to wonder whether Barnes will nurture this team in ways that allow it to grow into its full potential or snuff the life out of it like he did the 2009-10 team.
The concerns from the lingering memories of 2009-10 notwithstanding, October is a time for optimism, so allow me to offer a few reasons to be hopeful for a better outcome this time around.
Probably the strongest piece of evidence is the fact that while the 2010 season is a legitimate and understandable source of concern, if we expand our view to the larger context, Barnes has solidly met or exceeded expectations far more than he has captained a team that failed to reach its potential. The chart below provides a snapshot of each of Barnes' 15 seasons as measured by the team's preseason AP rank, and end-of-season rank in the AP Poll, RPI, and KenPom ratings (which only go back through 2002). Seasons in which the team met or exceeded expectations are colored green, while underachieving years are in red.
With these types of exercises, there's always room to quibble on the margins, but under any reasonable methodology, I don't think there's any way to paint a negative picture of Barnes' track record in this respect. Moreover, as far as I'm concerned, if anything the picture is even brighter than implied above, as I would argue that only 2010 and 2013 represent truly lousy coaching jobs by Barnes. The 2004-05 team didn't quite meet preseason expectations, but it was a fairly young and inexperienced group that lost Lamarcus Aldridge to injury in early December and, most devastating of all, PJ Tucker to academic ineligibility. In my mind, that team more or less met reasonable expectations, all things considered. As for 2009, that team -- with no point guard and featuring AJ Abrams as a creator on offense -- had no business being rated 7th in the preseason, and though it was a fairly uninspiring season, its limitations were more inherent to the team than the product of coaching.
Everything else has been satisfactory, and sometimes a good bit better than that. Barnes did a terrific job with the 1998-99 team in his first season at the helm, and most relevant to the topic at hand, the 2002-03 Longhorns led by TJ Ford were a preseason favorite to make the Final Four, and that's exactly where they wound up. In fact, at least to my eyes, this year's team appears to share more similarities with that Final Four team than the group from the worrisome 2010 season.
As is true of just about every coach, Barnes' teams tend to flourish more readily when led by a dynamic point guard. The 2010 team had some excellent guards who could serve as primary ball handlers, but neither Bradley, Joseph, nor J'Onions was a true point guard. Isaiah Taylor? Like TJ Ford and DJ Augustin before him, he is a point guard in every sense of the word.
There are other data points that represent causes for optimism, but I'm running long as it is, and the above points are the big ones. To sum it all up into an answer to your question: No, you're not crazy for being nervous about how this team performs with such high expectations to start the year, but while the most recent data point is a source of concern, on the whole there are more reasons to believe this team is more likely to thrive than collapse.
1. How much time do you expect to see Holmes at the wing and how much time in the post?
2. Other than shot blocking, what are the biggest ways Myles Turner can impact the game for us?
3. Is Isaiah Taylor good enough to be the focal point of this offense? Will Rick Barnes let him?
4. We have great depth. Any chance we try to speed the game up and press to wear other teams out?
5. Will Jordan Barnett be a contributor my Big 12 play?
6. Who will be the most improved player from last year?
--Evan D., via email
I was going to select one or two of Evan's questions for inclusion, but really, they're all on point and worth commenting on. So let's do them all, limiting answers to a paragraph or so.
1. Holmes on the perimeter: The buzz around Holmes is that he has himself in the best shape of his life and my reading of the tea leaves -- supported by tidbits I've gotten from people who've been watching the team practice this summer and fall -- is that Holmes' senior season appears to be on the same trajectory as that of Damion James. As you may recall, James was so-so when as a junior he began transitioning towards playing more as a wing than a forward, but took a big leap forward as a senior, performing at an All-Conference level with a credible three-point shot, improved ability to penetrate, and his usual brilliant work on the boards.
That is certainly the hope the coaching staff has for Holmes, and my sense is that we'll see Holmes split some time between the blocks and perimeter, but with a preference towards the latter when we want to two of the four of Ridley, Ibeh, Lammert and Turner manning the interior. Personally, I'm bullish on Holmes' senior campaign, think he's well suited to complete this transition to the wing, and expect him to have a terrific season worthy of a spot on the All-Conference Team.
2. Myles Turner's impact: In the scouting report on Turner that I published back in April, I talked about the potentially positive impact his competitiveness and intensity might have on this Texas team. Much of Turner's most substantial development as a basketball player won't happen in the year or two he's at Texas, but while in Turner we're not getting an Anthony Davis, what we are getting is a fierce competitor who is capable of being a solid contributor around the rim and a guy who plays with the intensity and attitude of a hungry champion. That's an attitude I'm hoping to see up and down this roster, and I'm excited about Turner's potential to help set that tone.
3. Taylor as the focal point of the offense: I'm not entirely sure I follow the premise of your question here. Or maybe I do but disagree with how you've framed it. In many ways, Taylor was the focal point of the offense last year, and as a point guard who can disrupt the defense with penetration and score it or draw fouls near the rim, that isn't going to change. That said, the intended "focal point" of our offense last year was an inside-out approach that capitalizes on our strengths around the rim, but that proved to be more aspirational than actual, and we wound up shooting relatively few shots at the rim (35%, 236th most nationally) and taking a lot of two-point jumpers (39% of shots, 30th most nationally). Looking ahead to this year, in theory we'll be an inside-out offense that feeds the ball into a well-positioned post player quickly and cleanly on most possessions; in all likelihood, we'll be a dribble drive-like offense that racks up free throws and offensive boards. Which is perfectly fine. There are numerous ways to be effective on offense.
Oh, and yeah: Taylor's good enough. But you knew I was going to say that. I love his game, and think he's still underrated, at least nationally.
4. Will Texas press? You aren't ever going to see a Rick Barnes team committed to a full court press on a game-long basis, but Barnes' teams typically sprinkle in some full-court man and zone trap when it suits us and the line up is right. I wouldn't expect much variation from that with this group, even though you're absolutely right in your assessment that this team has the depth and athleticism to press. Although our use of full court pressure defense is likely to remain situational, I do expect to hear Barnes yelling "Go! Go! Go!" in that particular Hickory drawl of his. We took about a quarter of our shots in transition last year, and I expect we'll at least match that this year and will be happy to exceed it.
5. Will Jordan Barnett contribute by Big 12 play? I'm sure Barnes would be thrilled to have someone who could provide similar production to that which we were expecting to get from Martez Walker, and though I'll reserve final judgment until I get a chance to see him live in the gym, Barnett is a fine candidate to chip in some similar value. At least on tape, he looks like he's a year of body development away from being able to take advantage of his length at the collegiate level, but he's a smooth offensive player who is comfortable scoring it any number of different ways. Sort of like Walker. For now, the jury is still out, but I do expect Barnes to play him in the regular rotation, and whether his minutes are closer to five or 15 depends on how far along he is defensively. My hunch is that's going to be a work in progress.
6. Most improved player? Demarcus Croaker wouldn't be a bad choice here, considering how low he set his floor last year and how high his potential ceiling might be. I don't know that we're going to see anyone capture the Cam Ridley Leap of Excellence prize this year, though, so I'm going to go in a different direction and note my optimism about Connor Lammert heading into this year. In some ways, Lammert doesn't quite fit in a "Most Improved" contest, because he was damn solid last year across his 20 minutes per game: a 118 Offensive Rating, excellent rebounding percentages, and above average shot blocking. Maybe the better category here would be "Most Surprising Player" or whatever, but I'm taking the liberty of using your question as a springboard to log my prediction that Connor Lammert is going to have a big year that surprises a lot of fans. He was very good last year, but wasn't consistent enough and had plenty of room to grow around the margins. I'm expecting him to put it all together this year.
Is there such a thing as too much depth? I have a bad feeling that I'm going to spend a lot of time this season wondering what the hell Barnes is doing with musical chairs substituting.
--Paul C., via email
I suppose depth could be a problem for a coach who had proven himself inept in getting the most out of his players, individually and as a group. With a couple notable exceptions, that's never been an issue with Barnes; to the contrary, he's proven himself to be one of the savviest coaches in the country with respect to successfully juggling a roster to go 10 deep. Whenever this topic comes up, I always think back to the terrific job Barnes did with that 2004 team, which had a whopping 11 players finish the season averaging 10+ minutes per game.
Where Barnes gets into trouble with substituting relates back to the earlier question and answer about his at times oppressive coaching style. There are times and places for communicating deficiency in a player's performance by pulling them from the game, but that generally sensible tactic can become dangerous when treated as a blanket policy, crowding out alternative developmental tactics that may be more appropriate for a given situation or player. Probably the best recent example of that would be Barnes' handling of Sheldon McClellan; for whatever reason, Barnes never seemed to fully understand the impotence of yanking McClellan out from the game as a direct consequence of some type of McClellan mistake, nor fully grasp the potential value of alternate approaches that might have provided McClellan with more support.
TL;DR Barnes is more than capable of managing a viable substitution pattern for a deep bench of contributors, provided he doesn't excessively wield the bench as a punitive weapon.
Is this the year Kansas' ridiculous reign atop the conference comes to an end? Please say yes.
Carl P., via email
After a decade of the Jayhawks winning at least a share of the Big 12 regular season title, picking against KU for the conference crown seems likely to deliver crow to one's dinner plate, so let's just go ahead and pencil them in as favorites but take a couple minutes to catalogue a few reasons why this season could potentially see the Jayhawks finish somewhere other than 1st place.
Starting with the Jayhawks themselves, the roster is deep and features plenty of talent, but does have a few big question marks. KU lost Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid to the NBA, and Naadir Tharpe to the NBDL, but added a pair of top-10 national recruits in power forward Cliff Alexander (6'9, 240 lbs) and shooting guard Kelly Oubre (6'7, 190 lbs), as well as one of the top Euro prospects in the world in Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Ukraine, 6'8, 195 lbs).. Notable returnees include Wayne Selden, Perry Ellis, Jamari Taylor, and Frank Mason.
There's no shortage of talent (there never is with Bill Self), but look over the Jayhawks' full roster and you're likely to notice that the bulk of the top shelf talent is concentrated on the interior. With respect to KU's backcourt, the good news is that the Jayhawks' perimeter is not without potential: Wayne Selden quietly began to emerge as a premier player around February of his freshman campaign; Frank Mason uses his quickness and body strength to great use; and incoming freshman Kelly Oubre arrives in Lawrence with a blue chipper's pedigree.
Selden is going to be a force this season on the wing, and Perry Ellis, Jamari Taylor, and Cliff Alexander (who I like in the near term more than Oubre) will anchor what should be an excellent frontcourt. Bill Self is likely to find at least a player or two -- whether it's Oubre, Connor Framkamp, or someone else -- who are capable of contributing solidly at shooting guard. Which brings us to point guard, and the biggest question mark I have for Kansas' prospects this year. Tharpe's early departure for the professional ranks forces Kansas to lean heavily on Mason; I actually like him overall more than I did Tharpe, but still, we're talking about a guy who averaged 16 minutes per game last year and possesses limitations that may optimally suit him better to a relief role than the starting line up.
It's going to be fun to find out, that much we can say for certain, with Texas and its No. 10 preseason ranking breathing down the necks of the No. 5-ranked Jayhawks. The Longhorns' mini-slide between 2010-12 notwithstanding, more than any other team in the conference, it has been Texas who has most challenged KU for the crown during its 10-year reign.
If both teams play to their potential, we should be in store for a terrific season of hoops and a race for the Big 12 title that may come down to whether either team manages to steal a win on the other's home floor. KU will visit Austin on Saturday, January 24th, with the return engagement in Lawrence to take place on Saturday, February 28th.
Football season is fun and will always be king. No one's saying it shouldn't be. But you're missing out -- and cheating the players in burnt orange -- if you're unwilling to invest a little emotional capital in this great group of Longhorns. This will be a strong squad and there is the potential for them to be as good a team as we've had here in Austin during the Rick Barnes era.
My advice? Don't miss out: double date football and basketball this winter. You won't regret it.