I spent a fair amount of time thinking about how I wanted to preview this year's roster, in part because this team is full of known commodities -- we return 9 of our 10 from last year's surprisingly strong squad, accounting for 94% of our scoring. We lost Martez Walker to alleged misconduct, but add a pair of impact freshmen, including a true blue future lottery pick. If you paid attention at all last year, you should have at least a passing knowledge of the cast of characters for the upcoming season.
To keep this from getting too unwieldy, I'm covering the remainder of the season preview series in three parts: we'll look at the frontcourt and wings in this post, then use Part 3 to finish up the roster review with a look at the guards and a best guess at projecting a minutes matrix. I'll wrap the series with Part 4 on Thursday, when we'll compare this year's roster with a few of Rick Barnes' other most talented rosters who entered the year with high expectations.
Onward with the refresher course on the 2014-15 Texas roster...
Task Zen Master
Rick Barnes, 17th season, 358-155 (.698) record
After a 2012-13 season that was more than just disappointing -- things were so dysfunctional fans were justified in questioning whether Barnes had lost his grip on the program -- the Longhorns' all-time winningest coach delivered one of his signature seasons, separating from poisonous relationships in favor of a young, cohesive group of players who were willing to work hard, defend, and play as a team. As he has done during several of his most impressive seasons as UT's coach, Barnes developed a squad widely thought destined to finish in the bottom half of the season standings into one of the nation's most surprising success stories, en route to a 24-11 overall record, including 11-7 in a loaded Big 12 that sent 7 of its 10 members to the NCAA Tournament, with an eighth (West Virginia) just off the bubble.
Of course, we've known Barnes to be capable of that since he arrived in Austin -- the job he did taking the 1998-99 squad to the NCAA Tournament in his first season in Austin was truly masterful -- but recent data points have called into question Barnes' capacity to optimize a team loaded with high expectations. I covered the reasons to be optimistic about this question in the Preseason Mailbag, and my conviction has only grown stronger in the days since, based on watching various interviews Barnes has given as well as my own conversations with a few people close to the program.
Barnes appears to understand that he can't want it more than the team itself does, and his job is not to demand their excellence but rather to foster the best environment for them to be successful. After a disconcerting stretch of seasons when Barnes often seemed wound tighter than a drum, UT's head coach has adopted a demeanor more Phil Jackson than Bob Knight.
Case in point? In a one-possession game on the road in Chapel Hill, with UNC's fans going bananas as the Tar Heels made a late surge, Barnes greeted his young team at the timeout with... a smile? Yup. That and Cam Ridley's badonkadunk over Embiid were my two favorite moments of last season.
Cam Ridley (Junior, 6-9, 285)
Prince Ibeh (Junior, 6-10, 260)
Looking for Myles Turner? He'll certainly be making his presence felt around the rim, but hold off for now; I think we'll see his role differ in a few important ways from Ridley and Ibeh.
The twin towers enter their junior seasons looking to build on the tremendous steps forward they took between their freshmen and sophomore campaigns. Starting with Ridley, towards the end of last season I marveled at the improvement of the five-star McDonald's All-American following his utterly forgettable freshman season:
Cam Ridley fortified the strong night for Texas' frontcourt by doing what Cam Ridley does: 14 points on 11 shots, 2-of-2 from the line, with 10 boards to make it a double-double, and a pair of blocks for good measure. Ridley's performance and final line were ho hum, par for the course... and that is absolutely amazing when you think about where he was at the end of last year. With one game to play, the big fella's season averages sit at 11.5 points, 8.6 boards, and 2.3 blocks per game. And my two favorite stats: Ridley is averaging over 25 minutes per game and shooting 63% from the line. I'm trying to think of a Texas player who's made a bigger single-year stride than Ridley between last year and this, and... I got nothin. It's been a joy to watch.
I noted in my recruiting profile of Ridley that among his strongest traits was a relentless work ethic and powerful drive to improve, so don't be surprised to see the big fella start to add even more to his game in the upcoming season. He's entering the season in the best shape of his life, which I predict will enable him to access much more of the deep well of value carried (but not yet fully realized) by his excellent footwork. Ridley is going to be a focal point of our standard halfcourt offensive sets... and that's a good thing.
As for Ibeh, he announced his improvement last year much more quietly than Ridley, but it was less substantial only in terms of impact. Speaking just in terms of raw development, by February of last season Ibeh was doing some things that I had assumed wouldn't develop during his collegiate career. He tag-teamed with Ridley to muscle up Kansas in Austin, and though few were likely surprised by any brilliance he displayed on the defensive end of the floor, much more unexpected were the big strides he took on the offense end of the floor, where his Offensive Rating cracked triple digits and he scored in a variety of ways, including -- and I can't believe I'm about to type this -- with a left-handed sky hook. (No, seriously. See for yourself, if you've forgotten.)
If Ibeh has been able to sustain that same trend line in his development this offseason, it won't be difficult for Rick Barnes to find him minutes. Whether his average of 13.6 minutes per game last year goes up will mostly depend on his improvement in two facets: shooting free throws (just 52.5% last season) and committing fouls (8.6 per 40 minutes played). While leaving him plenty of room to improve, Ibeh's free throw shooting was actually substantially better last season, both in terms of results (up 15% over the 37% he made as a freshman) and the eye test -- Ibeh's shots from the charity stripe went from a blind prayer to a modest request. It's not unfathomable that he might hit 60% of his free throws this season. As for the fouls... he actually slid backwards a little bit last year, his foul rate jumping up to 8.6 per 40 minutes from the 7.5 fouls per 40 he averaged as a freshman. Honestly, this isn't something that concerns me terribly; to the extent Ibeh's foul rate is a reflection of him playing 15 aggressive minutes (as opposed to racking up fouls on cheapies), that's more or less in line with what we want from him. The good outweighs the bad.
Big Men With Range
Connor Lammert (Junior, 6-9, 240)
Myles Turner (Freshman, 6-11, 240)
It wasn't long ago that Texas' top four in the frontcourt went: Chapman (Sr), Wangmene (Sr), Holmes (Fr), Bond (Fr). It took a pretty good coaching job by Rick Barnes -- and an extra heaping of J'Onions -- to get that team to the NCAA Tournament... and in all fairness, a pretty lousy recruiting job by Rick Barnes to assemble such a meager frontline in the first place.
Fast forward three years and this year's roster preview opens with a frontcourt foursome of Ridley, Ibeh, Lammert, and Turner. Who are we, Baylor? (So weird.)
In one of my answers to a reader question in Part 1 of this series, I tabbed Connor Lammert as a player I thought was poised to surprise fans with a season that surpasses their expectations. (Had a reader asked, I also would have tabbed Lammert as the answer to the question, "What would be the result if Brad Buckman and Connor Atchley had a baby?" Seems to me like an obvious question, but apparently not.) In describing my high expectations for Lammert this year, I've been hesitant to use the word "breakout," if only because we're talking about a player who netted a 117.9 Offensive Rating as a sophomore last year after making 56% of his deuces and 34% of his treys.
Solid numbers, both of them, but Lammert is capable of better and more. On the one hand, Lammert's selectiveness in firing shots contributed to his scoring efficiency, but low usage robs a high scoring efficiency of much of its value. The big question with any player who flashes excellence in a more limited role is how much of it he can sustain upon assuming a more involved role. This Texas team doesn't need Lammert to be more assertive as a result of lacking options, but if we're talking about this team reaching its full, top-end potential, that involves consolidating more of our usage with our most productive and efficient offensive players. To think of it more concretely: if Lammert passes up an open three-pointer with an extra pass to an equally open Demarcus Holland, that's a net loss in terms of point expectancy.
Lammert's effectiveness owes to his being dangerous both in the paint and beyond the arc. He's a terrific garbage man in the paint, earning extra possessions and good looks at the rim by virtue of working hard for position, possessing good instincts, and being quick to the ball. Pack the paint to stop Taylor's penetration or double up Ridley, and Lammert's able to fill the vacant space as a three-point shooting threat. Add in the fact that he moves well for his size and isn't deterred by contact and you've got a really versatile player who can contribute value in a lot of ways, across a wide swath of the court. He's Connor Atchley, with less Clutch Juice and better rebounding.
Lammert is absolutely terrific when he's playing/shooting in rhythm -- check out how good he looks shooting without hesitation: his release is quick, he's squared to the hoop, and there's terrific wrist action on the release. Where Lammert has struggled a bit is when he gets inside his own head, leading to twinges of hesitation -- thinking instead of playing. Just enough to throw off his rhythm or result in a bad shot taken (or just as often, a good shot passed over). My optimistic assessment for this season, then, is a prediction that Lammert will outgrow some of those limitations, shedding some of that hesitation in favor of more assertive and confident play. He may see his efficiency dip slightly, but if it's a byproduct of increased usage, I suspect it'll be a trade off we like.
So, how about that other guy in this grouping? Professor Myles Turner. The young man can ball a little, we're told.
Young man can ball a lot, and he's going to be much more of an impact player than many 6-10 guys are as freshman. Like, say, fellow McD's five-star Cam Ridley, whose first-year campaign was as forgettable as his sophomore encore was memorable. That owes in part to Turner being a late bloomer -- that rare player who was a shooting guard all the way up until he shot up like a weed and all the sudden had the length of a center.
Turner has a nice shot that extends to 15-18 feet, giving him some of the same valuable versatility Lammert has, even but more so than with jumpers that extend the defense, I think we'll see that value manifested in Turner's ability to be quick and fluid going to the rim. Myles Turner is an interesting player developmentally, as he'll be aiming both to capture his present value (as a versatile former guard in a big body) at the same time as he develops his future value (as an impact power forward in the paint). I'll reserve further judgment until after the game on Friday, when I'll get my first opportunity to watch him live in the gym.
Not before closing with the point I originally made in his Player Profile about why I was so eager to add Myles Turner to this team. This kid competes. He is hungry for excellence. Rabid to win. Determined to reach his potential, fulfill his destiny.
Jonathan Holmes (Senior, 6-8, 240)
Jordan Barnett (Freshman, 6-6, 205)
A lot of words have been spent this offseason debating Jonathan Holmes' transition to the wing. Can he do it? How many minutes will he play there? Will there be enough minutes for our frontcourt if Holmes spends a lot of time playing underneath the bucket?
It remains to be seen how Holmes performs this year, of course, but the rest of the debate seems to me to be a product of a couple false premises -- the first being that this situation is fluid in a meaningful way. Make no mistake: Holmes playing the 3 is not an experiment. It is the default -- his baseline position, with deviations being situational (as when, say, Barnes wants to go small, run, and space the floor).
The second false premise confusing the discussion is, I think, a misconception about Holmes' minutes. Holmes is a high leverage, high impact player, and while he's developed into an all-around stat sheet-stuffing badass, for a variety of reasons he's not been a 30-minute-per-game player to this point in his career:
Holmes suffered a substantial injury as a sophomore just as he was starting to break out and he wasn't the same player down the stretch when he tried to return to help the team. The breakout came during his junior season a year ago, but even then -- and even as he finally got his fouling under control -- note that Holmes was only on the floor a little over half the game.
Holmes enters his senior season in the best shape of his life, which should help if his minutes rise, but I still don't expect his season average to eclipse more than 28 minutes per game. I do expect that a three-quarters of those minutes will be spent on the wing. And I think he'll handle it just fine, although I'll worry a bit if he opens the season ice cold, which could mess with his (and Barnes' head).
One person who's been able to watch the team a lot this summer and fall told me fans should expect to see good things. "He can be at least as good as DaMo was his last season here. The key for Jon, though, is to stay within the offense. It naturally flows to him a lot anyway, but he can get himself in trouble when he forces things."
Holmes' nominal back up on the wing will be true freshman Jordan Barnett, a 6'6", 205-pound Top 100 recruit who... wait, 205? That's the weight that Texas provided in its release of the preseason roster. If accurate, it means Barnett has put on a solid 20 pounds since the 185 he was playing at during his senior season in high school in Missouri. That's substantial, and it makes me a good bit more optimistic about Barnett's readiness to contribute this year.
Barnett is a smooth offensive player and as I noted in the mailbag, Walker's dismissal opens the door for him to play and contribute right away if (1) he's physically strong enough and (2) he's far enough along defensively. If Rick trusts him to play solid D and help on the boards, there's a nice little niche a player like Barnett could fill on this team. My initial hunch had been that Barnett may be a year away physically, but his official listing on the preseason roster has me rethinking, though I'll reserve final judgment until I see how his strength plays in person.
Next: A look at the "Guards Who Need To Provide Shooting" and the "Primary Ballhandlers," followed by this year's Minutes Matrix, in which we'll try to project how the 200 minutes per game will be divided amongst this deep roster.