As UT Basketball reached the halfway point of its surprising conference season, I e-mailed the BON authors to see if anyone wanted to participate in a Roundball Roundtable. The answers quickly came pouring in--yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes. With five other authors on board, I sent out a list of questions and simply let the magic happen. That's Blogging 101, y'all.
The end result was a lively, spirited, and lengthy roundtable that comprehensively discussed and analyzed a host of key issues related to UT Basketball. In fact, let's get right into it.
1) With the Super Bowl and National Signing Day in the rearview mirror, a lot of fans will now turn their attention to College Basketball. For those who haven't been watching hoops, how would you describe this team and this season in 100 words or less?
Curry.shoff: I'd say this team is defined by mental toughness. Early games like Temple and North Carolina were good indications that they had made significant strides over the course of a year. There is a nickname floating around where people are calling this team the "Lunch Pail Longhorns." I like that. This is the best "team" I've seen as Longhorn in the last five years.
Jeff Haley: I like Curry's comment about toughness. I would add that this team has gotten back to playing the game the way Rick Barnes wants to play. Setting aside the K-State loss, this team hasn't turned the ball over very much, and crashes the glass they way we are used to in Austin. They are also one of the best defensive teams in the conference. You can win a lot of games with that combination.
Michael H. Pelech: Building on the toughness theme, I'd say this team (and heavy emphasis on the word team) is fearless. Isaiah Taylor is relentless in attacking the basket, and always plays with a fire in his gut. Cam Ridley plays with the same steadiness each game, and never looks frazzled. And Jon Holmes is the guy you'd take to an alley fight.
Peter Bean: Part of the answer is in the question: they're a team, and it shows up in a lot of obvious ways. The other part of the answer is that there's more talent on this roster than a lot of people realize. Even the players without NBA potential are or project to be strong collegiate players. Barnes hasn't always done a great job filling out the back end of his scholarship chart, but there are no wasted spots on this year's roster. As for the season itself, you don't have to have watched to know that this extremely young team is far exceeding expectations, but you do have to have been watching to know just how much fun it's been to watch this team work and develop together. And, yes, win together.
Blake Borron (GoHornsGo90): Above all, this team plays hard. Playing hard can take you a long way. But many people confuse playing "hard" with playing with "urgency." They're two wholly different concepts. One is a desire to win, while the other is flat refusal to lose without surrendering a part of yourself in the process. Jonathan Holmes plays with "urgency" on both ends of the court. Isaiah Taylor plays with "urgency" on both ends of the court. Unsurprisingly, they're our two best and most valuable players (Ridley deserves recognition here as well). Unfortunately, Holmes is the expectation and Taylor the exception in that urgency generally comes with experience...something this team lacks more than almost any other in the nation. When the entire team plays with urgency (think 2011 in Lawrence), great things happen. I expect that to happen next season.
txtwstr7: Since Blake went way over 100 words, I'll keep mine short. I would describe this team and this season as a movie: "Dr. Strangehorns: How I Learned to Forget About Ioannis Papapetrou and Enjoy the Ride."
2) Before the season, Texas was picked to finish 8th in the Big 12, ahead of only TCU and Texas Tech. Was this ranking simply a reflection of the strength of the conference, or did the prognosticators miss something about this Texas team?
Curry.shoff: I think a lot of people expected them to come out and s**t the bed because of all of the attrition last season, and nobody really considered this team to be as talented as the competition they would face. The addition of Isaiah Taylor has been crucial to this team's success, as well as the development of big man Cameron Ridley. I am not sure if this is what Rick Barnes plan was for this season, but kudos to him for going out and finding tough, athletic freshman who work hard and play together as a team. But, to answer your question, I think the ranking was simply based on the expectation of failure, something we've become accustomed to on the forty acres.
Jeff Haley: Texas finished seventh last year, and then lost its four best players. Eighth place doesn't seem so far-fetched. Everyone, including me, was predicting trouble for Texas. (Well, everyone but Dan Hanner, who thought that the Horns had a chance to do OK)
In retrospect, I think it is pretty clear that we all did miss something. (A lot of things, actually.) One thing we clearly all missed how much an attitude adjustment would fix the Texas D. Down the stretch in the Big 12 last season, the Texas defense was just bad - there is no other way to say it.
Michael H. Pelech: I think the ranking was largely a reflection of Rick Barnes. Bringing a team devoid of a top-level scorer, the baggage of being that a coach that doesn't develop talent, and a team that had been on a multi-year decline had the makings for a team that couldn't escape the funk. But not many predicted Cam Ridley would discover how to control his body, and fewer predicted the impact Isaiah Taylor would have on this team.
Peter Bean: The pre-season expectations for this team were clearly off the mark, but on what basis would anybody have predicted this team's success? Rick Barnes lost his top four scorers from a dysfunctional, sub-.500 team, his lone blue chip prospect (Ridley) had an alarmingly impotent freshman season, and the recruiting experts were asleep at the wheel on Isaiah Taylor. And to put it further in perspective, I was drooling over Taylor - going so far as to use as a headline for his player profile, "Can Isaiah Taylor Save Texas Basketball?" - and I'm an optimist by nature, and I still had trouble projecting this team as better than 8-10 or 9-9 in conference. The leap from last year to what we're seeing this year has been too big, with too few indicators that it was coming: we all missed it, but that doesn't mean it was visible.
Blake Borron (GoHornsGo90): I think it's pretty fair to say any prognosticator not directly related to Texas basketball that predicted this team to have this level of success would have been unilaterally mocked. I mean, Peter went out on a big enough limb when he correctly predicted how good Isaiah Taylor would be. Hard to imagine any non-UT fans giving this team that level of thought in the preseason.
txtwstr7: In hindsight, this question was poorly written. As everyone has pointed out, the question phrased the inaccuracy of the preseason ranking as either a reflection of the strength of the conference or the prognosticators missing something about Texas. Which both: 1) isn't really fair and 2) wasn't my intent. Instead, I wanted to explore the nature of how and why no one (besides Dan Hanner) saw this coming. Which everyone did in their answers. So, basically, that was a series of good answers to a bad question. My bad.
3) Clearly, Isaiah Taylor has been a revelation this year. However, his recent injuries-along with the offensive limitations of Jevan Felix and Demarcus Holland-have spotlighted a need for Texas to further utilize backcourt depth, scoring, and shooting. PB recently discussed this in TBR 7.4, but what is your analysis of whether or not Demarcus Croaker, Martez Walker, or Kendall Yancy can step up and fill that role?
Curry.shoff: I think Yancy is the name to watch in this group. I like having Walker out on the court but his scrappiness is much more comparable to Holland last season than and his ceiling is low. He fights hard for rebounds and always seems to be in the right place at the right time. He has an ugly shot, but he can sometimes get it going (see: Rice). Croaker is the name that scares me the most. Not because he isn't talented enough, but I'm worried that there are just too many factors in play that could lead to an early exit. His girlfriend just had a child in Florida, and he had a small Twitter meltdown about it. He seems very frustrated with the lack of playing time as well, but he needs to become a better defender before Barnes trust him enough to leave him on the court for an extended period.
Jeff Haley: This team struggles to hit the outside shot, but then again just about every team struggles with something. While I know people like to bag on Javan Felix the play of Croaker, Walker, and Yancy hasn't been good enough yet to push Felix out of the line up. So much of Felix's value is tied up in his ability to take care of the ball, and that has really helped this young team thrive this year.
Over time, some of the three freshman will start to take minutes away from Felix, but that time may not come until next year.
I love Holland, and want him playing as much as possible. He can't shoot, but he is a strong open-court player who helps the offense in transition, and is so important to this team's defense. When Rick Barnes extended an offer to him, there were people questioning if Holland was a high-major player. Physically and mentally, he certainly seems to be a high-major player; all that needs to catch up is the skill-set.
Michael H. Pelech: From the moment he committed, I had high hopes for Croaker. Guys with good size, a smooth stroke from the outside, and the ability to jump through the roof should find the floor as often as possible to me. As Curry mentioned, he has a lot on his plate with becoming a father even if he wasn't the focus of a classic Rick Barnes bench-as-a-teacher, so I'm concerned how much an impact he can have in the short term. I like Walker's desire to crash the rebounds and willingness to get the ball inside, but boy is he raw. And Yancy is a bulldog, and I love him spelling Holland as a defense pain-in-the-backside. Unfortunately, none of the troika have put together a string of games to eat Felix's minutes. Until then, I can live with Felix shouldering some offensive load if he just stops taking such a high percentage of his team's shots when he's on the floor. His jumper is greatly improved, and he has really taken care of the ball when not needing to shoulder the PG burden.
Peter Bean: Barnes seems to have good years and bad years with regards to managing playing time/roles, but I've been thoroughly pleased with the way he's brought this group along. First of all, I think Jeff is exactly right with respect to Felix: while some are understandably eager for the players with higher ceilings/fewer limitations to gobble up more of his minutes, the fact of the matter is that Felix delivers more value than the freshmen are capable of providing... right now. That being said, neither is Barnes burying anyone on the bench: Croaker, Walker, and Yancy are being brought along across a prudent and productive schedule that is allowing them to develop the consistency they're going to need to surpass Felix in actual value, as opposed to long-term potential. To answer the question, though, it isn't going to be Yancy, and Walker looks to me like a player who's going to quietly develop for two years and then surprise Texas fans with a breakout junior campaign. Walker can and will provide some value in limited minutes, but if any of the three is going to step up and into a bigger role this year, it's Croaker. You may recall that this was about the time during Sheldon McClellan's freshman season when he started to translate his considerable talent into more on-court production, and we could see a similar late-season surge from Croaker. I'm a bit skeptical on that front, though: we're running an offense that is the antithesis of what Croaker is used to playing - he's being asked to play a defined role within a structured team approach, rather than create offense on his own - and there's a visible adjustment phase underway. He's doing fine on-the-job learning, but it's a work-in-progress, it isn't what he's used to, and while it's better for the team as a whole, it isn't the optimal development schedule in terms of maximizing Croaker's individual contributions as a freshman. If Tom Penders were coaching this team, Croaker would be averaging 15 points per game. But Texas would be 12-11, so, you take what you can get, right?
Blake Borron (GoHornsGo90): Anybody who follows me on Twitter knows I'm an unabashed Damarcus Croaker fan. He's a quality shooter with picture-perfect form (meaning when his confidence catches up, he should be lights out), and he's probably the best athlete that's ever played under Rick Barnes. Combine that with an actual willingness on the defensive end that a lot of pure scorers in HS don't bring to the collegiate level, and he's just the long-term antidote a very poor shooting, small, and not-particularly-dynamic Taylor/Felix/Holland starting backcourt needs.
Unfortunately, he likely wasn't given enough time in the non-conference or in blowouts to gather the experience and confidence required to make a big impact this season. Hopefully the "Barnes trust bat signal" starts flashing for him next year, like it obviously has for both Holland and Felix this season. As Curry and Michael already mentioned, though, there is reasonable cause for concern. I just hope he sticks it out for the long haul - he could have a Gary Harris type impact on this team in the future, and would be an excellent running mate to complement the relentless attack-the-basket nature of Taylor.
txtwstr7: Good stuff, everyone. I think that pretty much covers it. Jeff, you want to push back against anything?
Jeff Haley: Croaker the best athlete to play for Barnes? I think Kris Clack would like to have a word with you, Blake. Although I agree that I think he will be a really tough player at some point.
4) Outside of Isaiah Taylor, the other big surprises for this team have been the development of Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley. How would you describe their improvements and how these improvements relate to what Texas wants to do at both ends of the floor?
Curry.shoff: Ridley's improvement has been nothing short of miraculous, and Jonathan Holmes' leadership cannot be undervalued. I think Ridley's development as an interior player has been really important for Texas this season. Entry passes in the Longhorns' half-court offense have come few and far between, but when Ridley gets the ball, it turns into the Cam show. His second chance buckets have also been an asset for this team and you are starting to see why experts saw him as five-star recruit in high school. As for Jonathan, at the end of last season when it was clear who was leaving and who would not (excluding Papi), the idea of having a go to scorer became a serious concern. Holmes has filled that role beautifully. His baseline jumper is the closest sure thing to the "kick out three" that the Longhorns have had this season.
Jeff Haley: I have always had high hopes for Holmes. His season was messed up last year by injury (knock on wood for this year), but he has shown flashes since he was a freshman.
Holmes is skilled, and always has been. It is good to see his shot is falling this year, after letting him down some the last two seasons. And the guy plays hard. For a big guy, that is important. Playing hard is worth a few extra points a game in offensive rebounds and loose balls.
Speaking of playing hard, Cameron Ridley has 40 offensive rebound putbacks this year, which turns out to be some of Texas' best offense. He also runs the court about as well as anyone that large can be expected to. He just looks so much more comfortable this season. Being comfortable matters a lot for a big guy.
Michael H. Pelech: I'm probably the leader of Jon Holmes fan club. Third time was the charm on predicting a breakout season for the guy, and I'm happy to see it finally coming together for him. He plays with the same stones that J'Covan Brown played with, and that will always endear a player to me. He's a quality all around player that has the jump shot Damion James always wanted. And for me, the biggest thing with Cam is that he finally looks to be in control of his body. Last year he just flailed around a ton, and never harnessed that 270 lb. locomotive he calls a body. This year, he's in control and always has his feet underneath him.
Peter Bean: Jonathan Holmes was quietly breaking out last year prior to injuring his wrist, and while even that didn't foretell the huge step forward he's taken this year, there were encouraging signs that he was developing a strong overall game. Ridley's breakout sophomore season has been interesting: on the one hand, we're seeing precisely the kind of player that he projected to be based on his high school profile; on the other hand, however, Ridley's freshman season was so forgettable that there was much more concern that he was a potential bust than primed for a big-time sophomore encore. Tip your cap to Todd Wright, who's done a great job improving Ridley's agility and stamina, but the bulk of the credit goes to the big fella himself. I noted in my profile of Ridley that one of the things I found most encouraging about him as a prospect was his demonstrated work ethic and desire to improve. He clearly worked his ass off this offseason, and it shows, in every phase of the game: defense, rebounding, free throw shooting, scoring in the paint. It's been terrifically fun and gratifying to watch.
Blake Borron (GoHornsGo90): Ridley's improvement has been miraculous in two departments: stamina and free throw shooting. His ability to run the pipe for his size is pretty much unparalleled in college basketball, and after barely being able to make it through a four-minute period last season, he really never looks that winded this year. He's also been much better about not fouling on both sides of the ball, after being in foul trouble seemingly every game in 2013. He still needs to figure out how to finish strong at the basket when he isn't close enough to dunk, but that progression should come soon enough.
I love Michael's comparison of Holmes' attitude to that of the incomparably fearless J'Covan Brown. The guy has literally left his teeth on the court for this team. I liken his career path to Damion James'. Both guys are a tad undersized for the college 4-spot, came in as scrappy inside players, and improved their skill levels while simultaneously moving farther and farther away from the hoop. Holmes is the heart and soul of this team, and is a testament to just how much of an impact a talented, experienced player will almost inevitably make in college basketball if he sticks around. He should be a star next year.
txtwstr7: Next time, I don't want to go last, but I do have something to add. While the question involved contextualizing the basketball developments of Holmes and Ridley, I have to comment on Holmes' burgeoning leadership role for this team. Blake's statement that Holmes is the "heart and soul of this team" is supported by this recent article, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I mean, how great is this quote?
"I have to help guys when they're not getting it," said Holmes "I have to look out for other people and not just myself."
5) What adjustments do you expect Big 12 coaches to make against Texas in the second half of the conference season?
Curry.shoff: I'm not going to pretend like I am a basketball expert, but I would expect every coach to show their players the Kansas State film. Keep the Longhorns off of the offensive boards, force turnovers, and make Texas shoot the ball from outside. Three pointers are the Longhorns' kryptonite. That and inbounds plays.
Jeff Haley: If I were advising a team facing Texas, I would advise them to pack the paint defensively as much as possible. Texas is a team that needs dribble penetration to thrive on offense; there just aren't that many shooters out there. And when the shot goes up, you have to figure out how to keep Ridley and Holmes off the offensive glass. It is easy for me to say that you better box these guys out, but it isn't so easy to actually do it.
Michael H. Pelech: I figure we'll see plenty of gameplans similar to what TCU ran out. The key to stopping Texas is stopping Isaiah Taylor's penetration. And because they don't make players that can stay in front of Taylor, and his floater is so effective, you have to bring your rim protectors a little further out. I expect plenty of zone where the second level of defense shows very hard on Taylor penetration. Holmes and Ridley wouldn't mind seeing that gameplan, I assume.
Peter Bean: A lot will depend on the health status of Jonathan Holmes; we're limited in a number of important ways when he isn't on the floor. Assuming he does miss an extended period of time, it will be that much easier for opposing Big 12 coaches to concentrate their resources on keeping Ridley out of easy scoring position in the paint and containing Isaiah Taylor's dribble penetration. I think everyone else has properly captured the optimal approach for slowing down the Texas offense, so I won't pile on other than to say that I do think this team has better shooters than their performance to date would suggest. I don't know whether that's something we'll actually see before this season ends, but if this team is going to do more than qualify for the NCAA Tournament with a middle-ish seed, it likely will be in part due to better outside shooting. Croaker and Walker can both stroke it, and it was nice to see Connor Lammert confidently stroke a couple buckets from beyond the arc against Kansas State. We've been getting by riding Holmes' coattails, but if that were suddenly to be removed from the equation, the importance of one or more of his teammates stepping up and into that void will only further elevate.
Blake Borron (GoHornsGo90): Regardless of whether it's through a 2-3 zone or a sagging man-to-man, teams will play as far off of Taylor and Holland as they possibly can. They'll also continue to shade Holland - and Croaker, to a lesser extent - to his left hand, forcing him to either shoot or drive left (two things he obviously doesn't want to do). The packed-in defense also serves to limit paint touches for Ridley.
Fortunately, against a zone, Texas has two excellent guys in Holmes and Lammert who can carve up the defense from the hole of the 2-3. But a team that plays a sagging man defense like Kansas State is going to give the Longhorns fits every time. It's shown in both games with the Wildcats this season.
6) Rick Barnes has done a fantastic job getting this team to exceed all expectations, avoid bad losses, and maximize its potential. However, with a series of brutal road games on the horizon, this team will likely experience some significant setbacks and turbulence. What advice would you give to Rick Barnes over how to push the buttons of this team for the remainder of the season?
Curry.shoff: I am not one to give coaching advice, but I would implore Rick to YouTube search "successful inbounds plays" and run whatever he finds in the results.
Jeff Haley: That is funny, Curry, because I have always felt that Barnes does pretty well with in-bounds plays. But they sure have had some troubles at times this year.
I do occasionally give coaching advice. My advice to Rick Barnes would be the advice I would give to many basketball coaches. It is, "stop shooting mid-range jump shots." Only 46 teams in D-I have a higher percentage of their shots logged as two point jump shots than the Texas Longhorns. These are bad shots for just about everyone on the planet not named Kevin Durant, and even KD is better served when he can get to the hoop or shoot a three. There are teams that have figured this out. You don't have to take these shots until the shot clock is winding down; no one is making you do it.
Michael H. Pelech: Be aware of when to poke their pride, and when to pick them up. I won't pretend to know this team's pulse as well Barnes, but I know there's a time to get your team swinging and a time to pull them in. This team certainly has a different mental make-up than the prior iteration, so pushing them a little harder seems like it would be effective at times.
Peter Bean: Rick, I really like the way you're implementing specific defensive game plans against opponents, and hope that you continue to be aggressive in looking for edges along the margins - they add up and make a difference. On offense, you've been on the same page with me in terms of understanding this group's strengths and what to emphasize to get the most out of them. I've also been in agreement with the way that you've managed the personnel so far this year, but since that's been an area where your teams have sometimes faltered down the stretch, I hope that you continue managing each of these individuals with an eye towards putting them in a position to succeed. There's a time and place to break a team down, and that's before you build it back up. Keep building these guys up; it's working.
Blake Borron (GoHornsGo90): What would I do if I were Rick Barnes? This is about as easy a situation as you'll ever find to answer that question. Just. Stay. Optimistic. Barnes' biggest weakness over the past few years has been his ability to relapse into his own negativity, then relentlessly project that onto his players.
He needs to continue to enjoy the season like he has so far, and not overly adjust his expectations...that'll just put more pressure on him, and his players because of it. He began over-coaching the 2009-10 team around the start of conference season, and fell into the exact same trap roughly 2/3 of the way through the following season. Just have fun Rick!
7) What concluding thoughts do you have about this team, this current season, or Rick Barnes?
Curry.shoff: Watch out for 2015.
Jeff Haley: I agree with Curry. This team is either one star player away, or just a gradual maturation process away, from being a threat to Kansas in the Big 12 once again.
Michael H. Pelech: This season has been a hell of a ride. While not quite like the 2008 football team, its always extra special when a group you expect little of comes out and knocks some skulls by exemplifying all the cliché properties people stick on teams: toughness, unity, and passion.
Peter Bean: First of all, I'm again with Jeff: I've never understood the gripes about Barnes' ability to draw up inbound plays. I've always thought it one of his strongest skills, but I can imagine how a fan would notice every failed inbounds play without really noticing all the ones that work great. And on that note, for a coach who Texas fans were expecting to lose his job following a challenging rebuilding season, Barnes and his staff have blown me away with how exceptionally well they've developed this young group. For the sake of all involved, I hope it lasts and this is the beginning of a hugely successful golden age of Barnes' career, but whatever happens down the road, this much we know: this shocking turnaround has made this season the most fun and engaging in years. For those of us who live and die with the hoops team, it's been a true treat to enjoy.
Blake Borron (GoHornsGo90): With apologies to Jeff and Peter, I firmly believe Barnes is an atrocious inbounds coach. It's endemic. When Peter says "notice every failed inbounds play..." well, that's not good. There shouldn't be "failed" halfcourt inbounds plays. Getting the ball in should ALWAYS be the top objective. And almost all teams will give you the lob past midcourt. His inability to draw up fullcourt pressure inbounds plays has - just this year - nearly cost the team multiple games that should have never been close.
The Arizona fiasco in 2011 was just one small example among many of terrible inbounds plays that just don't make a lot of since conceptually. I will say his one strong suit in this regard is end-of-game inbounds plays when his team needs a bucket. But those are an extremely small part of the whole. Essentially game-winning kicks for football teams.
I digress though...onto the final thoughts. There aren't any seniors on this team. There aren't any real threats to go pro. This isn't a championship team. And it can only be better next season. Enjoy this year, finish strong, and get everybody (including Myles Turner!) psyched for a Final Four run next year.
Oh. And for God's sake, give the Croaker/Yancy/Walker troika some more run!
Jeff Haley: For what it is worth, the single worst half-court in-bounds play that I have seen in the last 5 years to win a game was bungled by a team coached by Brad Stevens. It was a doozy. For those that don't remember it here it is.
txtwstr7: Yeah, so we're not going to end a 5,000 word roundtable by arguing over inbounds plays. So I'm going to change the topic and wrap things up.
I'm a little surprised that several people answered this question by primarily fixating on *next* season. While I think its natural to start drooling over the bright future for next year's team, I think the current team has earned the right to finish writing their own narrative. More than anything else, this team appears completely disinterested in adhering to the ceilings and labels placed on them by others. And I'm as guilty as anyone. I mean, I spent the entire first half of the season sending mopey text messages about Ioannis Papapetrou and predicting a flurry of conference losses to Kansas, Baylor, Iowa State, and Oklahoma State. Naturally, Texas has gone 4-1 against those teams and has a legitimate shot of finishing an unfathomable 12-6 in conference play.
I'm not going to make any outlandish predictions, but I do firmly believe this team will separate itself from recent Texas teams in one clear way: whenever and however this season ends, it will end on their own terms. They will play aggressive, they will play physical, and they will play as a team. That's their identity, and it's what they're going to do. In fact, the only label that I'm going to give them for the rest of the season is pretty simple: they are Texas Longhorns.