That's six straight wins and counting for Rick Barnes' young squad, including four in a row over ranked opponents. Kansas became the surging Longhorns' latest victim, as Texas dominated the Jayhawks in front of a sellout crowd in Austin to improve their overall record to 17-4 and 6-2 in the Big 12, just a single game behind KU in the standings.
From the way they dominated Baylor in Waco, I thought Texas could win this game in Austin, but I hardly imagined another dominating performance over Kansas. But dominate they did, opening up a 27-17 lead that was already Kansas' largest deficit in Big 12 play this season, before extending that advantage all the way to 20 points early in the second half... on this play:
Wow. Just... wow. What a f*cking win.
Dominance, By The Numbers
If Cam Ridley's posterization of Joel Embiid captures the game in one play, the following numbers likewise tell the tale:
- Coming into the game, the Jayhawks sported the Big 12's best offense by a healthy margin, boasting an effective field goal percentage (formula) of 56% by making 57% of their 2-point attempts (3rd-best rate nationally) and 36% of their 3-pointers (99th). On Saturday, Texas held the Jayhawks to an effective field goal percentage of 38%, limiting KU to 25 of 65 shooting overall (38%) with dominant defense inside the arc (19 of 51 on 2-pointers, 37%).
- Kansas' monstrous frontcourt had the Jayhawks among the national leaders in block percentage both with respect to its own shots (opponents were blocking just 7.2% of KU's shots) and shots taken by its opponents (swatting 15.8% of opponents' attempts). On Saturday, Kansas managed to block just 4 of Texas' 46 attempts (7.1%), while Ibeh & Co. rejected 12 of the Jayhawks' 65 attempts (18.5%).
- For the fourth straight game, Texas was the superior team both with respect to protecting the rock (11 turnovers for Texas, versus 12 for KU) and getting to the free throw line (Texas racked up 45 attempts, against just 19 for the Jayhawks).
- Coming off back-to-back 24-point scoring performances, Kansas freshman phenom Andrew Wiggins managed just 7 points on 2-of-12 shooting and fouled out.
- Texas' offensive efficiency of 117.0 (points per 100 possessions) was the best rate that any team has managed against Kansas all season.
Dominance, By The Frontcourt
Heading into the match up, the general sentiment was one of cautious optimism that Texas' frontcourt was capable of avoiding being overwhelmed by Kansas' formidable frontcourt; there wasn't even any thought of discussing the potential for the Longhorns to push around the Jayhawks in the paint. But that's exactly what happened.
Texas' coaching staff deserves a huge amount of credit for how they prepared the Longhorns' big men for this game. It was immediately evident on Saturday that Texas' interior players not only had no intention of backing down against KU's impressive front line, but were eager to take it right to them. Ridley, Holmes, and Ibeh were the aggressors throughout the game, and the Jayhawks' big men -- used to overwhelming the opposition and having their way -- were too stunned to muster a counterpunch.
After the game, Bill Self told reporters, "I thought our big guys played soft," and he's right. Texas' big men bullied KU's frontcourt into submission on both ends of the floor.
Cam Ridley delivered a performance that undoubtedly grabbed the attention of NBA scouts. The hulking sophomore often succeeded in making the likely #1 pick in April's NBA Draft (Joel Embiid) look like the freshman that he is. At 7-0, 250 pounds, Embiid is a physical specimen, but he struggled to deal with Ridley's body strength, and after today I'm now curious how long Ridley's arms are, because he appears to play longer than the 6-9 at which he's officially listed. I have no idea what Ridley's collegiate or long-term ambitions are, but with each successive game it's becoming increasingly clear that he's likely to have the option to turn pro after this season. We can worry about that later; for now, another outstanding performance, delivered against the most challenging opposition yet: 23 minutes, 9 points on 3-of-7 shooting (3-6 FTs), 10 boards, 4 blocks, 1 steal, and just 2 turnovers.
This is a big game for Cam Ridley, obviously, but the odds are we won't get to the finish line ahead without some strong minutes from Prince Ibeh, as well. That doesn't mean a game-of-his-life breakout performance, but it does mean playing 15 productive minutes without Dexter Pittman-like fouling. When he's able to manage strong/smart play, Ibeh's talent easily takes care of the productive part.
Objective: complete. Ibeh was whistled just three times during the game, which allowed him to deliver 17 important minutes against the Jayhawks. Although he scored just 2 points, the freakishly athletic center leaped around the paint swatting at shots like a giraffe mated with a kangaroo, serving as an omnipresent nuisance/deterrent to any KU player attempting to score within 8 feet of the basket.
And then there's Jonathan Holmes. If we were to go back to just before the start of the season, his performance through 21 games would be, what, his 95th percentile projection? 99th percentile? There simply wasn't any indication that this kind of leap forward was coming, but Holmes has a case for being the most valuable player in the Big 12, and he was at his absolute best today against Kansas.
The junior forward turned in 30 brilliant minutes on Saturday, filling it up with 22 points on 6-of-13 shooting (1-for-2 3PFG) and a stellar 9-for-10 from the line, coupled with 4 boards, 3 blocks, 3 steals, and 0 turnovers. And just a single foul (although it was an avoidable one).
Rounding out the frontcourt, I was pleased with what we got from Connor Lammert today, as well. This was a game in which he could have gotten a little bit lost, but for the most part (his outside shot selection being the notable exception) he gave us precisely the kind of value out of his minutes that we need from him: some additional length and shot blocking on defense, solid rebounding, and the ability to score around the rim (7 points on 3-for-3 shooting in the paint).
Dominance, By The Backcourt
This Isaiah Taylor fellow is skilled at basketball, yes? Yes.
What we've seen from Taylor the last two games is what was animating my gushing profile of the point guard back in May of last year, when I wrote:
Dynamic point guards with charisma, competitive drive, and a fearless attitude are extraordinarily valuable. And at the collegiate level, they needn't be as freaky as TJ Ford to have a similarly substantial impact.
Taylor may not be quite as freaky as TJ Ford, but his impact on the team? The 17-4, 6-2, winners-of-four-in-a-row-over-ranked-opponents team? It would be fair to say his impact on this team has been... substantial.
Try this on for size: playing against a roster that includes three potential lottery picks in Embiid, Wiggins, and Wayne Selden, it was Isaiah Taylor who Bill Self singled out in his post-game remarks: "I thought Taylor was the best player in the game today."
As he's prone to do at his best, Taylor made the Jayhawks look like they were wearing leaden shoes. Unlike Scott Drew, Bill Self can coach defense, but his squad proved to be no more capable of containing Taylor than were the Bears last week in Waco. Had he not sat for 4 minutes after tweaking his ankle (or knee? I couldn't tell watching in the Erwin Center), Taylor likely would have played all 40 minutes, and why not? He devastated Kansas with his relentless attacking, utilizing his elite quickness, terrific body control, and uncanny scoring touch from 10-feet and in to rack up a game-high 23 points on 6-of-12 shooting (1-for-2 3PFG), including a season-best 8-for-8 from the charity stripe.
Taylor is a special basketball player, a natural leader, a fearless competitor, and a true joy to watch.
This really was a great team win, though, and Taylor wasn't the only Longhorn in the backcourt to play great basketball today. It's impossible not to appreciate and love what Demarcus Holland brought to the floor against Kansas this afternoon: from his tenacious and uncompromising defense that helped make Wiggins a frustrated non-factor in the game, to his intelligence and effort that enabled him to notch a game-high 11 rebounds, his impact was felt all over the court today.
I thought Barnes was wise in limiting Javan Felix to 18 minutes against Kansas, and the sophomore showed both (i) why more minutes would have been ill-advised (Texas became a jump shooting offense instead of a rim-attacking one when Felix took over the point while Taylor was on the bench injured), and (ii) when and how he could provide valuable minutes (assisting with strong work against Kansas' full-court press, making 7-of-8 free throws down the stretch).
Finally, a hat tip to Damarcus Croaker, who delivered 14 subtly strong minutes off the bench. We wanted him on the floor to provide an outside shooting threat and athleticism on perimeter defense and on the glass. Croaker responded well to the challenge, was alert and consistent on defense, buried a big three pointer in the first half, grabbed a pair of defensive boards, and made an absolutely beautiful post-entry pass that led to Ridley's thundersauce dunk over Embiid.
Dominance, On The Sidelines
To Bill Self's post-game comments, one more time: "They had us on our heels the whole game. They were more prepared to play than we were."
A share of the credit for today's outstanding win goes to Rick Barnes, who set the tone for the team that took it to Kansas on the court today. Asked what his coach said to his team during halftime, Isaiah Taylor told reporters, "He told us to keep our foot on their throat and not let up." And that's exactly what Texas did: the Longhorns didn't "survive" or "keep up with" Kansas; they beat the Jayhawks. Decisively.
Along with instilling the proper confidence and attitude in the team, Barnes and his staff once again employed a sound and thoughtful game plan. Much as I suggested in the preview, Barnes concentrated his resources on defending the rim while keeping the Jayhawks off balance with a healthy rotation of zone and man looks. As has been the norm all season long, Barnes once again did a great job leveraging his assets to create transition offense. And I thought Barnes did a terrific job with his rotation today, strategically distributing minutes and line ups.
This team is as hot as any in the country right now, and just as there was no separating Barnes from the dysfunction that defined last season, there is no separating Texas' head coach from the high-performing success of this one. Prior to the season, Texas was widely considered an underdog to make the NCAA Tournament. Twenty-one games into it, the Longhorns are in contention for a protected seed.
The challenge for Barnes and his staff now is to continue to push the right buttons down the stretch to get this team to continue developing, improving, and staying hungry, and to do so without squashing what's made them successful to date. That's a fine line to walk, and one Barnes has struggled with in the past (most notably, in 2010), but every indication seems to be that he's learned from his experiences with past teams -- both good and bad. Just like players, coaches evolve and mature with time and experience, and right now it looks like the failings of last year have served as a catalyst to a productive evolution in Barnes' coaching acumen.
We'll see how things go from here, but damn is this team making it fun so far. Coupled with OU's loss to Iowa State, today's win elevates Texas into sole possession of second place in the Big 12 standings, a game back of the Jayhawks. With a lead in the standings and the encore to be played in Lawrence, KU remains a solid favorite to take home the title, but particularly after the way this young Texas team dominated its last two opponents, the Longhorns have asserted themselves as legitimate contenders for the throne.
Texas' final 10 games are split between 4 at home and 6 on the road, with a home-road pair to play against TCU; rematches against Oklahoma State, West Virginia, and Baylor to come in Austin; and encores with Kansas State, Iowa State, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech on the road. Protecting home court and sweeping TCU would get Texas to the Big 12 Tournament with a 11-7 conference record, 22-9 overall. That would make the regular season a terrific success, but won't unseat Kansas atop the standings. (I'm projecting Texas will need to finish 14-4 or better, with a second win over KU in Lawrence, to have a good shot at nabbing at least a share of the title.)
There's a lot of basketball left to be played, but one thing's for sure: it's damn fun to talk about Texas hoops again.