Shaka Smart's first regular season in Austin is in the books, and on the whole it was a satisfying experience. We started slow and looked like a team struggling to adapt to a new coach, but rallied to win 6 of our final 7 non-conference games and wound up amassing a very solid resume by the time the season drew to a close.
- 20 wins playing the 3rd toughest schedule in the country as rated by RPI and toughest schedule in the country as rated by KenPom.
- Seven wins over KenPom Top 30 teams, including #5 UNC, #6 West Virginia (twice), and #7 Oklahoma.
- Additional Tier 1 victories in wins over KenPom #18 Iowa State, #35 Texas Tech, #48 Kansas State (twice), #23 Vanderbilt, and at #28 Baylor.
- An 11-7 ledger and 4th place finish in the nation's toughest conference.
That's a solid body of work, and it didn't come easily, with the brutal schedule and Cameron Ridley's unfortunate injury in December. Not that Shaka was working with a roster full of scrubs, but this group was challenged with adversity throughout the season and he impressively charted their course to success. Indeed, I think the aspects of Shaka's coaching job this season that I found most impressive were (1) his intuitive understanding of how to put a player in a position to succeed, and (2) his capacity to be nimble and make adjustments, whether within a game or from week to week as circumstances changed. Probably the clearest illustration of both of those traits could be seen in Prince Ibeh's season -- think about where he was in mid-December when Ridley went down versus where he was by mid-February.
As Texas prepares to tip off the post-season tomorrow morning against Baylor, let's set the stage a bit with a personnel review. We'll use the statistical profile of each player as a springboard to the discussion of season performance, in each case focusing on two statistics that capture the strongest (green) and most problematic (yellow) aspects of their performance. To keep the length at a manageable level, we'll divide the roster into two groups, starting first with Taylor, Lammert, Felix, Davis, Roach, and Ibeh.
Isaiah Taylor -- My love for this kid's game is no secret, and for the third straight season, Taylor was the team's most important player and season MVP. As impressive as Taylor often was across his first two seasons in Austin, he elevated his game to another level for his junior season encore. Zay led the team in minutes, scoring, assists, steals, and free throws, and most importantly, he did it all while bearing a heavier load than ever before and with greater economy. As a freshman and sophomore, Taylor's turnover rate approached 20% and his field goal percentage on two-point shots was around 40%. This year his turnover rate dropped all the way to 13%, and he upped his shooting on two-pointers to a much healthier 45%. His assist rate in Big 12 games was 35.6, tops in the conference, while his turnover rate was a phenomenal 10.6, 3rd best in the league. Although a case could have been made for either Monte Morris or Frank Alexander on the All-Big 12 First Team, the coaches got it right in awarding Taylor that spot.
Connor Lammert -- Shaka entrusted the senior big man with a vital position in the offense he runs and Lammert handled it well, turning in a rock solid season that produced a lot of value across a lot of minutes. He connected on nearly 35% of his team-high 133 attempts from beyond the arc, including 36% of his 87 attempts in Big 12 play. He logged the second-most minutes on the team, and like Taylor he was terrific at protecting the rock, with a 7.5% turnover rate in Big 12 play that ranked tops in the conference. If we're picking nits, there were times -- particularly across the front half of the schedule -- when we needed Connor to do more in terms of being a shooter that extends the defense, but all in all it was an impressive final season from a player we're going to miss next year.
Javan Felix -- The roller coaster ride is approaching its end, and what a fun final stretch it's been. Forced to shoulder too heavy a burden as a true freshman, followed by two years of up-and-down play as a hybrid point-shooting guard, often left fans feeling exasperated by the Louisiana product. At his best, he was a crafty scorer unafraid to create offense when everything around him had stalled -- his 26-point masterpiece in Waco as a freshman comes to mind -- but his defensive effort was often lacking and he was prone to struggle against teams that pressured the perimeter with length, coughing up far too many turnovers and forcing bad shots with one-on-one offense (his 8-turnover performance against OSU in Austin was the low point). This year, he played the third-most minutes on the team and put together a complete season of maximum value, giving us an important perimeter threat, dependable ball handling, patient team offense, consistent defensive effort, and -- like Taylor -- he finally overcame the turnover problems that had been plaguing him, including an 11.7% turnover rate in Big 12 games, fourth best in the conference. And his fearlessness delivered one of the most important wins of the season, when he knocked down the game winner against UNC as time expired. I have nothing but good things to say about Felix's senior season, but if we're going to catalogue a weakness, it would be that he lacks the length and closing speed to be disruptive to three-point shooters.
Eric Davis -- I was very encouraged to see Shaka Smart giving Davis substantial minutes in the season's opening games, and the freshman gunner showed why I was so bullish on his offensive game coming into this season. Davis is a pure scorer -- one of those players who was born to score buckets in bunches. (He would have been a treat to watch on a Tom Penders team, no?) From the get-go, Davis showed that he would not be shy about shooting the basketball, and he would finish the year having scored in double-digits in 13 games. He was in some ways the offensive piece Texas had been lacking since Sheldon McClendon's departure, and a key part of Texas' turnaround after falling to 1-2 in Big 12 play with a loss at TCU; Davis scored in double digits in 8 of the team's remaining games, winning 6 of them, including key victories over Iowa State, West Virginia (twice), Vanderbilt, and Oklahoma. All that said, Davis left plenty of room to improve, particularly with respect to scoring economy inside the arc. Davis found scoring on two-point shots to be much tougher against collegiate defenders, managing just 36% shooting on 100 shots. He was likewise deficient on defense, where his concentration was prone to lapse at times and his footwork will need to improve to stay in front of defenders.
Kerwin Roach -- He's a special player, and anyone who doubted that when he looked like an overmatched freshman in November was surely on board by the time the calendar turned to March and Snoop was playing like an All-Conference senior. Although Roach's brilliant athleticism was on display from the very beginning, it took a while for the game to slow down enough for Roach's substantial ability to start shining through. At the end of January, the light came on for Roach in a home win over TCU, when he scored a team-high 22 points, and from that point forward the freshman was absolutely outstanding. Across the team's final 12 games, Snoops averaged 10.3 points, 3.8 boards, 1.2 steals across 22 minutes per game, and he found his rhythm from the perimeter, to the tune of 9 of 20 shooting on three-pointers, to go alongside his blistering 29 of 44 on 2-point attempts. And to think, I've barely mentioned his play on the defensive end of the floor, where he was from the start of the season Texas' best on-ball defender. As promising a a freshman campaign as it was, Roach has plenty of growth in front of him, as his more-typical-of-a-freshman 21% turnover rate stood out as a key area for improvement. If he can cut that rate by a third, he'll be an All-Conference caliber player who will start to feel pressure to turn pro. I love everything about Roach's game, though, so let me close with this prediction: if Roach sticks around in Austin for four seasons, Texas snaps KU's regular season conference winning streak and returns to the Final Four.
Prince Ibeh -- Early on in the season, Prince Ibeh looked lost. I mean, he literally looked like he'd regressed from the last time we'd seen him six months ago. Nine games in, Ibeh had managed to average just 9 minutes of action per game, scored a grand total of 12 points, and blocked only 9 shots... while committing a staggering 30 personal fouls. Along with Ridley looking like he was on his way to an All-Conference season, part of what made his injury so distressing was how hapless Ibeh had looked to that point in the season. But to the credit of both Smart and Ibeh, the lanky, hyper-athletic senior stepped up and was a critical part of Texas' overachieving 11-7 mark in Big 12 play. Over the team's final 22 games post-Ridley injury, Ibeh upped his production dramatically, delivering value in a number of ways. To begin with, he got his fouling under control, averaging just 3.5 fouls per game, which allowed him to stay on the floor for 22 minutes per contest. And the more he was out there, the better he played, averaging 5.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 2.6 blocks per game. Just as important, after making just 3 of his first 21 free throw attempts on the year, he connected on 22 of his final 38 attempts, preventing opponents from attempting any prolonged Hack-a-Tree strategies. All told, it was an impressive and satisfying final chapter to Ibeh's interesting Longhorns career. He's a good kid who's worked really hard, and I'll be rooting for him to make a nice living from professional basketball.
In Part II, we'll conclude the regular season roster review with a look at the play of Tevin Mack, Demarcus Holland, Kendal Yancy, Shaquile Cleare, and Cameron Ridley.