These are difficult times for Longhorn fans. The football, basketball, and baseball programs are struggling. While I cannot comment intelligently on either football or baseball, I feel comfortable writing about the road ahead for Rick Barnes' basketball program, and how the Texas Longhorns basketball team can (and likely will) improve.
Respectability is closer than you may think for the Texas basketball team. You can argue, "respectability isn't good enough," fine, but that is besides the point. It seems better to face facts, and try to see a path to improvement; this is a reasonable alternative to shaking your fist at the sky and screaming "BARNES!!"
First, let's define what I mean by having a respectable season. A respectable season would be a finish in the top half of the Big 12 and an NCAA tournament berth.
Now, before you immediately start bombarding me with your "not our standard" talk, keep in mind that respectability isn't the ultimate goal. It is simply the first step on a longer path. You eat an elephant one bite at a time.
Respectability is something that should be able to happen quickly. I am here to tell you how.
Let's start off by recapping a bit of necessarily information. Coming into conference play in 2013, the Texas Longhorns looked at the time like a team with a great defense and a poor but improving offense. A team like that ought to be able to win more than half of its conference games. But the Longhorns did not. Texas ended up continuing as an awful offensive team, with the added problem that the Longhorns were also below league average on defense during the Big 12 season.
For Texas, respectability seems most obtainable with the following approach. Become one of the best defenses in the Big 12, while achieving something near league average success on offense. Simply by achieving that profile, Texas will have a successful season.
Don't believe me? Exhibit A for the outstanding defense / middle-of-the-pack offense model is the 2013 Oklahoma State Cowboys. OSU was second to Kansas in points per possession defense during Big 12 play, but only fifth in the conference in points per possession offense.
Let's take a look and see what will be needed for this to happen.
Becoming an average offense
The problems of the Texas offense during the 2012-2013 season are easy to summarize. The Longhorns couldn't shoot, they turned the ball over too much, and they couldn't attack the basket. It is a tough combination.
Shooting. There isn't a quick fix for the shooting problems; it will take adding players who can make open shots into the program. But even a small improvement here would help. Texas could benefit by going from being horrible to just very bad shooting the ball.
Much of Texas' shooting trouble came from an unlikely source, Sheldon McClellan. I am not going to argue that the loss of McClellan from the Texas offense is a good thing. Overall, he was one of Texas' most productive offensive players, even if that productivity wasn't anything special. But on the shooting front, there is no other way to say it -- Sheldon McClellan had an awful season shooting the ball. Some of this may have been mechanical (caution: I am not exactly a jump shot doctor). Some of it could have simply been bad luck. And some of McClellan's trouble surely stemmed from the types of shots he was getting in the Texas offense. McClellan is not the sort of player who excels running off of screens, quickly setting his feet, and firing a quick three over a closing defender. McClellan is not J'Covan Brown.
So while the loss of McClellan is a net negative, redistributing the 121 looks he got from three last season (making only 27 percent), and the 168 mid-range shots (where he shot 33 percent), will likely lead to modest shooting percentage improvements for the team.
If nothing else, the most reassuring thing is that the shooting can hardly get any worse.
Turnovers. Turnovers were a major problem for Texas in the early part of the year. With Freshmen Javan Felix and Demarcus Holland doing so much of the ball handling, it isn't surprising that Rick Barnes' team had some early season struggles hanging on to the ball. Things got better as the season wore on, and by the start of conference play turnovers had only become a minor weakness.
Historically, Rick Barnes' teams have excelled at taking care of the basketball. Getting back to that will go a long way towards making the Texas offense good enough for a decent season.
The turnover problems went beyond some initially shaky play by Texas' freshman guards. Freshman center Cameron Ridley also had a lot of early troubles wasting possessions. Ridley's turnovers were of two varieties. Early in the year, he had trouble picking up offensive fouls. He also frequently mishandled the ball in the low post.
Early in the season, Texas focused heavily on getting the ball inside to Ridley, and the offense suffered as a result. As Texas transitioned to a more guard-focused attack, Ridley's inexperience became less of an issue, as he was involved in fewer possessions.
Getting better inside. During the 2011-2012 season, a somewhat undersized Texas team managed to attempt 35 percent of their field goal attempts at the rim. In the 2012-2013 season, a substantially larger Texas squad only attempted 31 percent of their field goal attempts at the rim. This difference can primarily be attributed to four things: the 2011-2012 team benefited from a full season of Myck Kabongo, Clint Chapman significantly outperformed any of this season's big men, Sheldon McClellan attacked the basket more as a freshman than as a sophomore, and the 2011-2012 Texas team was better on the offensive glass.
Getting more easy finishes at the rim will help Texas tremendously, particularly considering that the 2013-2014 Longhorns will still be a below average perimeter shooting team.
Cameron Ridley has the greatest potential to improve the Texas offense next season. To be honest, he just had a terrible season on the offensive end of the court. He is not going to become the focal point of the Texas offense overnight. But if he can simply get to the level where he provides efficient offense on a low number of touches, that would help out Texas tremendously. For Ridley, a few more putback layups and dunks would go a long way to helping the Texas offense.
Excelling on Defense
The pieces are in place for the Longhorns to become great defensively. To become the great half-court defense, Rick Barnes and the Texas Longhorns have to first take one critical step. They need to accept what they are.
This is not a small-ball team that is built to run up and down the floor, spread the court, bomb threes, and score 1.2 points per possession. This is a team built to crush their opponents hopes and dreams inside, on defense.
Texas has the ability to throw an NBA-sized front court at teams next season, and it should. A good goal would be for Ridley and Prince Ibeh to combine to play 40 minutes per game. The defense is so much better when they play -- it is not even close. A Ridley/Ibeh platoon at center will solidify the middle of the Texas D, allowing the Horns to protect the rim like few other teams in the nation. This is the path to excellence.
This doesn't mean that Connor Lammert should be relegated to the bench. Lammert can play together with either Ridley or Ibeh. In a way, this makes the most sense. Lammert doesn't have the defensive impact of his classmates, but he has enough offensive skill to make up for it on the other end of the floor. The Longhorn defense loses too much when Lammert plays extended stretches as the team's lone big man, and the offensive benefit isn't large enough to compensate.
Jonathan Holmes will also play a lot, as he should. Holmes had a disappointing year, which was mostly attributable to getting off to a rough start shooting the ball and then suffering a mid-season injury. Holmes will need to give Texas 20-30 minutes of solid play, something that we can easily expect him to do. Holmes is Texas' best rebounder.
Big front lines with Ridley/Ibeh, Lammert, and Holmes shouldn't be out of the question. Ioannis Papapetrou is going to occasionally need some rest. If Texas needs to steal a few minutes in a zone defense here and there to accomplish this sort of lineup, and keep these guys out of foul trouble, so be it.
I know that Rick Barnes likes to play lineups with three perimeter players, and two big guys, but I think this is the year for Barnes to embrace big lineups. I view this team much like Barnes' first few teams at Texas; the strength of this team is going to be its interior defense. Holmes and Lammert are skilled enough on offense to partly make up for only having two perimeter players on the floor at once. The offense was such a mess this season, it is hard to imagine playing big lineups would actually make it substantially worse.
Texas has had rebounding and fouling troubles for the last two seasons. The natural maturation of the young big men should resolve these two concerns, but they need to be on the floor to make an impact.
It is time to be big. It is time to let Ridley and Ibeh make mistakes on offense, knowing that they will more than make up for these errors on the other end of the court.
I am still a believer in where this program is headed, and I believe that it is safe to expect improvement from the Texas basketball program for next season.
The Texas offense won't be great. It is hard to be great on offense when you can't shoot the ball. But if you can't shoot the ball, the best way to a good offense is to get many more shots than your opponent by protecting the ball and crashing the glass, and by hoping that players like Ioannis Papapetrou, Javan Felix, Jonathan Holmes, and Cameron Ridley start to find their mojo.
On the other hand, greatness on defense seems within the reach of the 2013-2014 Texas Longhorns. The best way to do this will be to find minutes for Ridley, Ibeh, and Holmes.
I am not naturally an optimist. Really, I am not. But I have cautious hopes for real improvement from this team next season. Things likely aren't as bad as they seem.