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Texas Longhorns Basketball Tip Off: The Last 24 Months

Two years ago, the 2014-2015 basketball season could have been viewed as "the year" for Texas. It still might be, despite the meandering path taken by Rick Barnes and Texas basketball over the last 24 months.

Jonathan Daniel

In the fall of 2012, it was easy to get carried away. The Texas basketball roster was both young and talented. With a roster featuring five sophomores and five freshman, the "young" label certainly applied, as did the "talented" one; Rick Barnes had two consecutive recruiting classes that contained a mix of consensus four and five star talent. The 2012-2013 season looked exciting, and the future was even brighter.

High Hopes in the Fall of 2012

In the Fall of 2012, Texas fans could have reasonably expected that 24 months later, the Longhorns would be poised to contend for a conference (and perhaps national) title with a lineup featuring Cameron Ridley, Ioannis Papapetrou, Jonathan Holmes, Julien Lewis, and Sheldon McClellan. If you wanted to think more wishfully, perhaps there was even a chance that Myck Kabongo would stay around for a couple more seasons before bolting for the NBA.

It didn't exactly happen that way. The 2012-2013 season was a disaster. The first sign came when Myck Kabongo was held out of games early in the season amid an NCAA investigation. (He would end up being suspended for much of the season.) The Texas offense struggled with turnovers, poor shooting, and an inability to create much in the way of clean scoring chances. The Longhorns managed to win ugly for the first few games before being losing in a surprising upset to D-II Chaminade.

The season would have a few high points, but was mostly a disaster. And then after the season things got worse. Jaylen Bond announced his intention to transfer several days before Texas' only game in the postseason CBI, and that announcement was followed by transfers by both McClellan and Lewis. Myck Kabongo entered his name into the NBA draft. Barnes' 2013 recruiting class of four guards was viewed as one of his weakest in many years, with only one fringe top 100 player in the group. Finally, late in the summer, Ioannis Papapetrou received an offer he couldn't refuse from one of the best professional basketball teams in Europe.

Just like that, Barnes' latest rebuild of the Texas basketball program was wiped out. Things didn't look good.

Signs that We All Missed

Things did not look good, but the needed tools for a recovery were in place, even if it was hard to see at the time. During the 2012-2013 season we saw:

  • Center Cameron Ridley had had about as awful of a freshman year as you can possibly imagine. Highly regarded as a high school player, Ridley still had talent, but it hadn't been given much of a chance to reveal itself as he adjusted to the college game.
  • The Javan Felix led offense of 2012-2013 was a disaster of turnovers, but Felix's handle was reliable; his problems were as much about decision making and adjusting to the size and speed of D-I defenders.
  • Demarcus Holland didn't look like he knew what he was doing much of the time on the floor as a freshman, but the effort and physical ability was easy to see.
  • Connor Lammert was overmatched as a freshman center, backing up Ridley and Prince Ibeh, but Lammert's skill set on offense would periodically show itself.
  • Jonathan Holmes was who he is, mixing skill, energy, and a nose for the ball in equal parts -- but he was limited by both foul trouble and injuries during his tough sophomore year.

So the picture was there, but it was buried underneath so much dust that you could hardly make it out.

And about that poorly regarded freshman class. 18 months ago, my colleague Peter Bean wrote what I felt was an overly optimistically piece about underrecruited Texas freshman Isaiah Taylor. Peter's basic premise was this: Isaiah Taylor is much better than people think. That basic premise turned out to be right.

Taylor was almost perfectly constructed to be underrated as a high school recruit. He was a late bloomer who moved from California to Houston in the middle of high school, and wasn't seen by many coaches or scouts until he ended up in Texas. Whereas in many cases, coaches and recruiting services have been following and scouting kids for years, Taylor appeared as if out of nowhere as a high school junior.

It came as a big surprise to many people when Taylor showed up at Texas and was immediately inserted into the starting lineup. It came as an even greater surprise when it was immediately obvious that he was ready to play at such a high level. Taylor has aspects of his game that he needs to work on, but from day one it was clear that he was a major conference guard, and not the recruiting reach that some might have suspected.

Taylor was joined in his class by three other guards, two of whom return this year. Those two returning players -- Kendal Yancy and Damarcus Croaker -- both showed that they too have something to offer to the future of Texas basketball, even if their playing time (and play) was inconsistent as freshmen.

New Optimism in 2014

Texas didn't look like a juggernaut at the start of the 2013-2014 season. The Longhorns had trouble putting away low major opponents in the first few weeks of the season, although in retrospect Mercer and Stephen F. Austin were much better than most low major teams. Then Texas dropped a winnable game against BYU, and frankly deserved to lose to Temple, but somehow escaped with a win. Texas looked like a team with potential, but a team that was still shaky and would soon have to go up against tougher competition.

A road win against North Carolina in a game where the Longhorns played well was the high point of the non-conference season. It was followed up by a 14 point loss at home to the No. 5 ranked Michigan State Spartans. When conference play started with two losses followed by an uninspiring home win against Texas Tech, things were playing out more or less as expected. Texas was a somewhat improved team, but it still didn't look like enough.

But that creaky win against Tech marked the start of a seven game winning streak that would change the story around Texas basketball. During that streak, the Longhorns would run off consecutive victories against Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor, and Kansas, and would shoot up to near the top of the conference standings. Texas played great basketball for three weeks, and while the Longhorns would lose several games on the road some to finish off the season, Texas had already done enough to earn itself a trip to the NCAA tournament.

The Longhorns won a game in the Big 12 tournament, and defeated Arizona State on a last second shot in the NCAA tournament round of 64. Things could have ended up better for Texas, but almost no one expected the team to be close to as good as it was.

The good vibes continued into the off-season, when highly rated 7-0 recruit Myles Turner declared that he was going to The University of Texas.

The Longhorns were back.

The Window is Open Now

The thing about college sports in general, and college hoops in particular, is that the amount of time you get with a particular group of players at or near its peak is short. College athletes have four years of eligibility, and typically need at least one or two years to reach their peak. Throw in the fact that in a sport like basketball, those four years are frequently not used at a single school, and are occasionally not used up anywhere. With 351 Division I basketball programs, more playing time is always just a transfer away. And with decent paying professional basketball leagues all over the world, every player is in a race against Father Time to earn what he can playing, before he can no longer do it.

So for a particular group of players, the window of time is short -- often one or two seasons at the most. For this particular group of Longhorns, the window is opening now. It may be closed in five months, or may stay open for 18 months, but it won't last any longer than that.

While this team is not the team we expected to watch 24 months ago, it is a good team, and has the chance to be even better.

A year from now, who knows what this team will look like.

But let's worry about that next year. Because right now, it is game time.

Still haven't had enough? This nice Campus Insiders video looks at Texas basketball and Jonathan Holmes.