It has taken a few years, but Texas basketball is back in the national picture once again. Hoops expectations are sky high in Austin coming into the season for the first time in years, with the Longhorns back in the AP Preseason Top 25 for the first time since 2009.
After four seasons marked by heavy roster turnover, Rick Barnes brings back all but one contributor from last season's squad. (Martez Walker recently withdrew from school while facing assault charges.) Barnes adds to this now experienced group highly regarded 7-0 freshman Myles Turner, which has ratcheted expectations even higher.
But like any team, there are still some important unanswered questions about this squad. The answers to these questions will play out over the course of the season.
So let's dive in, with 11 questions for 11 players.
Can Isaiah Taylor get better at finishing his drives to the basket?
While Isaiah Taylor had a solid freshman season, he struggled converting his shots from the floor. On the season, the Texas point guard converted on less than 40 percent of his 349 two point attempts. Taylor's problems were more pronounced in half-court situations, where he had a bit more trouble getting to the rim than he did in the open floor. Such is the life of a 6-1 freshman guard, toiling in the land of giants.
I went back and looked at Taylor's numbers from last season in half court settings. If we confine our search to situations where the possession either started with a deadball turnover, or any possession that had advanced more than 10 seconds, we find shots that almost entirely can be expected to have been taken in the "half-court." In these non-transition situations, Taylor's effective field goal percentage was 39 percent, which included going 90-232 on twos (which is exactly 39 percent shooting). When forced by the defense to finish the play, Taylor had a difficult time.
Now, these possessions where Taylor was forced to shoot weren't exactly wasted, as the Texas offense rebounded 46 percent of Taylor's 142 non-transition misses. Still, it would be nice to see Taylor finish a few more of his chances in half-court situations.
How good is Myles Turner?
Myles Turner has been rated by virtually every recruiting service as one of the ten best incoming first year players in the nation, and is the third or fourth best freshman big man on every list. He is billed as a first-rate rim protecting center on defense who on offense can face up and shoot the ball from long range. Your mind quickly goes in all sorts of directions when you consider the possibilities for a player like that.
But here is the thing. We still need to see how his game, right now, will play against mature college players who will be three or four years older, with three to four years of extra development time.
One thing working in Turner's favor as he makes this transition is that many other players before him have suceeded as freshman. Below is a list of the consensus top ten incoming freshman in the 2013-2014 season, based on the RSCI ratings. Nine out of the ten players on that list made significant contributions to their teams as freshman. The one who did not was Chris Walker, who initially sat out due to academic eligibility problems, and then could not break into the rotation on a loaded Florida team.
If Turner can give the Longhorns 20 or more good minutes per game defending, crashing the glass, and knocking down some shots, he will help Texas win. Any more than this will be a nice bonus -- a bonus that has at least a reasonable chance of coming.
How many minutes will Jonathan Holmes play?
Jonathan Holmes is Texas' best player. Full stop. I like Taylor and Cameron Ridley as much as the next guy, and Turner is a blank canvas onto which we can project almost anything. But Holmes is still, until proven otherwise, the best and most important player on this team.
Holmes is an active rebounder, disruptive on defense, and is perhaps Texas' most reliable shooter and best offensive player. But because of a tendency to get into foul trouble early in his career, as well as some nagging injuries, he has never averaged more than 25 minutes per game.
As a junior, Holmes averaged 4.1 fouls per 40 minutes, the third highest rate on the team. But this rate was down substantially from the six fouls per 40 minutes that he averaged as a freshman and sophomore. Spending more time playing away from the basket in lineups with two other big men, as well as benefiting from another year of college experience may further cut down on the foul rate, but part of why Holmes has fouled so much over his career is that he plays hard consistently. He is an aggressive player, so a certain number of fouls are just part of the package.
Now, if Holmes can stay on the court longer, it still doesn't mean that he always should. Texas has a lot of depth this year, and so Rick Barnes can afford to rest Holmes, particularly early in the season.
How much more improvement can Texas reasonably expect out of Cameron Ridley?
The transformation that center Cameron Ridley underwent between his freshman and sophomore seasons was remarkable. While he helped the Texas defense from the moment he arrived in Austin, as a freshman Ridley looked lost on the offensive end of the floor. He seemed to lack any idea of what to do with the ball when he got it, which resulted in frequent turnovers. He combined his turnover tendencies with 46 percent shooting from the floor. And then there were the free throws; as a first year player Ridley missed two out of every three attempts from the free throw line.
His second season went much better. Ridley cut down the turnovers, upped his shooting percentage from the floor to 55 percent, and connected on 63 percent of his 198 attempts from the free throw line. It was a transformation that was further helped by Ridley getting more active on the offensive glass. As a freshman, approximately 15 percent of Ridley's shots from the floor came as immediate putbacks of offensive rebounds. In his sophomore season 27 percent of his total attempts came when putting back an opponent miss, which was one putback every 14 minutes that he played.
But Ridley's evolution as a player may not yet be complete. Further gains in free throw percentage would go a long way in helping a player who is likely to attempt around 200 shots from the line this season. And even a bigger impact can be had if the Texas center has developed his offensive game to the point where he will now more frequently be a primary option for Rick Barnes' offense.
Can Texas continue to thrive while playing two non-shooting perimeter players at once? (Isaiah Taylor and Demarcus Holland)
Last season, Texas played a little more than half of its possessions with Isaiah Taylor and Demarcus Holland on the floor together. With two non-shooters together on the perimeter, you would have expected the Longhorns to struggle. They did not.
The table below summarizes how Texas performed on offense and defense when Holland and Taylor played together ("On Court" numbers), and compares this with how all other lineups performed ("Off Court" numbers). Texas was outstanding when Taylor and Holland were both in the game, and mediocre when they were not.
(Data from hooplens.com.)
Lineups with Holland and Taylor seldom shot threes, which potentially causes spacing problems for the offense. But it didn't really slow the Longhorns down, as these lineups managed to score 1.09 points per possession. And on the other end of the floor, Texas played tough defense with Holland and Taylor, allowing only 0.96 points per possession.
Now, the question becomes, can this continue to work? Taylor and Holland are again likely to log heavy minutes in the back court together, which is likely to once again challenge the spacing for the Texas offense. That said, while defenses will not likely have to respect the perimeter jumpers of Taylor and Holland, they will have to respect the shots of forwards Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert, which will keep driving lanes open for Taylor once again.
What sort of player will Javan Felix be this year?
While it is not unusual for someone to improve between his first and second seasons, freshman Javan Felix and sophomore Javan Felix were almost two completely different players. As a freshman, Felix was an overwhelmed point guard, forced to play heavy minutes before he was probably ready. He was turnover prone, and seldom shot from the perimeter. When he did, it didn't go very well.
As a sophomore, Felix played more as a catch-and-shoot three point shooter. He cut down on turnovers substantially, becoming the most reliable ball-handler that Rick Barnes had. He still had trouble finishing inside the three point arc, but there were now things that he did proficiently on offense.
As Texas has improved over the last few years, what the Longhorns need from Felix has changed. Now, more than anything, Felix likely helps best as a back up point guard and a spot up three point shooter, as well as an extra ball handler who sinks free throws late in games.
Can Rick Barnes find a few more shots for Connor Lammert?
Along with Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley, 6-9 forward Connor Lammert was one of Texas' most efficient shooters last season. Lammert's per shot offensive numbers were nearly identical to those of Holmes, which is to say that they were quite good. Lammert does a lot for an offense, going to the offensive glass, finishing around the rim, and stepping out to knock down threes. These are many of the same things that Holmes does, it is just that Lammert doesn't do them anywhere near as often.
Last season, Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert both played a bit more than 20 minutes per game (Holmes played 24 MPG, Lammert played 21 MPG). But Holmes got more shots, averaging a field goal attempt every 2.8 minutes, while Lammert took one attempt every 4.4 minutes.
Both players got shots off of the offensive glass at around the same rate, with Holmes getting an offensive rebound putback attempt once every 23 minutes, and Lammert earning a shot from the glass once every 25 minutes. Both players receive assists at similar rates: both players last season benefited from assists on 48 percent of their shots at the rim, 68 percent of their two point jump shots, and nearly all of their threes.
It is just that Holmes shoots more often. I have absolutely no problem with Holmes attempting a lot of shots from the floor -- he should shoot a lot -- but I wouldn't mind in addition seeing a few more shots being put up by Lammert.
Can Kendal Yancy give Texas a true two-way guard?
One of the big missing pieces last season for Texas was a guard who could contribute meaningfully at both ends of the floor. Rick Barnes had at his disposal first rate defenders (Holland and Yancy) as well as reasonable options as perimeter shooters (Felix and Croaker).
With 11 players likely to get a chance at minutes this season, Yancy can set himself apart if he can become more of a contributor on offense, giving Rick Barnes the second two-way guard that he lacked last season.
Yancy is a physical player who is good with the ball and strong going to the hoop, but who only attempted 17 threes last season (hitting six of them). Yancy also only shot 56 percent from the free throw stripe, which is a place where rim attacking guards spend a lot of time.
Can he do more this year? Can he hit a few more shots, and convert a higher rate of his free throws? The answer to these questions will be important.
Is Damarcus Croaker ready to defend against high major players?
While Damarcus Croaker looked like a potential rotation player early in the season last year, in mid January his minutes disappeared, and never really returned. Croaker frequently looked lost on defense, and really couldn't guard anyone. It got to the point where it was clear he couldn't be out on the floor when the game outcome was still in doubt.
But the great thing about freshman is they eventually become sophomores. A summer of off-season work and time to clear his head out may just be the ticket.
Croaker doesn't need to become a great defender, he simply needs to achieve some level of competence, because if he can defend well enough to stay on the floor he may have the best jump shot on the team. Just getting a little more comfortable with D-I ball may be all that he needs.
How will minutes be allocated along the Texas front line? (Prince Ibeh)
Not counting overtimes, there are 200 minutes per game that a coach has available to allocate to players. This season Rick Barnes intends to play Jonathan Holmes alongside two other big men for extended portions of the game. Barnes did this some last year as well, playing Ridley, Lammert, and Holmes together for 124 possessions, including playing this combination with greater frequency late in the season.
Adding Myles Turner to the mix means that there will be fewer minutes to go around for players like backup junior center Prince Ibeh. But how many minutes will be available for Ibeh? Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that over the season Holmes plays 20-30 minutes a game together with two other big men, and another 0-10 minutes per game as one of the two biggest players on the floor for Texas. This will leave between 70-80 minutes to split up between Ridley, Lammert, Turner, and Ibeh.
25 minutes will go to Ridley. Playing more than this for the Texas big man may be suboptimal, and perhaps is impossible given his historical fouling rate. Another 20-25 will likely go each to Turner and Lammert. If things play out this way, there may not be many minutes left for Ibeh. Baring some sort of injury to one of the other Texas big men, Ibeh could be the odd man out when it comes to playing time this year, with the most likely expectation being that he logs something between 0-10 MPG on average.
How much should we expect from 6-6 freshman Jordan Barnett?
While Myles Turner has understandably received more attention, he isn't the only freshman Rick Barnes has brought to Austin. Jordan Barnett is a 6-6 wing who a season or two ago would have likely been good enough to earn significant playing time on Texas' depleted rosters. But now there are a lot of guys ahead of him.
With the plan to play Holmes more on the wing, it will leave something like 50-60 minutes up for grabs for everyone else at the two wing spots on the floor. Holland very likely will gobble up half of that, leaving 20-30 minutes being split between Yancy, Croaker, Felix, and Barnett. (Note that Felix likely will get around 10 minutes per game backing up Taylor as the primary ball handler, but could also again see time playing off the ball.)
It is really hard right now to predict how the minutes will be divided for players along the perimeter over the course of the season. But given the various options available to Barnes, Barnett's playing time as a freshman is likely to be limited.
These are far from the only important questions for the 2014-2015 Texas Longhorns. We would love to hear from you. Let us know in the comment section what questions you think are most important.