For Rick Barnes and the Texas Longhorns, the 2013-2014 season was a pretty good year. After an ugly 2012-2013 campaign that saw the Horns go 16-18 and miss the NCAA tournament for only the third time in 25 years, followed by an off-season where five underclassmen either transferred or left Texas to pursue professional playing careers, expectations for Barnes and his team were low.
It is not controversial to say that these expectations were exceeded rather easily. Texas went 13-4 against a solid non-conference schedule that included a non-conference road victory against North Carolina along with wins against Stephen F. Austin and Mercer -- two strong low-major programs that weren't as of yet nationally recognized. And then Texas followed up a successful early season by going 11-7 in the Big 12, rattling off consecutive wins against Iowa State, Kansas State, Baylor, and Kansas, and finishing in a tie with Iowa State for third place in the conference. During the post season, Texas won a game in the Big 12 tournament, and won its round of 64 match-up in the NCAA tournament against Arizona State.
The outlook for Texas coming into the 2013-2014 season
Even in retrospect, It is hard to see how an outside observer could have predicted Texas' success this year. Here is a summary of the reasons for widespread pessimism prior to the season:
- Texas' leading returning scorer was Javan Felix, an undersized and turnover-prone point guard with a questionable shot.
- Another key player was once highly regarded 6-9 center named Cameron Ridley who had just struggled through a terrible freshman season, registering a staggeringly low offensive rating of 77. It is possible to have a lower rating than 77 -- a few players for TCU did last season -- but it is quite unusual.
- Texas had some size, but didn't really rebound. In 2013 Texas finished 9th in the Big 12 in defensive rebound percentage.
- Aside from Felix, Demarcus Holland was the only returning guard. He had only slightly outperformed Ridley on offense, registering an offensive rating of 78.
- Four incoming freshmen perimeter players with relatively little pedigree formed Rick Barnes' weakest recruiting haul as measured by the various ranking services since at least 2008.
- Texas was led by a head coach that appeared to be on his way out the door. For example, last August respected hoops writer Garry Parrish wrote that "Barnes at some point became disenchanted with the off-court grind it takes to maintain a certain level of success." Parrish wasn't the only person relaying this information; the buzz about Barnes was bad.
When faced with that information, here is what I concluded:
This has the potential to be a difficult year. Hell, a difficult year is clearly the likely outcome. This is a Texas team with problems.
With so much bad news, long-time head coach Rick Barnes' job is surely at risk. Another poor year -- and to be clear another poor year seems likely -- and he will probably be asked to move on.But they still have to play the games. And when it comes to games played by 18-22 year old men, the results sometimes don't play out as you had expected.
So, yea, I wasn't very hopeful.
Ten minutes into the first game of the season against Mercer, I knew that I was probably wrong, and that this was a much better team than I was expecting. I was pretty high on Mercer. (Seriously, it is documented -- I am not right often so when I am you are going to hear about it.) I thought that Mercer was possibly going to come into Austin and whip Texas in front of 4,000 fans, and things would just go downhill from there; on paper the Bears just seemed like the better team.
But that didn't happen. The Longhorns won a close, competitive game against Mercer.
I figured then this team was likely to exceed expectations, which admittedly weren't very high.
So where did the improvement come from?
There are several factors that account for much of the reason that the Longhorns were far better than expected.
Javan Felix transformed his game in two critical ways. First, he cut back on the turnovers in a big way. During his freshman year, 27 percent of the possessions where Felix was the last Longhorn to have the ball resulted in turnovers. As a sophomore, this turnover rate was 13 percent.
That is a tremendously important transformation. Felix went from a player coughed up the ball in more than a quarter of his possessions to one who gave it up in a little more than one in ten. When Felix is on the floor, a little more than one in five possessions end with either a Felix shot or a Felix turnover. Freshman Felix delivered a turnover all by himself in about one out of every 19 possessions when he was on the floor. Sophomore Felix committed a turnover one out of about every 33 Texas possessions. That difference alone raises Texas' scoring average by a little more than a point per every 67 possessions Felix plays (the length of a typical college basketball game).
A point in scoring average may not seem like a lot, but it has a big impact over the course of a season. Texas was 9-2 in games decided by five points or less; one fewer turnover in those games mattered.
The second improvement for Felix was that he shot the ball well from behind the three point line. As a freshman, Felix only hit 26 percent of his 47 threes. As a sophomore, the Longhorn guard nailed 34 percent of his 178 shots from beyond the arc. The three ball became a bigger part (and clearly the best part) of Felix's offensive game.
As the Longhorns continue to develop, and need Felix to handle less of the load on offense, he may eventually evolve into an efficient second ball-handler/three point specialist. He still has a ways to go to get there, but the present trajectory looks good.
Cameron Ridley looked lost as a freshman, while as a sophomore he did not. Remember earlier when I mentioned Ridley's terrible offensive rating of 77 as a freshman? This season, Ridley posted a more appealing 111. Combining that level of offensive efficiency with strong rebounding and the ability to protect the rim made Ridley one of the better players in the conference.
The growth in Ridley's offensive game was powered by several factors coming together at once. First, Ridley stopped turning the ball over. As a freshman, Ridley turned the ball over in 25 percent of his possessions, while as a sophomore his turnover rate was a more respectable 17 percent -- that is a good total for a player being asked to handle a significant load on offense.
Second, Ridley nearly doubled his free throw shooting percentage from 33 percent to 63 percent. That is an important transformation for a player who gets fouled as often as Ridley; this season he shot 0.81 free throws for every field goal attempt, the 25th highest free throw rate in the country among players who qualify in the kenpom.com ratings.
Third, Ridley upped his shooting percentage from the floor from 46 percent to 55 percent. He got more of his attempts at the rim, converted a higher percentage of his layups and dunks, and even made 35 percent of his jump shots.
Texas upped its rebounding game at both ends of the floor. The 2012-2013 Longhorns were a below average at defensive rebounding and somewhat above average on offensive rebounding. The 2013-2014 Longhorns were an above average defensive rebounding squad, and had the sixth highest offensive rebounding rate in the nation. Ridley, Jonathan Holmes, and Connor Lammert all improved on the glass.
Jonathan Holmes put together his best season for Texas. When Holmes arrived on campus two years ago, two things were evident almost immediately. First, he seemed pretty polished for a young big man, with a decent looking stroke. And second, he played hard. Really hard.
After a good freshman season where Holmes played a small role for the Horns, he turned in a disappointing sophomore year where he was hampered by injuries.
But the effort was still there during that sophomore year, and the skill was still there; both were just obscured somewhat.
During the 2013-2014 season Holmes was mostly healthy, more developed physically, and the team-wide problems were gone. This season Holmes was perhaps the best shooter on the team, hitting 33 percent of his threes and connecting on 45 percent of his two point jump shots. Combined with his constant effort, and ability to pick up hustle points on the offensive glass, the Texas junior had a pretty nice season.
Rick Barnes' unheralded recruiting class turned out well. Isaiah Taylor has a future as an all conference player. As a high schooler, he wasn't highly thought of (except by Peter).
Isaiah Taylor is a remarkably similar player to Myck Kabongo, with many of the same strengths and weaknesses. And Taylor is slightly further along in his development than Kabongo was at the same age. And yet, Kabongo was the 13th highest rated prospect in his recruiting class, according to the RSCI aggregated rankings, whereas Taylor wasn't in the top 100.
Recruiting rankings are usually pretty good, but sometimes they miss entirely on a player.
Taylor had the biggest impact over the course of the season, but his three fellow freshman also had their moments. Kendal Yancy is a physical guard who attacks the basket, finishes at the rim, and plays defense. He is the type of player who is going to draw a lot of fouls, so he would be well-served to improve on his 56 percent free throw shooting.
Martez Walker showed real promise for Texas late in the season. He has decent size for a guard, has a good outside stroke, gets to the basket, rarely settles for bad shots, and seems to have a nose for the ball. Walker shot 35 percent from three point range and finished the season on a tear. He was a late take by Rick Barnes in the recruiting process, and right now has a decent shot at being an important contributor for Texas next year.
Damarcus Croaker showed us flashes of his ability, but had a somewhat difficult freshman season, and didn't get to play a lot. Against better teams on the Texas schedule, he at times seemed physically over-matched against more mature opponents, and struggled substantially on defense. But he is young; I have no worries.
Demarcus Holland wasn't a total disaster on offense. Holland is a player with limitations -- he basically cannot shoot -- but was far more comfortable on offense this season. He is an actual asset on offense when Texas can get in the open floor, and while he doesn't help Texas' floor spacing in the half court, he at least wasn't actively harming the Texas offense as he did during his freshman year when he was frequently forced to be the primary ball handler.
With a player like Holland, the question will come up from time to time: is his defense worth the hit you take on offense with him on the floor? Making a quantitative determination of the value of an individual perimeter defender is hard. My sense is that Holland's defense is worth it -- Texas doesn't have another player capable of neutralizing opposing scorers the way Holland did against many of the best players in the conference.
But what does it mean when you exceed low expectations? Is it still good?
I have a colleague that says that the key to a happy marriage is to establish low expectations right out of the gate. My father used to joke that when you don't expect much out of life you will never be disappointed.
Clearly our low expectations coming into the 2013-2014 season for Texas basketball affect our view of this team. Maybe comparing results to our expectations isn't much of a way to make an assessment -- it assesses our expectations as much or more than the actual results.
So what if we set expectations aside for a moment, and reflect upon this team for what it actually is. Looking at the team this way, we have:
- A team that finished 3rd in the Big 12, and lost in the semifinal round of the conference tournament.
- A team that earned a 7 seed to the NCAA tournament, and won a round of 64 game before losing its second contest of the weekend.
- A team that had a handful of impressive victories.
- A young team that appears to have its best basketball ahead of it.
When we put the preseason expectations aside, we still end up with a profile of a team that had a pretty decent year, and that seems well positioned to be better in the next season or two.
So yes, I think the 2013-2014 season was a good one. Not great, but good. We had a number of fun games, watched some good (and occasionally some bad) basketball. And we have hope for the future back, which is something that has been missing for a while.
In two upcoming articles, I will look more closely at the Texas offense and defense during the 2014 Big 12 season.