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How did the Texas basketball team get so young?

With a rotation full of freshmen and sophomores, the Texas Longhorns are at a disadvantage against most of the rest of the Big 12.

NCAA Basketball: Oklahoma State at Texas Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

As January comes, so does Big 12 play, and the Texas Longhorns are struggling. With an overall season record of 7-8, a 1-2 mark in league play, and a tough stretch of games ahead, the Texas Longhorns may be plunged well below .500 over the next few weeks, with little chance of getting back to the break-even mark.

It’s been a disappointing season for a team that had high expectations coming into the year. A preseason ranking in the AP top 25 now seems ridiculous, as does the preseason prediction by Big 12 coaches that the Longhorns would finish third in the league.

So what did everyone miss? Despite having a well-thought of coach and a team full of highly rated players, by any reasonable measure the Texas Longhorns are young. Young teams frequently struggle, even with players who’s futures are as bright as Jarrett Allen, Andrew Jones, and Kerwin Roach.

I think it is worthwhile to get to an understanding of how Texas basketball got to this point. Before I detail the path that resulted in Texas being among the youngest teams in D-I basketball, let’s first take a moment to understand why that is a problem.

Young teams do struggle

The assertion here, that young teams typically perform poorly in college basketball, generally raises a predictable critique; “but what about Kentucky?” The Wildcats, and a few other prominent programs, seem to compete every year with rosters dominated by freshmen and sophomores. As Barking Carnival’s Bitterwhiteguy stated on his podcast a few weeks ago, most young teams actually have a much harder time than what happens with Kentucky.

I went back and repeated Jonny’s exercise, using the “experience” metric, which uses a minutes-weighted average of team experience to rate the experience level of each team in college basketball. Below are the results this season compiled by the 16 least experienced teams in the top seven conferences in college basketball, listed in order of ascending experience level.

St. John’s is 8-9 and heading for a tough year.

Kentucky is 13-2. It turns out that you can win with freshmen when those freshmen are really, really good.

Washington is 8-7, despite having Markelle Fultz; perhaps the most dynamic freshman guard in college basketball.

Iowa is 9-7.

Oregon State is 4-13, after making the NCAA tournament last season.

Texas is 7-8.

Missouri is 5-9, and things look like they are going to get ugly.

LSU is 9-5. That record seems unlikely to hold as they get deeper into conference play, and is at least in part an artifact of a soft schedule. The Tigers did beat Houston at home, but were run off the floor by several times during the non-conference season.

Penn State is 10-7.

South Florida is 6-8 and just fired head coach Orlando Antigua.

Rick Barnes’ Tennessee team is 8-7. They may end up having an OK year in the SEC.

USC is 15-1. You can occasionally make it work without the guys that Kentucky gets. This is a pretty good team.

Auburn is 10-5, and did beat Texas Tech on a neutral floor. This victory was also one of the more perplexing results of the season, because Auburn’s record was mostly accumulated by beating up on bad teams, and the Tigers are now off to an 0-3 start in the SEC. My basic take is that Auburn isn’t very good, but they managed to beat Texas Tech on a night where the Red Raiders just couldn’t hit shots.

Oklahoma is 6-8. There is a decent chance that the Sooners end up at the bottom of the Big 12 standings this season. Or maybe it will end up being Texas, the only team less experienced than OU in the conference.

Arizona is 15-2. Good job by them. The only coaches who beat Sean Miller on the recruiting trail work at Kentucky and Duke.

The moral of the story is that if you are going to have a young team and your mascot isn’t a Wildcat, then you are probably in for a tough season. If your mascot is a Tiger, then you can beat up on a weak non-conference schedule before the truth is finally revealed in conference play.

Given this basic reality, Texas’ struggles this year should have been easier to predict than they were. (People get caught up in excitement before the season. So we all missed it.)

So how does a team end up being as young as any of these teams are? I think it is instructive to look at how Texas got to where it is, before trying to understand if things could have possibly been different. Let’s look back over Texas’ past few recruiting classes to try to understand how the ‘Horns roster suddenly became so young.

Ancient history

To understand how the Longhorns roster got to the place that it is today, we have to go back a number of years. It is because things that occurred as far back as perhaps 2009 have the potential to indirectly shape the roster that Shaka Smart has today.

Let’s start by revisiting the incoming classes of 2009 and 2010. By the measures generally used to evaluate recruiting classes, these were both very good ones. The class of 2009 included five-star recruits Avery Bradley and Jordan Hamilton, along with four-star players J’Covan Brown and Shawn Williams. The class of 2010 was smaller, with Canadian five-star recruits Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph.

There can be no doubt that these were good classes; it is hard to find many cases for any school where two consecutive classes produced four NBA first-round draft picks, three of whom are still rotation players in the Association five years later. The problem was that by the time the class of 2011 showed up on campus, only one player from these previous two classes would still be a member of the Longhorns, and by the fall of 2012 the classes of 2009 and 2010 were just a memory for coach Rick Barnes.

This created a huge void at the top of the Texas roster, which Barnes filled by taking two large classes in back to back years. In the fall of 2011, Myck Kabongo, Sheldon McClellan, Julien Lewis, Jonathan Holmes, Sterling Gibbs, and Jaylen Bond all arrived on campus. Combined with enough upperclassmen, including J’Covan Brown, things went fairly well that first season in Austin. But the following season they would not.

Rick Barnes’ class of 2012 would also contain six players. Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh, Javan Felix, Connor Lammert, Ioannis Papapetrou, and Demarcus Holland joined with the group from the previous season (minus Sterling Gibbs, who transferred closer to home after his freshman year). With no upperclassmen left in the program, the result was a disastrous season where a young but talented team struggled, and ultimately melted down.

Revisiting the recruiting class of 2013

The spring of 2013 was a tough one for Texas. The Longhorns would lose every member of its sophomore class, save Jonathan Holmes, wiping out yet another recruiting class for Barnes. Additionally, Ioannis Papapetrou would return to Greece to pursue a professional basketball career.

Coming off the worst Texas basketball season in many years, as well as entering the early recruiting period of the fall with few scholarships to offer (this was prior to the exodus that would occur in the following spring), the class of 2013 ended up being unusually thin for a Texas program accustomed to pulling top players. After some late scrambling, Barnes and his staff ended up with a four man class consisting of consensus four-star Kendal Yancy, along with three three-star guards: Damarcus Croaker, Martez Walker, and Isaiah Taylor.

It wasn’t an inspiring class on paper, but on the floor things went a fair bit better. The lowest rated player in the class — Taylor — turned out to be its best player. His play, along with the growth and development of Texas’ sophomores and the emergence of Holmes, resulted in a surprisingly successful season for Texas, extending Rick Barnes’ tenure by another year.

It was this group that came in during the fall of 2013 that formed what could have potentially been the senior class on the present Texas team. But things just wouldn’t work out that way.

Croaker and Walker both ended up leaving the program. Croaker transferred to Murray State midway through his second season at Texas, as he just could never break into the lineup with so many players from the class ahead of him standing in his way.

In Walker’s case, he withdrew from school while facing assault charges from an incident that occurred with his girlfriend during the fall of his sophomore year, and returned home to Michigan. He now plays for Oakland.

Taylor ended up having an outstanding three-year career at Texas, and now plays basketball professionally.

Only Yancy would remain from this original group to his senior year. Thankfully, Barnes was able to add Maryland transfer Shaquille Cleare, who is currently filling a gap in the program as the team’s only experienced big man. Smart would also augment this group with Mareik Isom, a graduate transfer from Arkansas-Little Rock.

The result of all of this churn is that the current Texas squad has three seniors, only one of whom originally committed to Texas. Isom’s season encountered a setback early when he suffered an infection that required surgery, and he has not yet appeared in a game for the Longhorns. Meanwhile, Yancy’s season was off to a decent start, but he has missed the past few games with an ankle injury.

However we got to where we are, the Longhorns are left with a team where only two scholarship seniors have played so far this season. This in and of itself wouldn’t be so bad with a better junior class.

The vanishing class of 2014

Coming off a strong 2013-2014 season, the Texas Longhorn basketball program looked to be on solid footing once again. Texas would return Holmes along with five rising juniors in the fall of 2014 and four sophomores who had collectively exceeded expectations during their freshman year. There weren’t many available scholarships, and there wouldn’t be all that many available minutes either, and thus the incoming class only consisted of two players.

Myles Turner, a five-star big man, would go on to have a strong freshman season for the Longhorns before moving on to the NBA. Meanwhile, classmate Jordan Barnett wouldn’t see much action.

Not playing as a freshman on a team that seemed as loaded as it did couldn’t have come as much of a surprise for Barnett, but he clearly expected to see more action as a sophomore. That didn’t happen. With the arrival of a new coaching staff and a large glut of more experienced players ahead of him — along with three freshman who jumped him on the depth chart — Barnett actually played less for Texas in the early part of his sophomore year than he did as a freshman. He transferred out at the semester break.

As a result, this season’s Texas team has no scholarship juniors.

Could things have been different?

All of this history explains Texas’ current roster, which consists of three seniors, no juniors, three sophomores, and four freshmen, and where the majority of the minutes are going to freshmen and sophomores. This is a bad situation to be in, and it is reasonable to ask the question: could this have been avoided?

Rethinking roster attrition

Taylor was not coming back for his senior year, and frankly with an upcoming NBA draft class that will be loaded at his position, coming back wouldn’t have done much to advance his professional prospects. He was going to have to take his lumps in the NBA D-League at some point, so no reason to put it off any longer. And when you combine a modest D-League salary with the more generous pay that a player like Taylor earns for his time in NBA training camp, I suspect Taylor does not regret his choice at all. He has to improve to make the NBA, so he might as well get paid to do it.

It’s hard to see a way in which Walker would still be at Texas. While the charges against him were ultimately not pursued by Travis County, Barnes and the university had to sanction Walker in the way that they did. It’s fine to give a young person a second chance, but it is also fine if constraints require that he take that second chance someplace else. If Walker is in better control of his temper now, then that is as good of a resolution for him as could be hoped for. Keeping him off of campus and physically separated from his alleged victim was a prudent way to help keep her safe. In comparison with the ways that these sorts of episodes have been handled at other universities, the actions taken by Texas with regards to Walker seem more or less correct.

The departures of Croaker and Barnett occurred under much more typical circumstances. Most transfers happen because of playing time. With so many players ahead of them, Croaker and Barnett were going to have to wait until this season to see that time, and you can’t blame anyone for not being willing to voluntarily ride the pine for so long when other options to play were available.

Discussing Turner’s decision to head to the NBA strikes me as a silly waste of time.

Given all of this, I find it hard to criticize the current or former Texas staffs for the specific roster attrition that is impacting things this year. It is a little hard to see how it could have been avoided.

Could additional players have been brought in to help this season?

This brings us to a question that is a little difficult to answer, but at least an important one to ponder. Faced with a roster that included no juniors and only two returning seniors, pursuing transfers would have been one way to fill the gap.

Smart and his staff were pretty active in courting transfers during the spring of 2016. Texas brought in two transfers. Dylan Osetkowski is currently sitting out the season, per NCAA transfer rules, while Isom as a graduate transfer is eligible to play this season, but has not made it on the floor as of yet. Additionally, Texas was linked to two additional transfers who would have been able to play right away. Prior to bringing in Isom, Texas pursued Duquesne graduate LG Gill, a 6’8 forward with three-point shooting range who ended up at Maryland. And the Longhorns also were in the mix for junior college transfer Candido Sa, a 6’9 shot blocker who also shoots from long range.

Beyond this, we don’t know if the Longhorns were wooing any other transfers who would have been able to play this season. In particular, this team would benefit from an upperclassmen ball-handling guard. But we just don’t know if such a player was being sought by Texas, or if such a player would have even been available to the Longhorns.

Every program has a talent cycle

In an ideal world, every program would have two-to-four players in each class, and wouldn’t go through dramatic ebbs and flows in the available experience level of the players on its roster. In the real world this can be hard to achieve, and as a result teams go through periods where its roster is more experienced, and periods where it has to take its lumps with younger players.

Looking around the Big 12 we see that Texas isn’t the only program where this happens. Iowa State currently is on the last season of a multi-year run with a strong group of players. A season from now the Cyclones will be without the five seniors who draw heavy minutes, and will face a difficult adjustment to fill in for them. Meanwhile Texas Tech is reaping the rewards of Tubby Smith’s early recruiting work, and has an experienced roster with a large and talented junior class that has been augmented by a few junior college transfers and several solid seniors. Tech can ride this group for another season, but eventually will have to find replacements for these players.

On the other end of things, you have teams like Texas and Oklahoma, who watched many important players depart last summer, and are now struggling as less experienced players fill in their spots. And somewhere in the middle sits Kansas State, which took its lumps last season after losing most of the players of consequence from prior teams, but is now on its way back up as its young players improve.

The last time the Longhorns were this young, they got slaughtered. The following season would be better, and ultimately the young core of that team would go on to develop into the seniors that helped the Longhorns win 20 games last season, including 11 victories during conference play.

It can happen again with this team. So back away from the ledge.