Mar 14, 2015

In Puzzling Season, Were Longhorns Underachievers or Overrated?

Texas head Rick Barnes, sophomore guard Kendal Yancy (0) and the rest of the Longhorns failed to live up to their lofty preseason expectations, going just 8-10 in Big 12 play to finish seventh in the conference. Photo courtesy of Dalton Venglar.

Texas head Rick Barnes, sophomore guard Kendal Yancy (0) and the rest of the Longhorns failed to live up to their lofty preseason expectations, going just 8-10 in Big 12 play to finish seventh in the conference. Photo courtesy of Dalton Venglar.

By Peter Sblendorio 
For Reporting Texas

College basketball experts loved the Texas Longhorns — in November.

The Longhorns ranked 10th in both the coaches’ and media’s preseason polls. Eric Prisbell, a national college basketball writer for USA Today, picked them to advance to the Final Four. But four months later, Texas ended the regular season seventh in the Big 12 Conference and was in jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament.

Amid this collapse, one question loomed largest: Were the Longhorns overrated, or did they underachieve?

“I think you can have a little bit of both,” said Nicole Auerbach, a national college basketball writer for USA Today.

“For two months of the year, they did seem to be living up to their ranking,” Auerbach said. “I think when you consider what they had coming back, that kind of size, a Myles Turner coming in, to have high expectations for Texas wasn’t unwarranted.”

The Longhorns, fresh off a third place finish in the Big 12 last season, returned all five starters. They added Turner, a sweet-shooting, shot-blocking 6-foot-11 forward from Dallas whom ESPN deemed the No. 2 prospect in the country. Turner gave them five primary players of at least 6-foot-8 — size that most teams can only dream about.

The Longhorns soared to an 11-2 record in the non-conference season, justifying the high pre-season rankings. But they lost their conference home opener by 21 points to Oklahoma and never completely stabilized. They went 2-8 in the conference against ranked teams, including 0-5 on the road. The big, galvanizing win always eluded them, sometimes agonizingly.

They lost to Oklahoma on the road on Feb. 17 after leading by six points with less than four minutes to go. Three games later, they blew a four-point lead with under eight minutes remaining on the road against slumping, undermanned Kansas.

In two separate four-game losing streaks, Texas lost four games by five points or fewer. Only one of the eight losses was by double figures.

“When you start to lose, and one thing goes badly, it’s very easy for things to snowball,” Auerbach said. “I think that’s what has happened with Texas. It’s just another loss, and another heartbreaker.”

Injuries took a toll. Sophomore point guard Isaiah Taylor, the team’s leader in points and assists per game, missed 10 non-conference games and was rusty upon return. Junior guard Javan Felix sat out three games with various ailments. Senior forward Jonathan Holmes missed two games with a concussion and averaged just 5.3 points in the seven conference games after he returned.

“This team hasn’t been whole much this season,” ESPN College Basketball Analyst Andy Katz said. “[There was a] lack of continuity.”

Then there is the mystery of why Texas didn’t get the ball to its big men against Big 12 opponents. Those big men dominated in the paint leading up to conference play. “Why I bought into this team in nonconference was because of its bigs,” Auerbach said.

The much-anticipated home game against Kansas on Jan. 24 typified the problem. The Longhorns attempted 18 three-pointers and made three. It took them 18 minutes to get their first lay-up or dunk from a forward or center.

The final totals from conference play illustrated the Longhorns’ inability to get the ball to their big men. They finished sixth in the conference in 3-point shooting at 33 percent. They attempted 327 three-pointers. Meanwhile, Turner and junior centers Cam Ridley and Prince Ibeh combined for just 219 shots inside the arc.

“You need to know what your strengths are and you need to play to them,” Auerbach said. “This should be their bread and butter. On paper, this is not how Texas’ season should have gone.”

A disconnect between head coach Rick Barnes and his players became evident after Texas’ 83-60 road loss to Baylor on Jan. 31. The Longhorns again failed to exploit their size advantage. They attempted a whopping 26 three-pointers and made only five.

“We shouldn’t be doing that,” Barnes said after the game. “That’s not who we are. That’s not what we should be doing, because I really felt like we could get the ball inside. But we didn’t enough.”

But Holmes, who went 1-of-7 from three, said moments later, “If we’re open, we’ve got to shoot it. If we’re open, that’s something we’ve got to do.”

When Texas played Baylor again on March 2, Barnes benched Taylor for much of the game for being passive on defense and on the boards. Taylor played a season-low 15 minutes. He re-entered the game with four minutes to go in overtime and scored the game-winning basket, but that did not gain him exoneration for his benching.

“He wasn’t doing what we needed him to do,” Barnes said. “I told him, ‘You’re either going to do what we need you to do, or you’re not going to play.’ ”

Texas suffered the false assumption of many pre-season forecasts — that everyone would at least match their production from the year before.  But Ridley regressed, averaging 8.0 points and 5.1 rebounds after going for 11.2 points and 8.2 rebounds in 2013-14. Holmes dropped to 10.0 points per game after leading the team with 12.8 a year earlier.

A viable part of the discussion is not that Texas necessarily got worse, but that the Big 12 got better. The conference led the nation with seven teams in the Top 45 of ESPN’s projected Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), a tool used by the NCAA Selection Committee to assess teams.

But Auerbach doesn’t believe there is an elite team in the conference.

“What’s even more disappointing about Texas’ performance is that the league has been very inconsistent, and everybody has beaten up on everybody,” Auerbach said. “But Texas hasn’t. They’ve beaten the bad teams and occasionally a good team. There have been so many opportunities for Texas to get back on track.”

Texas’ drop-off from November to March was as confounding as it was precipitous. But for all of the issues that plagued the Longhorns, Katz believes their season can be summed up simply.

“Texas is building back up a culture of winning,” Katz said. “It isn’t there yet.”

This story has been updated from an earlier version that incorrectly reported Jonathan Holmes’ statistics due to an editing error.