Looking at the Longhorns
Buying in. That's the general message from Texas coach Rick Barnes to anybody who wonders why the Longhorns will be better than last year: the players have bought in.
There wasn't any question that last year's team was hard to watch. The 'Horns just never looked like a cohesive unit, and Barnes yo-yo'd the playing time of various players as their effort levels rose and waned. Not surprisingly, the offseason saw a mass exodus from Austin, leaving the Longhorns without some proven Big 12-caliber talent, but with a new outlook on life.
How much is that worth? The Big 12 picked Texas eighth of 10 teams in its preseason poll, though it's worth noting that, other than Kansas and Oklahoma State (and maybe Baylor), most of the spots in the league are considered a massive toss-up. And it's that instability in the league that gives an inexperienced Longhorn squad a glimmer of hope this year. Texas isn't chock full of proven production, but neither is anybody else.
The Longhorns do return four players who started double-digit games a year ago, and a few of those guys — including Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh inside — were responsible for Texas putting out an elite-level defense for the firs half of last year. The bigger question is this: where will the points come from? And that doesn't appear to be a one-size-fits-all answer.
Ridley is the most common suggestion, especially after an offseason that saw him reshape his body and start to look more like the five-star prospect he was coming out of high school. Overweight a year ago, Ridley still had his moments, like a transcendent first half against UCLA in Houston, when he looked like a major player. His free throw rate — the rate at which he drew fouls per field goal attempts — was off the charts, and if he's improved his free throw stroke at all, he has a chance to score an easy double digits.
Returnees Javan Felix and Jonathan Holmes have also shown those flashes. Holmes was averaging 11 points per game in his last seven games before injuring his wrist last year, and is in better shape this year. Felix, like Ridley, came to campus a bit heavy, then saw his shooting efficiency plummet after Myck Kabongo's suspension asked him to handle the point guard spot for 35 minutes per night. This year, thanks to the addition of hyper-quick freshman point Isaiah Taylor, Felix will be able to play more off the ball, all the better to allow him to display more of his natural scoring instincts. Demarcus Holland, too, should score more as his shooting touch improves.
Taylor is, at least for now, probably the best of a freshman class that will be depended on heavily from the outset. Martez Walker and Damarcus Croaker are pure scorers, while Kendal Yancy will fill in with a balanced game and defense. And backups Connor Lammert and Ibeh should help on the scoreboard as well.
First of all, anybody who thinks that this game should be a walk-in-the-park type of opener hasn't done their research. In Mercer, Texas plays host to a team that went 24-12 and 14-4 in the Atlantic Sun Conference last year, making it to within a game of the NCAA Tournament, where the Bears lost to Florida Gulf Coast. Florida Gulf Coast, of course, then made a major move in the tourney, upsetting Georgetown and San Diego State before falling to Florida in the Sweet 16.
Included among those 24 wins were victories at a 23-win Alabama team and at Florida State, and Mercer beat Tennessee in the opening round of the NIT before falling in round two. And the Bears return a number of key players from last year's squad, including four senior starters and eight of nine players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game. The lone loss is a big one — shooting guard Travis Smith was a long-range bomber and an efficient scorer who led the team with 13.9 points per game.
But the Bears have the players to replace Smith's production, likely coming from some combination of senior guard Anthony White Jr. (6-2 170), a key reserve a year ago, and Cleveland State transfer Ike Nwamu (6-5 205). The duo led their squads in scoring in Mercer's scrimmage earlier this fall, with Nwamu scoring 17 points and White scoring 16 with 4-of-8 shooting from three. Nwamu also boasts a nice long-distance profile, hitting 43.8 percent of his threes in his lone season at Cleveland State. Expect White to get the start Friday, giving the Bears five senior starters.
Whoever wins the job will start opposite point guard Langston Hall (6-4 180), an excellent player you probably haven't heard of. Hall scored 11.3 points and dished out 5.2 assists per game a year ago, while maintaining a stellar 2.27-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He ranked 31st nationally in assist rate and got to the free throw line at a nice rate, while shooting 84.8 percent from the free throw line. Don't sleep on him as an outside shooter either, as he hit 36.2 percent of his three-point attempts.
Hall is probably considered the Bears' best player, but if it's not him, it's Daniel Coursey (6-10 220). Coursey needs to improve his scoring touch a bit, but he's an outstanding offensive rebounder, and he was 54th nationally in block rate. His defense at the hoop allows Mercer to go 6-6 and 6-6 at the other forward spots. Jakob Gallon (6-6 200) scored 8.6 points per game and led the team with 5.0 rebounds per contest. Bud Thomas (6-6 200) is a do-it-all type who was actually in the top 400 nationally in both assist and turnover rate.
The Bears have a deep, nice-sized bench led by Monty Brown (6-11 250) and T J Hallice (6-9 205) inside. Kevin Canevari got some run a year ago as a backup point guard as well.
Last year, the Bears were both a top-half offense and defense in the country, while they were an outstanding free throw shooting team at 76.0 percent. The only issue there was that the Bears didn't go to the free throw line a whole lot. Defensively, the Bears did a nice job of packing things in, allowing opponents to shoot just 43.7 percent on their two-point looks (43rd nationally), a result of blocking 12.1 percent of their opponents' shots (53 percent).
How Texas Can Win
This is almost impossible to answer for the season's first game. We know what Texas wants to do — pound the ball inside in the halfcourt and run the court after defensive stops. But Texas's roster at this point is largely a motley collection of players either unproven, or unproven in their current roles.
Here's what we do know: a motivated Ridley is a tough matchup for anybody. There just aren't a lot of teams with 280-pound big men with Ridley's hands, feet and coordination out there. And Holmes, who can play outside of the paint a bit, would seem like an excellent complement. Texas has the tools to try and exploit Mercer inside. But Mercer also has the length to give Texas some issues.
Texas has to limit Mercer's clean looks from the outside and force the Bears to make shots over the Longhorns' long arms inside. And on the other side of the ball, Texas has to make Mercer pay for packing things in around Ridley, as they're likely to do. That means players like Felix, Holland and the freshmen will have to knock down outside jumpers.
Can Texas win? Sure. In fact, KenPom predicts a close Longhorn victory. And KenPom actually thought last year's Texas team was better than Mercer (though several of those Texas players are now gone). But there are just too many variables to make any sort of prediction at this point.