Over the next few weeks, I'll be taking an in-depth look at every school in the Big 12. I'll focus on the past (i.e. last season's strengths and weaknesses), the changes (i.e. incoming freshmen, departing seniors, new coaches), and the future.
Texas had an unbearable season last year. From afar, they made the NCAA tournament (albeit as an 8-seed), they were ranked in the top 25 much of the season, and they won 24 games. However, if you watched the season's arc, you know why those facts make the season hurt even more. Texas came into the season ranked number three in both polls. They were uber talented, combining young guns with interior experience. After two weeks, they moved up to number two, following Michigan State's loss; seven weeks later, they took over the number one spot in both polls. Texas had beaten defending champion UNC (who, along with UCLA, shared a lot of the crash-and-burn spotlight with the Longhorns last season--note to Texas fans: at least you made the tournament), Tom Izzo's Final Four weathered Spartans, and a Pitt team that turned out to be very good. The Longhorns won their first 12 games in dominating fashion.
People, myself included, should've noticed something wasn't quite right when the Longhorns let Corpus Christi give them a game (in Austin no less!). Or maybe three games later, when they had to come back in the second half against a struggling Iowa State team. But no one did. Coach, Rick Barnes couldn't settle on a point guard, and his indecision lead to a sloppy, confused offense that lost to Oklahoma, among many others. The Longhorns went from 17-0 to 24-10 by the end of the season, putting the icing on the cake with one of the ugliest (close) tournament games, when they lost to Wake Forest because Gary Johnson missed two free throws in OT (not that he was alone, they missed 13 from the charity stripe on the game).
Needless to say, I'm hesitant to endorse the Longhorns this season. More after the jump.
The bad news for Texas (in addition to everything I wrote earlier), is that they lost four of their starters (Bradley, James, Mason, and Pittman) to graduation. Hard to believe a team that finished the season 7-10 had three NBA draftees (Bradley was picked 19th by the Celtics, James was picked 24th by the Hawks and traded to the Nets, and Pittman was picked 32nd by the Heat). Obviously, losing four starters will be difficult; especially when the four depart with 55.8% of your points and 54.2% of your rebounds. That would appear to be an insurmountable obstacle.
Luckily for the Longhorns, they're bringing in two McDonalds All-Americans in Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson. The two blue-chip recruits should make Texas one of the most talented teams in the Big 12. Jordan Hamilton is the team's top returning scorer (averaging 10.0 ppg), but he only averaged twenty minutes last season. Prorating his stats out to 40 minutes a game and suddenly Hamilton is averaging a very strong 20.0 ppg and 7.4 rpg. J'Covan Brown showed some promise last season (dropping 26 second half points on Kansas and 20 second half points against Wake Forest), but Texas will need him to be much more consistent. Senior, Douglas Balbay is reportedly ready to start practicing next month after suffering a torn ACL February 20th against Texas Tech. But Rick Barnes needs to be sure to choose his point guard and stick with him: if one thing can be learned from Texas' spontaneous destruction last season, it's that consistency is crucial for running the offense. As a senior, Balbay would seem like the obvious choice, but we'll just have to wait and see.
Unfortunately, the frontline is where Texas suffered its largest losses. Alexis Wangmene (Clint Chapman or Matt Hill could work too) will have to try and replace Dexter Pittman's efficient presence in the post. Aforementioned recruit, Tristan Thompson, should help out immediately inside, but the Longhorns lack a true post presence. Jordan Hamilton will almost certainly be forced into the three spot. This team may have to resort to a small, athletic lineup for a lot of games depending on how well their possible centers develop. Not that small and athletic are bad attributes, but Kansas State, Baylor, and Kansas could reek havoc inside.
The Longhorns are clearly a second-tier team, at best, this season. I don't see (barring a POY-esque performance from someone) any way they can bounce back from last season and be a conference contender this season. But I still think they will be a tournament team. They have a difficult, but doable nonconference schedule featuring games:
- against UNC, who suddenly have a much more shallow frontline than expected following Ed Davis' early departure and the Wear twins' transfers. I think this is definitely a winnable game for the Longhorns, but it's going to come down to who has the better point guard (otherwise known as, who makes the least mistakes).
- at Michigan State. Sorry, I'm not seeing this one go in Texas' favor...but Izzo's teams do have a habit of struggling in December. But don't hold your breath.
- home against UConn. This is a "must-win" in my opinion, since UConn should be facing a down year, it's at home, and it's a pretty strong nonconference opponent which always looks good come Selection Sunday.
As for their conference schedule, Texas drew Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, and Baylor twice. I don't see much way they compete with Baylor, but they should be able to beat their other two-play opponents (although I expect they split with Oklahoma State or A&M). This would leave them with a conference record of 9-7...which seems generous considering Rick Barnes only managed 9-7 last year with a much better team. I'm going to predict Texas goes 8-8 in conference play, but shines in the conference tournament enough to make them an at-large bid on Selection Sunday.
Predicted Conference Record: 8-8
Follow me on Twitter: @rise_and_fire