NEW YORK – Texas has come a long way from a couple of years ago. There were bad memories then, and there will be good ones from right now.
Two years ago, Texas had fallen on hard times. A consistently very good program, with a Final Four run in 2003, the Longhorns lost to Chaminade in the Maui Invitational. That was the start of a bad year, and the continuation of a downward trend for the program from one that was a consistent big winner. The year before, they barely made the NCAA Tournament. It got so bad that there was speculation that Rick Barnes’ job may be on the line.
That time hasn’t been forgotten by Jonathan Holmes, or Barnes, for that matter. Barnes remembered how the players dubbed themselves the “Chaminade Crew” from it. But now the Longhorns are the champions in an in-season tournament after convincingly beating California 71-55 in the 2K Classic. Holmes was the tournament MVP after scoring 21 points and hauling down 13 rebounds in the final.
Texas has forged a defensive identity, led by their great big men up front. If there’s one thing this team has, it’s rim protectors. With Holmes, Connor Lammert, Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh and highly-touted freshman Myles Turner, the Longhorns blocked 10 shots on Friday after seven on Thursday night, and have swatted away 29 in the first four games. For good measure, they are also owning the boards, as they have a rebounding margin of just under nine per game in the early going.
“It’s like a five- or six-headed monster they’ve got down there, and if you take one out they throw three more back at you,” said California big man David Kravish.
Javan Felix was just about speechless when those numbers were mentioned. It does something else for them, something they might need to do more often.
“That definitely starts our transition offense,” said the junior guard. “That’s something we try to hang our hat on.”
All of that frustrated California on Friday night. The Golden Bears eventually got to 31.3 percent shooting from the field when the game was over, but were stuck below 30 percent for much of the night. The Golden Bears have a good offense, but they had some ugly stat lines in this one. Jabari Bird was 2-8 from the field, Tyrone Wallace was 5-17, and leading scorer Jordan Mathews was 3-12.
Holmes has been a big part of this transformation. When others left the program, he stuck around, wanting to be part of the solution since he felt he was part of the problem. Since his sophomore year, he has grown by leaps and bounds, with Barnes saying that “he literally lives in our practice facility.” Almost entirely a post player for much of his career, he is now a tough matchup as he has been very effective away from the basket as a big wing alongside bigger players inside.
And it’s because he and others stayed when some left that this championship feels even better for him.
“It’s good to do it with this group of guys,” said Holmes. “It shows the progress of this group. It’s really good to look back and see how we’ve grown, how much better we’ve gotten and how we stuck together.”
Certainly, not having Isaiah Taylor will hurt going forward. The sophomore floor leader is likely out for a while with a left wrist injury he suffered during Thursday night’s win over Iowa. Barnes said they will know more about it after they get back to Austin; ESPN reported that he’s out 4-6 weeks. But the Longhorns have an experienced floor leader behind him in Felix, so while they lose something, it could be worse. Where they will miss Taylor even more is his scoring, as perimeter scoring is a concern for Texas, and that’s one reason transition baskets will help.
On Friday night, Felix had a modest stat line: nine points on 2-8 shooting, four assists, five turnovers. But he did enough to run the show, and got help from the defense. He’s not Taylor, and won’t try to be, but he’ll likely fill in better than a backup who hadn’t played much before.
“We all feel very comfortable with Javan running the point,” said Lammert. “Isaiah’s going to be back soon, we’re just going to have to have that ‘next man up’ mentality.”
The season is still young, and the impact of not having Taylor for an extended period is not known. At this early stage, the Longhorns have proven something, and it’s not just that they are on the path to contending in the Big 12. They have a clear defensive identity and will make life difficult for opposing offenses. They’ve already gone from the Chaminade Crew to being tournament champions, one step along the way to their ultimate goal for the season.