Flaherty: The overall feeling is that Texas has not only met, but exceeded expectations. The Longhorns were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12, and instead finished third. And while many thought this would be the final year of Rick Barnes's tenure at Texas, the team rebounded to make the NCAA Tournament after missing it last year for the first time under Barnes. Could the season have been better? Certainly, and Texas had a bit of a collapse of sorts down the stretch. But overall, it has been a better season than most expected.
Flaherty: The two biggest leaders are Holmes and Demarcus Holland, and it's tough to put a finger on who the most significant players are on the team, for better or worse. When the All-Big 12 teams came out, Holmes was the lone selection to the first, second or third team. But four other players earned some kind of mention, including Taylor on the freshman team and Holland and Ridley on the defensive team. Additionally, Javan Felix, Ridley and Taylor earned All-Big 12 Honorable mention. Texas is largely a team without stars, the kind of squad that depends on a different player every night.
As for what makes Holmes and Taylor so good, Holmes is a prototypical stretch four who can make shots at all three levels, but he's also physical enough to be an outstanding rebounder and post presence. Taylor is lightning quick and does a nice job of dropping in a mid-range floater, or at drawing contact around the basket. Though he was only a three-star recruit, he seems to have all kinds of upside.
Who are some of the players for Texas that get less of the accolades but are still some of the bigger contributors on this team?
Flaherty: Holland is one of the Big 12's top two wing defenders (along with Kansas's Andrew Wiggins). And while the Longhorns won't typically ask him to go it alone on a top wing talent, he has shown a significant impact there. But arguably the most important player for Texas is center Cameron Ridley. Ridley is 6-foot-10 and 285 pounds with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, and that combination of size, strength and length makes him a handful on both ends of the court. He's one of the league's best shot-blockers, and he's a high-level rebounder (especially on the offensive end) and tough to stop when he posts deep in the paint.
What would you list as some of the major strengths and weaknesses of this team?
Flaherty: They might be the same thing. Texas's strength lies in its balance, that the Longhorns can get 20-plus points from Taylor, Felix, Holmes or Ridley on a given night. The Longhorns are one of the nation's top shot-blocking and offensive rebounding teams, and they're athletic enough in the backcourt to get out and give people problems in transition. Also, not many people have the depth to matchup with Texas's four post players, all of whom are 6-foot-8-plus.
Texas's biggest weakness could also be its balance. The Longhorns don't have a true go-to-guy when the chips are down (it would have been Ioannis Papapetrou, who shockingly left the team to go pro late this summer, just before he was supposed to report). Because of that, the role has been semi-forced on Felix, who isn't a natural No. 1 scoring option. The offense can stagnate at times.
How would you characterize the Longhorns' style of play on both ends of the court?
Flaherty: Texas wants to get up-and-down on offense, and they have the speed in the backcourt to do so. At the same time, few teams have been able to out-tough the Holmes-Ridley-Prince Ibeh-Connor Lammert grouping. The Longhorns are both athletic and physical, though they aren't as skilled in a basketball sense as some teams are.
Much like Arizona State, Texas has struggled beating quality opponents on the road for the last month and half. What do you attribute those struggles to?
Flaherty: A lot of Texas's struggles have come from who they played on the road late. Out of Texas's five road losses to close out the year, four came to the league's top four teams (other than the Longhorns). Kansas won the league. Oklahoma was second. Iowa State tied with Texas for third. And Kansas State finished just a game back in fifth. Only the loss to Texas Tech was unexpected, if you could even call it that, as the Red Raiders have been tough in Lubbock this year as well, blasting Baylor, beating Oklahoma State and losing to Kansas by one on a buzzer-beater. Tech even went up to Oklahoma and handed the Sooners a loss.
So, quite a bit of it was that Texas just had a brutally tough road slate to close out the season. Having said that, certainly the Longhorns could have executed better in those games. Texas was pretty sloppy in each contest.
Head Coach Rick Barnes has been in Austin for the last 15 years. Has his tenure been a pretty smooth one and do you expect him to finish his coaching career at Texas?
Flaherty: It's tough to describe it as smooth, in that Barnes has often been a magnet for criticism, fair or unfair. Last year was the first time Barnes missed the NCAA Tournament, though if we're being honest, the previous year wasn't all that special either. The 2010-2011 team was the last squad Barnes had that had a chance to make a run, and even that team bowed out in the Round of 32. Barnes hasn't had a team go to the Sweet 16 or beyond since 2007-08, when the Longhorns went to the Elite Eight. And his lone Final Four came in the 2002-03 season.
Texas doesn't have a great overall basketball history. And certainly Barnes has created a level of consistency not previously seen on the 40 Acres. But there are Texas fans out there who want more. Barnes has said that when it's time to hang 'em up, he'll know. And right now, it isn't that time. But it's also too close to the struggles of the past few years to be able to make any sort of long-term proclamations.
Granted, Texas isn't all that familiar with Arizona State, but are the early predictions in Austin are that they can win this contest let alone go deep in the tournament?
Flaherty: I think most expect this game to be a really close one, with Texas ultimately having a chance to win thanks to its physicality, defense and presence on the boards. At the same time, there's a question of whether the Longhorns can keep Jahii Carson in check and whether the post offense will be effective with Jordan Bachynski protecting the rim. After that, it's anybody's guess. A showdown with Michigan would force the Longhorns to deal with the Wolverines' offense, though Texas again would be much more physical. Is a Sweet 16 run possible? Sure. Anything in the NCAA Tournament is possible. But the Longhorns better be focused against Arizona State, because that's a game that could easily go either way.