1) Where are the points coming from?
Simply put: any discussion about this season's Longhorns has to start with where they'll be able to find buckets. Texas had eight players who used enough possessions to be considered "role players." Out of those players, five had offensive ratings of of 90 or higher. Keep in mind, that's not a great rating. Kansas, for instance, had five players with offensive ratings of 112 or higher. The Longhorns' highest rating was just 104.5 (belonging to Myck Kabongo).
The point is this: Texas was a poor offensive team last year, and the Longhorns lost four of those five players with offensive ratings of 90 or above. The lone returnee is forward Jonathan Holmes (97.7), a player who appeared to be putting some things together offensively before breaking his hand. Holmes averaged 11 points and 7.7 rebounds in the seven games prior to breaking his hand, including 13.5 points and nine rebounds in the two games before the injury.
Much of the scoring burden was expected to go to Ioannis Papapetrou, a player with certain offensive gifts who appeared to put everything together in the offseason. Instead, Papapetrou's big summer attracted the attention of top Greek club Olympiakos, which snapped up the blooming forward.
Texas probably doesn't have a guy who is a 15-to-20 points per game type of scorer, though the Longhorns do have some players who are capable of scoring in the 10-12 points per game range. One is Holmes, while another is point guard Javan Felix, who scored at that pace before getting replaced in the starting lineup when Kabongo returned. Felix earned some positive praise with his play at the Team USA trials, and Cameron Ridley did the same by playing well at Adidas Nations. Both will be key, with Ridley in particular posing an intriguing possibility. He's a high-level offensive rebounder who draws fouls on a high percentage of his attempts. Unfortunately, he shot just 33.3 percent on those freebies. A bit more aggression — as he showed against top talents at Adidas — and a bit better free throw shooting would go a long way.
Whether Texas can get some other pieces involved will depend on how the coaches decide to tinker with the lineup. Demarcus Holland will be a mainstay because of his defense, and he can score in an up-and-down game. His shooting is expected to be much improved. And the freshmen could factor in here as well, with Isaiah Taylor (because he creates looks for others) and Damarcus Croaker (creates opportunities for himself) being likely candidates. Keep an eye on Martez Walker — he's the most raw of the incoming freshmen, but his primary talents are toughness and shooting ability. He might be needed. Other rotational pieces like Kendal Yancy, Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert will have to chip in.
2) But can Texas find a great defense?
For much of last year, Texas had one of the top defenses in the country, but it was somewhat of a one-legged barstool. Ken Pomeroy lists four factors toward having an efficient defense: Effective Field Goal percentage defense, forced turnover percentage, offensive rebounds allowed percentage and free throw rate allowed.
While Texas's defense was high on efficiency for a big part of the year, it was only because the Longhorns had a ridiculously low eFG defense. Texas finished sixth nationally in the category, but the Longhorns were a solid No. 1 (read: well ahead of No. 2) before fading down the stretch.
Here's the problem: Texas was terrible in the other three factors. Texas forced turnovers on 19.1 percent of its opponents' possessions (224th nationally) and allowed opponents to grab 33.8 percent of the potential offensive rebounds (259th). And they put opposing teams on the foul line, ranking 294th in defensive free throw rate.
All of which is to say that while Texas was a top-25 defense for half to three-quarters of the year, the Longhorns can get considerably better. Looking at things from an individual standpoint, both Ridley (9.2) and Ibeh (12.0) had block rates that would have put them in the nation's top 50 with more minutes. Holmes was 293rd in defensive rebound percentage. That's very good, but not quite elite. And Holland gives the Longhorns a potentially elite wing defender, a huge plus in a league that will be loaded with wing scorers.
Defending the other wing spot could be a slight issue. There's something to be said for having a long 6-foot-8 guy in that spot, and without Papapetrou, Texas doesn't have somebody to match up there. But the post defense should again make interior shots tough, Felix has the ability to be pesky at times, and some of the freshmen have a chance to stand out defensively, with Taylor and Yancy likely to help in that area. With Yancy's strength and length, he could help out on the wing, while Taylor's quick hands — he averaged six steals per game at The Village School in Houston — could pester multiple positions.
3) A little bit older (barely), but fairly experienced in an inexperienced world
Last year, Texas was the youngest team in the nation. That's not hyperbole — the Longhorns ranked 347th nationally in experience, per KenPom. Things will only be slightly better this year. While last year's team had no scholarship juniors and seniors, this year's roster has … one. That's Holmes, who has played a major role in the Longhorns' plans for two seasons now.
But while Texas won't be especially old, the Longhorns will have four players who started double-digit games a year ago in Holmes, Felix, Ridley and Holland.
That might not seem like much, but remember that, aside from Oklahoma State, the league is largely rebooting. Kansas lost all five starters (but had an elite recruiting class). Baylor returns its twin towers, but loses Pierre Jackson, the straw that stirred the Bears' drink. Kansas State? Bunch of production gone, including the Wildcats' two most important players in Rodney McGruder and Angel Rodriguez. Iowa State lost the entirety of its four-man backcourt that made the Cyclones so tough to beat.
It won't be a down year for college basketball this year as a whole, because there's more talent, and better teams. But other than the top two squads in the Big 12 — Kansas and Oklahoma State — and potentially Baylor, the Big 12 is really wide open.