1) Rick Barnes coached a heck of a game
For several years — mostly when used to point out how Barnes's teams didn't make the expected tournament runs with the talent he had — Texas's coach received a (perhaps unfair) reputation for being a step behind in X's and O's. But there were times a year ago that Barnes appeared pretty successful in that element, calling timeouts more often and out-coaching Fred Hoiberg down the stretch of the Longhorns' victory against Iowa State.*
* Hoiberg, of course, is considered to be one of the league's best strategists.
And he was stellar yet again on Friday. Texas rolled out three different zone defenses, then, just when Mercer figured out the last version, Barnes called a timeout and switched to man. That change ignited an 18-2 run that put Texas up for good, and was one of three highly successful timeouts called by Barnes.
On the second such timeout — called when the Longhorns were up just 71-69 with 1:39 left — Barnes drew up a nice pick-and-pop play that left Jonathan Holmes with a wide open three on the wing. Holmes canned it for a five-point lead.
Barnes's third timeout didn't go quite as well. The play worked as called — a double screen on the wings, with both Javan Felix and Demarcus Holland curling around the screens and to the basket. But point guard Isaiah Taylor catch Felix breaking open quickly enough, and shoveled the ball to Holland, who missed a contested shot.*
* It appeared (and sounded like) Holland was fouled at the game, but no foul was called.
Barnes called one last timeout, a 30-second timeout after a Daniel Coursey dunk gave Texas the ball, up one, with 10 seconds remaining. Mercer set up a press, but Texas torched it, leading to a throw-ahead to Holland, who dunked it to provide the winning margin.
How a team comes out of a timeout is a typical gauge for a coach's ability to influence a game with his coaching acumen. And over those four timeouts in the game's final 10 minutes, Barnes got Texas into some good plays and helped to facilitate a close win. Add in how well the Longhorns played from an offensive motion standpoint — there was much less standing around and much better spacing than last year — and Barnes had a strong season opener.
2) Isaiah Taylor
Of course, as the saying goes, X's and O's aren't as important as the Jimmies and the Joes. And while it's way early, the staff deserves major kudos for uncovering a gem in point guard Isaiah Taylor. Basketball prospects are much easier to evaluate than football. For one thing, there are fewer players. And for two, the best players typically play each other, which isn't usually the case in football.
Yet somehow, the spindly Taylor fell through the cracks. A three-star prospect according to Scout.com, Taylor's biggest offers came from Alabama, Creighton and Fresno State, along with talented point guard evaluator Larry Brown at SMU.
Taylor certainly out-played his ranking in his opener, finishing three points shy of the Texas freshman debut record, set by Kevin Durant. But it wasn't just the 17 points Taylor scored, it was the way he got them, using his quickness and savvy to get to the basket and draw contact. The new foul rules are built to allow players like Taylor to take advantage of their burst, and he went to the line a whopping 14 times (no other Longhorn went more than four).
Don't expect Taylor to drop 17 points on a nightly basis … he's more of a pass-first point guard in the first place. But do expect him to have higher assist numbers than the two assists that he had for the game. Taylor did do a nice job of generating open looks for his teammates, it's just that they didn't make those shots. He very easily could have had something like a 17-point, six-assist type night.
Still, it was encouraging to see Taylor come out and show the kind of understanding and basketball IQ needed to put together that strong performance. He saw that the referees were giving him the benefit of the doubt on those contact plays, and he did a really nice job of using that to his advantage. When Mercer had to extend its defense a bit, the Longhorns were able to get big results inside in the second half.
A lot of that came through Ridley, who did some nice things from an effort and positioning standpoint in the first half, but didn't have the numbers to show for it. It was pretty disappointing to see that for all his work, Ridley had just two points on 1-of-3 shooting and two rebounds in the first half. He also had two blocks.
But in the second half, Ridley's work paid off. He scored one basket by out-running the opposing center to the basket, then setting up shop and holding him off to score. It was the type of play that Ridley wouldn't have been able to make last year after reporting to the Longhorns at 312 pounds.
Ridley only had four shots in the second half, though he hit two of them, and he went to the free throw line four times. Two of those came when he had his man sealed off for an easy dunk, and Coursey grabbed him, earning an intentional foul in the process. But along with the six points that he scored in the second half, Ridley also grabbed an astounding nine second-half rebounds and blocked three more shots.
Overall, he looked so much more spry than a year ago, and looked much more like the former five-star prospect who earned rave reviews for his size, length (he has a 7-foot-4 wingspan) and his rebounding ability. Ridley presents a unique advantage for the Longhorns, as most other teams in the league aren't going to have players capable of matching up with Ridley's size and feet. And if he can keep rebounding like he did in the second half, while continuing to get position and work to put down the point-blank shots he gets, he could be a major factor all season.