1) Texas is back
Before the season started, I was able to sit down with Longhorn guard Demarcus Holland for a 1-on-1 interview for a feature I was working on. One of the messages that Holland stressed was how this year would be different.
"Nobody wants to lose like that, especially not at the University of Texas," Holland said. "I wouldn't say last season is going to fuel this season, because that season is over with. We're just going to do what we should have done. It's not because of what people think. That's not why we're working harder now. It's because Texas is known for winning. And we were losing.
"We're not going to have that happen again," Holland said.
The reason I interviewed Holland was that reports were coming out of spring and summer that Holland and Jonathan Holmes (along with the departed Ioannis Papapetrou) had really assumed a leadership role, and were pushing guys to be better. It wasn't necessarily an easy role for either to fill, at least not from a vocal standpoint. But they knew what the team needed to do to be successful.
The result was the Longhorns' best season since 2010-2011, one that saw Texas spend some time in the top-25, finish third in the Big 12 and make the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.
Perfect season? Far from it. And the Longhorns did stumble down the stretch. But with a team that relied so heavily on freshmen and sophomores — the 'Horns were one of the youngest teams in the country — those kinds of struggles could be anticipated. The hope now is that with another year, and potentially everybody back, they'll be able to take the next step forward, contend for a Big 12 title and make a deep postseason run.
2) The Longhorns' talent was undersold heading into this season
If there's a reason to be optimistic on those fronts, it's that the Longhorns are much more talented than most gave them credit for.
Re-rank Isaiah Taylor, and you're probably pushing him into the four-star or higher range. He's one of the Big 12's top young point guards.
And Jonathan Holmes might be the top all-round four in the Big 12. Out of the league's players who spent most of their minutes at the power forward spot, Holmes was fourth in conference play in scoring (behind Le'Bryan Nash, Perry Ellis, and Cameron Clark), second in rebounding (just 0.2 behind Dustin Hogue) and first in blocked shots. Cameron Ridley was probably the league's second-best center, behind Kansas's Joel Embiid. Add in the low-post depth with the scoring ability of Connor Lammert and the defense and shot-blocking of Prince Ibeh, and the Longhorns have a talented and deep stable of post players, including potentially the top four and five returning for next year.
Then there's Demarcus Holland, the league's best returning wing defender, honorable mention All-Big 12 pick Javan Felix and several talented young wings who just finished up their freshman seasons. Incoming freshman Jordan Barnett will add length and athleticism as well.
One of the popular narratives over the past few years has been that Barnes and his staff have struggled on the recruiting trail, and when you look at the Marcus Smarts, Harrison twins, Julius Randles, etc., it's an easy one to latch onto. But there are still some really highly recruited players on this team, and the staff did an outstanding job of evaluating the other players. Going into next year, Texas will have plenty of athleticism and size, and they'll bring back some of the league's best players.
3) Developing skill is the next step
So what's next? Texas has to develop the basketball skill to accompany that. I realize that's a broad term, but you can take it to mean that the Longhorns have to get crisper in their ball-handling and passing, develop their shooting touches more and continue to build their basketball IQs in a general sense.
Texas's lack of skill this year was one of the things that came back to bite the Longhorns … while Ridley was ferocious in the post, he received relatively few services inside because the team wasn't great at entering the ball into the post, nor at finding him as he rolled away from setting a pick. Overall, the Longhorns' assist rate was under 50 percent, indicating a team that didn't move the ball a ton.
Felix, the team's top shot-taker, had an effective field goal percentage of just 43.7 percent. Taylor was at 39.8 percent and Holland was at 44.6 percent, marking one of the Big 12's worst-shooting starting backcourts. Moving Martez Walker into Felix's spot certainly helps, as his percentage was up at 48.8, and he projects as a plus shooter and scorer. And Taylor has the potential to develop his stroke, shooting 85.3 percent from the free throw line in Big 12 play, the second-best mark in the conference.
And though the Longhorns' effective field goal percentage ranked 262nd in the country, it should be noted that Holmes, Holland and Ridley all made substantial leaps forward in their second seasons on roster.
This year, Texas basically subsisted through raw effort, drawing free throws and hitting the glass on offense, while protecting the rim on defense. The next step will be to develop more skill on roster. It's not a unique approach — certainly Kansas coach Bill Self has often favored toughness and athleticism over skill when he's had to choose in recruiting. But Self has been able to develop that skill in players who have stuck around Lawrence, and look for Barnes to do the same. If Texas can start doing the little things, moving the ball, entering it into the post, shooting better and rotating better on defense, the Longhorns could make another serious leap next year.