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Getting to know the Longhorns
Maybe we should have known Rick Barnes would have his Texas Longhorns right back in the thick of the Big 12 hunt this year.
But after the Horns went 16-18 last season and lost in the first round of the CBI Tournament (yes, that is a thing; it's a rung below the postseason NIT) it seemed easy to think Texas would spend 2013-14 rebuilding.
Not exactly. With three straight wins over ranked opponents, Texas nabbed a ranking of its own, coming in at No. 25 in this week's poll. The Longhorns are 16-4 overall and 5-2 in the Big 12, which puts them in third place (a half-game behind Oklahoma) entering Saturday.
Suddenly, Texas is one of the surprise teams of the nation. But, really, we should have seen it coming. As KU coach Bill Self talked about Friday morning, last season was an anomaly for UT.
Prior to the Horns' cameo in the CBI, Barnes led Texas to the NCAA Tournament in each of his first 14 years with the program. In fact, UT reached the Sweet 16 five times in the past 12 years. Only 12 other programs in the nation have made it to that stage at least five times in that span: Duke (nine), Kansas (nine), Michigan State (seven), Connecticut (six), Kentucky (six), North Carolina (six), Syracuse (six), Wisconsin (six), Arizona (five), Pittsburgh (five), Louisville (five) and Xavier (five).
Anybody who has kept up with the Big 12 since its inception in 1998-99 knows what Texas is capable of under Barnes. Obviously, Kansas (winner of nine straight league titles) has the best record in that span at 208-43. Behind the Jayhawks, in second, is Texas (172-79), with 23 more wins than Oklahoma.
Texas has won five straight games — vs. Texas Tech, at West Virginia, vs. Iowa State, vs. Kansas State and at Baylor — entering Saturday's showdown at the Erwin Center with No. 6 KU (16-4, 7-0).
So, how are the Longhorns doing it?
In Big 12 games, they are hitting 45.6% of their shots (second to KU's 54.4%), they lead the league in field-goal percentage defense at 40.6%, they're second in three-point field goal percentage defense (31.3%, only slightly behind Texas Tech's 30.6%), they pull down a league-best 38.4 rebounds a game and they swat 5.6 shots a game (second in the Big 12 to KU's 5.9 blocks).
In its current win streak, Texas is holding opponents to 66.6 points a game on 39.2% shooting and 25.9% from three-point land.
Let's meet the players who make it happen on both ends of the floor.
Jonathan Holmes, No. 10
6-8, 240, jr. forward
Holmes owns the signature play of the Longhorns' season to date, with a buzzer-beating three-pointer from the right corner that beat Kansas State, 67-64, on Jan. 21 in Austin. On the season, he has converted 19 of his 50 from downtown.
He and freshman guard Isaiah Taylor lead Texas with 15 double-figure scoring games so far this season. Holmes averages 12.9 points and 7.4 rebounds a game.
His board numbers are a little better in Big 12 games, in which he averages 8.3, third-best in the league.
Javan Felix, No. 3
5-11, 195, so. guard
The leading returning scorer from the disappointing 2012-13 Longhorns (6.8 points), Felix has scored in double figures 14 times in his second year at Texas.
This season, Felix is averaging 12.2 points and 3.0 assists. But he began to step up his game when UT got to its conference schedule. Through seven Big 12 games, the sophomore leads Texas with 15.6 points per game, and has made 40 of 97 field goals. In non-conference games, he shot 32.4% from the floor and averaged 10.3 points.
Felix dished five assists, with no turnovers, in the Longhorns' win over Baylor.
Isaiah Taylor, No. 1
6-1, 170, fr. guard
Taylor had a career night, scoring 27 points at Baylor this past Saturday, as you can see in the video clip below.
The young floor leader, who made 10 of 18 shots, seven of eight free throws, and had three steals and three assists, said after the game that the team's bigs, Cameron Ridley and Holmes, opened things up for the Longhorns' guards.
During UT's five-game winning streak, Taylor has averaged 13.4 points and 2.8 rebounds a game. On the year, he has put up 11.7 points and 3.7 assists a game.
Cameron Ridley, No. 55
6-9, 285, so. center
The big man's 8.9 rebounds a game in Big 12 play are second only to Oklahoma's Ryan Spangler (11.1). Ridley averages 3.1 offensive rebounds and 2.4 blocks in league games.
He swatted away five shots against Iowa State, marking the fourth time in his career he blocked at least five in one game. In fact, Ridley blocked six twice this season, against BYU (in a loss in November) and UT-Arlington.
The Longhorns' overall leading rebounder this season (7.8 a game) — and shot blocker (48 this season) — also scores 11.2 points an outing.
Demarcus Holland, No. 2
6-2, 185, so. guard
At 8.6 points a game, Holland doesn't light up the scoreboard too frequently, but he's a glue guy that makes Texas successful.
Even with a 6-2, 185-pound frame, the sophomore guard averages 5.0 rebounds. Holland fills his role-player duties so well that Barnes plays him 31.4 minutes a game. Holland leads Texas with 24 steals, and is third in assists (52).
Connor Lammert, No. 21
6-9, 235, so. forward
Sixth on the team in minutes (19.1 a game), the backup big is the Longhorns' fourth-best rebounder (4.8 a game). Lammert adds 5.5 points per game and shoots 50% from the floor.
Four times this season, Lammert has scored in double figures, the latest coming at Oklahoma State, where he contributed 11 on 5-for-8 shooting.
Prince Ibeh, No. 44
6-10, 250, so. center
Much like Ridley, Ibeh alters or blocks shots regularly. The backup center has turned away 39 of his opponents' shots and grabs 3.5 rebounds a game in just 13.6 minutes.
He's averaging 2.1 blocks in the Longhorns' last 14 games, has blocked at least three shots on four different occasions this year and adds 5.0 points.