Michael C. Johnson-US PRESSWIRE
So we've taken out the trash so to speak, covering what will be the two worst teams in the league in Texas Tech and TCU. Now is where these predictions get interesting. To the shock of many, coming in at #8, the Texas Longhorns.
I know what you're thinking. No way Texas finishes 8th this year. They've got too much talent and Rick Barnes has led Texas to 14 straight NCAA tournaments. Allow me to explain. There is some serious depth in the Big 12 this year. Eight of the ten teams have a legit chance at making the NCAA tournament. Kansas is a safe pick in the top spot, but in spots two through eight, it's a crap shoot. I wouldn't be one bit shocked to see Texas finish in the top half of the league, but at this point, there's just too many unknowns surrounding this team.
Things like experience and veteran leadership are as foreign to today's college basketball as is the thought of a game without a three-point line. Just last year, we saw a Kentucky team made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores tear through the NCAA tournament and cut down the nets. It's obvious that Texas has talent. The Longhorns bring in another top ten class to Austin and they'll join a talented group of sophomores, but will it be enough? Who replaces J'Covan Brown's explosive scoring ability and is freshman Cameron Ridley ready to be a beast inside? Barnes has a team replete with youthful talent, but it's that youthfulness that ultimately will lead to another up and down season in Austin.
The aforementioned Ridley brings a ready-made Big 12 game and has been mentioned as a one-and-done caliber athlete. At 6'9" 270 pounds, he'll be a match up problem in the post from day one. Ridley's size will be a welcomed addition for forwards Jonathan Holmes and Jaylen Bond. The 6'7" sophomores were mainstays in the Longhorn rotation a season ago and each rebounded well, but neither were a particular threat scoring the ball. After that, the rotation is unclear. Texas brought in freshmen Prince Ibeh, Clark Lammert and Ioannis Papapetrou and each brings a different skill set. Ibeh is raw, but stands 6'10" and was highly sought after. Lammert is more of skilled post but needs to work on his strength and Papepetrou may end up being a versatile inside-outside threat. There may be more depth in Texas' frontcourt, but their success as a unit will hinge on how good Ridley can be.
Texas will rely heavily on a trio of sophomore guards. Myck Kabongo came to Austin as a heralded point guard and showed flashes during his freshman campaign of the player he can be, but was inconsistent throughout the season and showed to be more of a natural distributor than a scorer. Losing J'Covan Brown will certainly impact the scoring, but Texas may improve from an efficiency stand point as Brown was never one to shy away from a shot. Sheldon McClellan showed that he can be a scorer, chipping in 11.3 PPG a season ago. McClellan will look to fill that void in the offense from Brown's early departure. Julien Lewis also showed glimpses here and there. Primarily a spot up shooter, Lewis again will benefit from Kabongo's drive and kick ability. The most concerning thing about this backcourt is the inability to knock down the outside shot. Kabongo (31% 3PT), McClellan (31 3PT%) and Lewis (32 3PT%) all struggled from outside, and Barnes is going to need to see significant improvement if Texas is going keep teams from packing in their defensive sets this season. Freshmen Javan Felix and Demarcus Holland join the rotation and both will likely have to play some key minutes for the Longhorns.
Why They'll Finish 8th
I keep coming back to this one prevailing thought; what does Texas do well? This was a team that was average as far as scoring offense/defense went last year. They didn't shoot the ball particularly well as they were 8th in the conference in FG% and last in 3PT%. They weren't even a force on the glass as they were 6th in the league in that category. Ridley's presence and an extra year of growth may help on the boards and with some of the scoring efficiency, but this team is likely still going to struggle shooting from outside. I also think they'll have trouble manufacturing points in general. As I mentioned, Kabongo is more of a natural distributor and I just don't see McClellan joining the league's elite scorers yet. Finally, I just can't get passed the lack of experience. With the round robin schedule and a deep conference, I see a lot ups and downs for this team.
Why I Don't Know Shit
Rick Barnes has taken Texas to the NCAA tournament every year he's been in Austin. He's a proven recruiter and he's helped put a lot of guys in the NBA. Texas may be young, but they don't lack depth and they don't lack talent. Kabongo, McClellan, Holmes, Lewis and Bond have been through the Big 12 and even though they're sophomores they've shown they can not only compete, but can play at a high level.
An 8th place finish in this league is nothing to be ashamed of. The Big 12 may not have multiple national title contenders but there's some serious depth in this league. I fully expect the league to get at least 6-7 bids for the NCAA tournament and who knows, maybe we'll see an 8th team sneak in as well. Texas plays hands down, the most difficult non-conference schedule in the Big 12, so even if they slip to 8th in the league standings, their strength of schedule and quality wins numbers could still be enough to land them a bid. Ridley and Kabongo could depart to the NBA if they have good enough years, but if they don't, watch out for this team in '13-'14.