Basketball

Great Expectations

Texas basketball. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Texas basketball. (Will Gallagher/IT)

It’s been more than a decade since expectations have been this high for Texas Men’s basketball, ranked No. 10 in the preseason coaches’ poll — and for good reason. Make that five good reasons.

The Horns return all five starters from last season’s surprising squad that reached the 3rd Round of the NCAA Tournament. The roster includes leading scorer Jonathan Holmes (12.8 ppg) who earned 2nd-Team, All-Big 12 honors last season. All told, Texas returns 94 percent of its scoring, 94 percent of its rebounding and 97 percent of its assists.

“It would disappoint me if our guys were thinking in those terms (heightened expectations) right now,” said Texas coach Rick Barnes. “We’ve got a lot of work to do. So much can change at any point in time.”

Indeed. In fact, what a difference a year makes. Many assumed Barnes was on his last leg this time last year after he dismissed the four top scorers from his only Longhorn squad that failed to reach the Big Dance. His 2013-14 team raised eyebrows with an early win at North Carolina before bearing four consecutive nationally-ranked opponents for the first time in school history.

If the great expectations are met, it will largely stem from the production Texas gets from its bench, Barnes believes. He acknowledges that he now has more depth than at any time in his Austin tenure. This will also be the biggest lineup Barnes has assembled with four players 6-foot-8 or taller.

Then there’s that little matter of freshman F Myles Turner (‘little’ as in 6-foot-11, 240 pounds). ESPN listed Turner as the nation’s No. 2 overall prospect after averaging 18.1 points, 12.2 rebounds and 6.8 blocked shots at Euless Trinity in 13-14. He is also the preseason Co-Big 12 Freshman of the Year. Turner’s biggest adjustment, understandability, is acclimating to the speed of the collegiate game and the physicality of practice.

“I’m operating at the post more than I did in high school because, in high school, I played more on the perimeter than I should have,” Turner said. “Now, coach Barnes has made it a focal point down here in the paint.”

Turner isn’t the only Longhorn who believes the preseason pundits may actually be underestimating the current squad. After all, Kansas is once again favored to claim the league title.

“People are expecting us to do a lot of things,” Turner said, “but we’re expecting to do even bigger things. We want to win a Big 12 championship. We want to win a NCAA championship. We’re expecting both.”

Sophomore Isaiah Taylor seconded the motion. The lightly-recruited point guard earned a spot in the starting lineup as a true freshman but still carries a chip on his shoulder.

“We still have doubters,” Taylor said. “People are still underestimating Texas basketball. That’s something that’s going to fuel me and my team.”

Even though the 2013-14 campaign was viewed as a bounce back season, Taylor insists the only reason why expectations were exceeded was because expectations were so low.

“Last year, we really didn’t accomplish anything,” Taylor added. “We didn’t win the Big 12. We lost in the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament. All we did was establish a new culture for this team as a blue-collar culture.”

Turner enters the Texas culture after growing up with Kevin Durant posters in his bedroom. But Turner faces a much different dynamic than when Durant was one of four freshmen pressed into action. Turner, along with fellow freshman Jordan Barnett, must battle those five returning starters and 10 upperclassmen for playing time.

The depth is so impressive that, for one of the few times during Barnes’ tenure, the head coach still isn’t sure what the starting lineup will be. As always, Barnes will tinker with the rotation during a formidable nonconference slate that will immediately test Texas’ lofty ranking.

The schedule includes trips to No. 1 Kentucky and to defending national champ (No. 15) Connecticut. Texas is also scheduled to face No. 25 Iowa, and potentially No. 24 Syracuse, as part of the 2K Classic benefitting the Wounded Warriors Project. Texas opens the season at home on November 14 against North Dakota State as part of the 2K Classic.

The Big 12 emerged last season as college hoops toughest conference, and there is no sign of fall-off. Texas has home-and-away dates against No. 5 Kansas, No. 14 Iowa State, and No. 19 Oklahoma.

“If just you talk about it, you lose sight of it,” Barnes said of preseason expectations. “If you’re not getting better, you’re going to get knocked off, plain and simple. It’s fun when people talk about you, and it’s great for everybody. But I also know that it’s not fun when people aren’t talking well about you. The fact is (people still ask), ‘What have you done today?’ We could have a big win tomorrow but, if we turn around three days later and lose, then everything is gone tomorrow.”

For now, tomorrow looks bright for Burnt Orange hoops.