This afternoon we got a chance to talk to Texas men's basketball coach Rick Barnes as well as all of the players as the Longhorns get ready to open the 2013-2014 season Friday night at the Frank Erwin Center against Mercer. Throughout the next few days, we'll be rolling out a ton of stuff from Barnes and players. In the meantime, here are some thoughts and notes from today's gathering:
*** If you missed it, there is a note pinned here about sophomore guard Javan Felix. Felix, who underwent a hip procedure in early October, has been working his way back to 100 percent. As we reported, the injury wasn't thought to be serious, and Felix participated in the team's second scrimmage against Gonzaga this past weekend. Felix indicated he's good to go, and Barnes mentioned that he, along with Jon Holmes, who had a minor hand injury recently, should be on the floor against Mercer.
"I think he will," said Barnes about Felix being in the lineup Friday. "He worked a little bit yesterday. Tomorrow we'll work him back in. Jon went through the entire workout yesterday and was cleared to go. If everything stands where it is right now, we expect to start Friday with all our guys."
Obviously, Felix being back is huge for Texas. It needs his leadership and scoring ability. Speaking of his scoring ability, there was a lot of talk from some of the players today about freshman Isaiah Taylor and Felix playing on the floor together. When that happens, Felix would normally play off the ball just like he did last season when he and Myck Kabongo were on the floor together. Taylor's quickness, ability to create, and pass-first mentality as a point guard is something the Horns need.
"He's proved that he can do that," responded Barnes about Taylor being able to get his teammates open looks. "He has to get consistent with it. He's very fast, quick with the ball. He has vision. We want to get out and run. He can defend too. He's probably … the new rule, once they came out, it's probably affected him more than anyone on the team. He was really getting up and getting into guys (on defense) and does a great job moving his feet. Now, trying to get him to move his hands back. It's taken a little of his aggression away, but he'll figure that out. He has done a good job of understanding what his job is getting us into our offense but really make it easier for other guys."
*** With the departure of Ioannis Papapetrou, Barnes mentioned freshman Martez Walker and the junior Holmes as players that could potentially fill that role. But UT's head coach knows there really isn't anyone on the roster like Papapetrou.
"Papi was unique in his versatility and I don't think we have a guy that would take his spot even though we've always worked with Jon there, being a little bigger on the perimeter," Barnes said. "You look at our incoming freshmen… Martez Walker is a guy, unorthodox, but can score some points in some different ways. But he's going to have to learn what it takes and what is a good shot and what isn't."
*** When asked about the improvement of big men Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh, Barnes indicated both have made strides in all areas.
"They both have," responded Texas' basketball coach about Ibeh and Ridley improving. "I would say they've gotten even better here in the last couple of weeks. We've talked so much about their space on the floor. I think they know that we want to play through our post players. It's about them also getting their space on the floor where they can be effective. They've both worked really hard at becoming better free throw shooters. There's no doubt both of those guys have improved in every area of the game."
Multiple players mentioned how impressive Ridley has been, and the big fella told me he had 18 points and 16 rebounds against Davidson in the first closed scrimmage of the preseason. The sophomore looks to be in much better shape, and credited not just working with Todd Wright, but also changing the way he ate. He mentioned Felix and Holmes helping in that regard because they were going through the same things.
The one food Ridley misses the most? Cookies and cream flavored ice cream.
Taylor mentioned seeing Ridley on television play, in practice last year, and then in practice and scrimmages this year and said he's like a different guy. Ridley also mentioned that he's playing with a lot more confidence, and mentioned that he really likes the new offensive, which features the big men first. At times, Ridley indicated that last year he felt like he was just on the floor to screen for people.
Also, Ridley was asked if he ever thought about transferring, and his answer was an honest, "No," as he went on to cite not running away from adversity. He's a very shy, soft-spoken kid, but I noticed a little bit more confidence about him today. He was genuinely excited about being a potential feature part of the offense, and indirectly suggested that playing in last year's system was frustrating.
*** Since the Longhorns will depend on so many freshmen, four of Texas' 10 recruited, scholarship players are freshmen, the non-freshmen need to be leaders for the Longhorns. According to Barnes, those players have really set the tone thus far.
"I've always felt that those guys are the ones that have to set the tone for all of these freshmen," Barnes said about the older players. "Until those guys (freshmen) get to a point where they're really effective, these old guys have to set the tone every day in terms of the way you go about working, attitude. This group's attitude has been great. Demarcus Holland's really emerged as a guy that's stepped up and be a leader. One thing we've tried to do with these guys is talked about their communication with each other. But the older guys in terms of their work ethic, they've already led these guys in a number of ways and we need them to carry that over to basketball."
Still, I think Texas needs to have some leaders step up. Holland indicated that his shot has greatly improved, and players also echoed that, but I'll be skeptical until I see it. If he can score, his work ethic and mentality could allow him to really lead. But he and Holmes have a tendency to be the "lead by example" type and this team needs at least one vocal guy.
*** Barnes was asked about the preseason ranking - Texas was picked to finish eighth in the conference - and he, to my delight, included a Red Sox reference:
"I never put a whole lot into preseason things," said Texas' head coach. "I don't know that it matters. I've had a team that was picked to be the worst team in the history of the ACC. And we ended up being ranked as high as 18th in the country. We were told we were going to win four total. We ended up winning 18 I think. Again, I don't know how there is any rhyme or reason how the Red Sox go from last to first other than it comes from within. I look at our team… I'm glad that's why we play the season."
As for having the talent to make the NCAA Tournament, Barnes didn't hesitate at all with his response:
"No doubt. Absolutely no doubt," responded Barnes. "We've got enough talent I think to complete every night when we go out on the floor against any team in the country. No question."
*** Anyone that follows Texas basketball knows that the heat is on Barnes this season after struggling in 2011-2012 and failing to make the tournament in the 2012-2013 season. Predictably, the head coach isn't worried about possibly being on the hot seat.
"I don't want to disappoint you, but I'm not," responded Barnes about worrying about the pressure on him to succeed this year. "You're talking about pressure… that's my least concern. I'm no different than I have been my entire life. I'm eager because I want to see us play up to our potential and when you don't play to your potential, as a coach that's when you're most disappointed. I've been doing this long enough to know… I've watched every program be better some years than others. The real key to success is grit. Losing as much as we all want to win every game, you're going to lose some. That's part of the process. But the real question is do you have the grit to fight back? If I ever lost that, I wouldn't want to do this anymore."
*** Probably the most interesting thing from our meeting with Barnes today was when he talked about "changing the culture" and the departures from the roster last season. Interestingly, Barnes mentioned that he knew during the middle of last season what had to happen.
"The difficult part is I knew it had to happen," Barnes responded about the roster changes. "I also knew that probably halfway through the season a year ago. I knew that there were going to be some major changes made because It wasn't going to get better. We couldn't just put a Band-Aid on it. For us to go where we want to go, it had to be a major overhaul. That's what had to happen. Whether you guys believe it or not … I can imagine the perception because I do know people would say perception is reality. The fact is it's not always reality. What happened in the spring had to be done. We talked to players about it. We knew which way we wanted to move with it. And we knew it wouldn't be for everybody. So from an internal perspective, it was what had to be done."
Players today mentioned how different this preseason has been, and that they're working harder, having more fun, and everyone is in it together for the team, unlike last year.
Some more random notes and thoughts:
A lot of the players talked about the structure of the offense being much different than last season, and they mentioned a lot more movement and that the ball was going to be worked inside first. Spacing has been stressed, and from the sounds of it, players like Holmes, Connor Lammert, Ridley, and Ibeh are going to get a lot more touches down low than last year.
I came away impressed with Taylor. He comes off as a confident, thoughtful player that is ready to handle the grind of being a point guard under Rick Barnes. Taylor, who is originally from Hayward, California but finished his high school career in Houston, has talked a lot recently with former UT great T.J. Ford about playing point guard and playing the position under Barnes. After talking to Barnes and the players, I'd expect Taylor to play a lot early. In fact, I wouldn't be shocked if he starts because he and Felix have been working together some when Felix has been able to work with the team. It's also a role that Felix felt comfortable with after doing it last year.
The players and Barnes both feel like they don't need one or two guys to have to carry the scoring load every night and that they'll get scoring from a number of areas.