CF asks Matt Cotcher, the managing editor of HornSports.com, five questions about tonight’s "Big Monday" contest between the Cyclones(14-4, 4-2) and Texas (14-5, 3-3).
1 – The beginning of the year looked so promising for Rick Barnes’ team. Many were picking the Longhorns to finally dethrone Kansas at the top of the Big 12. However, the Longhorns are off to a 3-3 start in the league with two of those losses coming at home. What is the current mindset of this Texas team?
MC: Texas is struggling to find any level of consistency, and the coaching staff is obviously frustrated. The team looked Top 10 caliber before the holidays, then crashed without Isaiah Taylor in the lineup, losing 3 of 5 games (including 2 of the first 3 Big 12 contests). Then the Horns seemed to find a groove, posting dominant victories over West Virginia and on the road against TCU. Next came another valley on Saturday when Texas was dominated in the second half by Kansas.
There’s no shame in losing to the Jayhawks, but the way the team played in the second half was reminiscent of their losing streak – which goes back to consistency and effort. The players seemed legitimately surprised by the Kansas outcome, and Rick Barnes openly questioned the team’s mental toughness in his post-game press conference.
Texas is 2-1 on the road in Big 12 play, but those wins came in Lubbock and Fort Worth. Additionally, the Longhorns played what many considered their best game of the season last week on the road against TCU. Whether the team is able to forget the loss to Kansas and find their edge by traveling to Ames is, literally, a complete guessing game.
2 – After missing 10 games during the non-con, Isaiah Taylor has played 25 minutes or more in Texas’ six Big 12 games. Is the stud sophomore guard playing at 100 percent or toughing through things?
MC: Taylor broke his wrist when he hit the floor after a hard foul in the 2K Classic game against Iowa. After missing about a month, Taylor returned to action in time for the conference opener against Texas Tech. It took about four games for both Taylor and the team to get re-acclimated – not only did Taylor need time to finish healing; the team also took several games to get accustomed to having a true point guard on the floor.
At this point, Taylor is 100% healthy. The Horns are clearly a better offensive team when Taylor is on the floor, as evidenced by scoring droughts when he gets a breather. Even more than his scoring, the way Taylor’s dribble penetration sets up Texas’ interior play is critical for the Horns’ success.
3 – Myles Turner was a huge story in the offseason for obvious reasons. From Texas’ perspective, has the diaper dandy lived up to expectations? What have his strengths and weaknesses been so far this season?
MC: Realistically, it wasn’t possible for Turner to live up to expectations. Turner was heralded as an NBA-ready star, and the missing puzzle piece that would return the Longhorns to the Final 4. When Turner raced out of the gate, averaging 12 ppg in the first 5 games of the season, it certainly helped fuel those expectations.
With half the season behind him, Turner’s struggle appears to be understanding his role on the team. The ultra-talented big man has two things working against him: First, the fact that he was added to a group of players that was familiar with each other and had established roles; Second, he’s too good for his own good.
With respect to the first point, Texas returned almost their entire team from 2013-2014. Adding Turner to that mix changed the dynamic of the team significantly. Not only have the other players had to redefine roles, but Turner also had to figure out how he fits within that previously established hierarchy.
Accelerating that dysfunction is the second point – Turner’s tremendous skill set. After dominating prep players for years, Turner got to college and had to learn the differences of the college game, but it’s more than just the difference between high school and college basketball. With his natural size and skill, Turner was dominant as a high school senior. Understanding the work necessary to transition to the college game can be a frustrating experience when you’re 6’10" and basketball is "easy".
Those two points should be balanced by the fact that the true freshman is averaging more than 11 points and nearly 7 rebounds per game. Turner already has 98 defensive boards, and is Texas’ most effective rebounder. At about 88% from the charity stripe, Turner will see his 23 minutes/game increase as he continues to get comfortable with a role on the the team’s interior instead of extending away from the basket out into the open floor.
4 – Texas will have a major size advantage on Iowa State. However, when the Cyclones get to running in Hilton Coliseum, that can also be a disadvantage. How do you see that matchup playing out on Monday night?
MC: The Horns are a trap in terms of traditional expectations. Historically, a team with Texas’ height would favor a slow-paced, half court game. However, the Longhorn offense bogs down and is ineffective for extended periods when they play at a slower pace. With subpar guard play and poor outside shooting, Texas has not been able to create the spacing necessary to run offense off the post.
Conversely, when Texas is able to run the floor, their depth and athleticism shine. At a faster pace, the Horns find more rhythm on offense, hit outside shots, and get easy buckets on the interior. That’s not to say that this Texas team can run with Iowa State for 40 minutes, but extended blocks of fast-paced play could help the Longhorns from falling victim to scoring droughts that plague them in losses.
5 – Give Cyclone fans a guy to keep an eye on Monday night – preferably a non-marquee guy who could end up making a big difference in the game.
MC: Despite not being the big name on the roster, Isaiah Taylor is the key player for this team for all the reasons above. But when you’re on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s season preview (http://www.si.com/college-basketball/2014/11/04/texas-college-basketball-preview-sports-illustrated-cover), it’s hard to say you’re not a marquee player.
For that reason, keep a focus on Damarcus Holland. Leading the team in minutes played, Holland is a tremendous defender. However, when he contributes on offense the outlook changes for the Horns. More than scoring, when Holland is creating space with dribble penetration, and making effective passes to the post, it frees the rest of team to play to their own strength. If the Cyclones do push the pace and negate some of what Holland does defensively, it is a priority for him to contribute on offense.