NEW YORK — Anyone who picked a team other than Kansas to win the Big 12 did so out of a desire for variety, a disregard of recent history or both. The Jayhawks have won at least a share of the conference’s regular season championship over the last 10 years and entered 2014-15 with a team poised to extend the streak.
With a highly touted recruiting class joining a solid group of returners, there was little reason to suspect the league would unfold any differently at the top than it has every year since 2004-05. If the Jayhawks are to fall short of winning another crown, though, it will require a combination of bad luck and another great team. Whether the first part comes to pass remains to be seen, but early indications suggest the latter may be blooming in Austin.
After handling Cal 71-55 in the 2K Classic championship game on Friday, Texas is 4-0 with all of its wins coming by at least 14 points.
Forward Jonathan Holmes scored a game-high 21 points on 6-of-11 shooting and grabbed 13 rebounds, while guard Demarcus Holland added 11 points of his own. The Longhorns jumped out to a 14-4 lead and maintained a comfortable advantage through most of the game. Texas' frontcourt was a mismatch for Cal and the Golden Bears managed only 31.3 percent shooting and 25.0 percent (3-12) from three-point range.
“When we needed stops we were able to get ‘em,” head coach Rick Barnes said afterward.
It is way too early to make grand proclamations about conference title races. For one, there’s the obvious fact that league play won’t begin for more than a month. For another, four games is far too small a sample size to project how a team will fare over an entire season.
In a very literal sense, non-conference wins will help teams’ NCAA Tournament resumes, but who’s to say those teams can sustain what helped them earn those wins in the first place? All of which is really a drawn-out way of saying the following: It’s early.
That said, it is hard to watch Texas and not think it poses a legitimate threat to the Jayhawks. The Longhorns return almost all of their contributors from a team that won 24 games a year ago and earned a No. 7 seed in the NCAAs.
Sophomore Isaiah Taylor — who could miss up to six weeks with a broken wrist — went largely unnoticed in the hype over last year’s freshman class despite ranking second on the Longhorns in points per game, first in minutes and being named All-Big 12 honorable mention. Taylor, Holland and Javan Felix form the core of a serviceable backcourt that could jolt the Longhorns’ offense with even a small jump in perimeter shooting accuracy.
The frontcourt is anchored by Holmes, Cameron Ridley, Myles Turner and Connor Lammert. While it’s fair to wonder whether Barnes will be able to deploy so much talent and size without compromising his team’s spacing and ball movement in the half-court, the final product could be devastating.
Consider that Turner, a top-10 recruit and projected first-round draft pick, is coming off the bench.
“It’s like a five- or six-headed monster that they got down there,” said Cal forward David Kravish, who finished with a team-high 19 points. “You cut off one head and they bring three more after you. But, you know, it’s just … They’re a big team and I don’t know if there’s any other frontline in college that could match that frontline.”
Another reason to be bullish about Texas? Kansas flopped in its biggest game to date. Of course, its 32-point dismantling at the Champions Classic may ultimately say more about Kentucky’s dominance than the Jayhawks’ shortcomings, but it's still the most salient data point on Kansas’ resume so far and does not reflect well on its chances of defending the conference crown.
Texas has looked like one of the best teams in the country over the first week of the season, but the Longhorns could lose their momentum with upcoming games at UConn and that same Kentucky squad.
“It’s going to be a great test for us going forward,” Turner said of the Dec. 5 meeting with the Wildcats.
The best we can do with so little evidence is to look for signs of what teams may be capable of down the road. Texas has flashed a lot of good ones.