Some programs, when entering a rebuilding stage, take it easier on their schedule.
Not so with the Texas Longhorns.
Their 31-win season took them to the Elite 8 last year, but a repeat in 2016-2017 is unlikely, as they return just two starters. Junior guards Brooke McCarty and Ariel Atkins were all-Big 12 honorees, but each has had to shift to a new position on the floor this year as the team adjusts to life without two four-year starters: point guard Celina Rodrigo and center Imani Boyette.
Adding to the difficulty of reconfiguring the team is the brutal schedule coach Karen Aston assembled for this group. They opened their season with a loss on the road to No. 11 Stanford, followed two games later by a closer loss – also on the road, to then-No. 7 Mississippi State. Coming this week are No. 3 South Carolina tomorrow and No. 2 Connecticut on Sunday. A week after that, the Longhorns face #17/16 Tennessee.
Aston did not start out to create this monster; it just arrived at her doorstep.
“Usually you schedule two years ahead, but then we got this opportunity to play UConn [in the Jimmy V Classic], and then the SEC Challenge (South Carolina) was unexpected,” Aston said. “Once you add those games, it’s not about wins, it’s about opportunities. . . . (but) I’m not saying I would do this again.”
By mid-December, Texas could be 2-5 , and possibly drop from the rankings. Alternatively, this young team could live up to its preseason billing as a top 10 team and win one or more of those challenging games. But with even the returners adjusting to new responsibilities, the team has looked “nervous, shell-shocked, like deer in the headlights” at times, their coach said.
“There’s so much room for growth and getting experience and getting better, though, and this schedule is only going to help,” Aston said.
As they move into the Big 12 schedule in the new year, Texas will be battle-hardened, but quite possibly emotionally-battered, as well. And the conference offers little relief, with two games each against #5/6 Baylor, #13/12 Oklahoma, and #19/23 West Virginia, and a single (away) contest against #10/9 Florida State. Such are the calculations of the NCAA system: Texas should have a spectacular RPI, but may well struggle to win 20 games. That sounds like a bubble team, unless of course, the young Longhorns gel into a winner.
What to expect
Tall. Five of the 13 players on the roster are 6-3 or taller, led by 6-5 senior Kelsey Lang, who did not start last season but platooned with Boyette, logging nearly twenty minutes a game. Lang has never been spectacular, but has provided a steady 6.5 points and 4.5 boards in a career during which she has shot over 50 percent from the floor each season. Lang, however, is not a back-to-the-basket center. She does not enjoy contact, and relies on 10-15 foot jumpers for her scoring. Stepping out for those shots takes her away from the hoop, which explains her middling rebound numbers. She started the first two games of the season, but recently is once again platooned, this time with junior newcomer Audrey-Ann Caron-Goudreau, one of a pair of 6-4 twins (Khaleanne is a sophomore) who transferred to Austin from Vanderbilt.
Joining these three in the paint is 2016 Naismith High School Player of the Year and No. 1 prospect Joyner Holmes, a 6-3 freshman forward who moved into the starting lineup in the second game of the year, and already leads the team in rebounds. She also has contributed a third-best 11.5 points per game. Holmes’ impressive start bodes well for Texas, as she adjusts to the college game, especially by improving her low block footwork on defense. By season’s end, she should be a rookie of the year candidate nationally, and in conference.
Texas has out-rebounded each of its 2016-17 opponents by an average of 16. More impressive is that 44 percent of the Longhorn rebounds are offensive boards. Expect Texas to keep hitting the glass, and to benefit from this advantage throughout the year.
A question about “tall” is, who will become the shot-blocking, rebounding post player? In the season opener against Stanford, the paint was open for repeated layups and back door cuts, as the Texas interior players failed to rotate on defense. Lang’s aversion to contact and the youth of the other interior choices suggests that defensive needs may be met day-to-day by several players.
Youth. Aston will be giving many minutes to players who are either freshmen, or new to high-level basketball. The talent is there, but some newcomers pick things up quicker than others. Freshman back-up point guard Alecia Sutton has not shown herself ready yet, and has seen limited playing time in the first four games. Freshman wing Jada Underwood is coming along, but Aston has not relied on her in the big games yet.
Turnovers. McCarty is more a scorer than a natural point guard, and has struggled with turnovers throughout her career.
“The difference for her is that now it’s her responsibility to run the team,” Aston said. “She played a lot of point last season, but Celina [Rodrigo] was in charge. Now it’s a different animal, for it to be your team and your responsibility.”
With the expectation on her shoulders of both running the offense and also being its leading scorer, she has much to prove. Through four games, the team has as many turnovers as assists. Sophomore Lashann Higgs, who played very well in the NCAA tournament as a freshman, has taken some pressure off McCarty, but turnovers could hurt the Longhorns throughout the season.
McCarty has the point until someone else (perhaps Sutton) matures into the role. But even with her new responsibilities, she leads the team in scoring at 16.3 points per game, a five-point improvement over last season. Last year she hit more than 40 percent of her threes, and this year is shooting .450 from beyond the arc, and .510 overall. She should get some help in time from freshman Sutton.
“I anticipated her being more ready, but she missed all summer and all fall with an injury,” Aston said. “What I see this year is a flip: Jug [Sutton] will relieve at the point and they will play together at the one and two.”
Atkins is a penetrating guard with only a slightly above-average three-pointer, which has been missing in action so far this season. The athletic 5-11 dynamo is a strong on-ball defender, and is emerging as the team’s vocal leader this season, as her coach had hoped she would. She has averaged 13.5 points so far, shooting above fifty percent. She will log major minutes as her coach will need her steady play and leadership to guide the young Longhorns.
Holmes has stepped immediately into a starting role, and has performed well, freshman or not. Her team-leading 24 rebounds include 10 on the offensive glass – a skill that is made, not taught. As she settles into the speed of the college game, her shooting should improve, and she is likely to be a go-to player by February. Sophomore Jordan Hosey, another player coming off an injury, should see some time as the four position as well, with Holmes possibly rotating to center at times.
Senior Brianna Taylor spent last season as a 5-9 forward, but has moved to the wing in her final season. Despite cruising farther from the basket, she has actually improved her rebounding this season, and has stepped up to share the leadership duties with Atkins. Her 7.5 points per game so far is on par with her historical numbers. A willingness to take more offensive responsibility would be a major step for her and for her team.
The fifth starter right now is the post duo of Lang and Audrey-Anne Caron-Goudreau. Who gets the most minutes will be a match-up question, but Aston is pleased to have the luxury of two very different skill sets in the post.
The Longhorns inexperienced bench will likely be the difference maker in the win column, but it is too early to predict who will become a serious contributor to the team. Six-foot freshman Underwood seems most likely to fit the bill. She has shot remarkably well (.571; .667 from three), but needs to learn to defend, and is not yet ready – based on her minimal minutes against Stanford and Mississippi State – to be a regular contributor in the big games. As a high school senior, she averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds, however, and there is every reason to believe that she will become a regular part of the rotation as she matures.
This young Texas team has a world of talent, facing a schedule that would challenge a squad of four-year starters. That schedule will be talked about all year, but Aston sees it as an overall benefit.
“With our program where it is and to get to the next step and be a team with a chance to get to the Final Four every year and to win a championship, you need to challenge the team,” she said. “We’ll be battle tested. What I’m hoping is that we will gain an understanding of how to prepare every day. Young kids don’t understand that every single possession is going to matter.”
“That’s what UConn does. They compete on every single possession. We don’t do that yet. We are still a work in progress.”
If all the coming adversity leads to significant progress, Texas just might develop into one of those No. 8 or 9 tournament teams nobody wants in their bracket come tournament time.