Just about any preseason “hot seat” list included Texas head coach Rick Barnes, and with the change in athletic director on the “40 Acres” there was enough conversation to make one think that this season would be nothing more than a lengthy testimonial of sorts for the veteran coach. With just two upperclassmen, bouncing back from last season’s disappointing campaign looked to be a difficult task.
But the Longhorns entered Wednesday night’s game at No. 14 North Carolina with a 9-1 record, and thanks to their work on the boards and two big shots in crunch time from guard Javan Felix they were able to knock off the Tar Heels 86-83. Isaiah Taylor led four Texas players in double figures with 16 points, but Texas essentially won this game in two areas: on the boards, and when North Carolina went to the foul line.
Of Texas’ 51 rebounds 20 were of the offensive variety as they managed to rebound 42.6% of their missed shots. Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert, who finished with ten rebounds apiece, combined for 11 of those 20 offensive rebounds on the night. Texas outscored North Carolina 40-16 in the paint, an impressive margin when considering just how young Barnes’ team is.
And as the case was in North Carolina’s loss to Belmont last month, the Tar Heels left entirely too many points on the board at the charity stripe. The Tar Heels attempted 47 free throws, 14 more than Texas, but made just 24 of those shots. To have that kind of edge and only outscore your opponent by four points from the foul line will lead to a loss more times than not in close games, and that was certainly the case for North Carolina.
North Carolina has three high-caliber wins on their resume already, and Wednesday’s result is a reminder that for all the optimism that came as a result of their win over No. 11 Kentucky on Saturday there are still adjustments to be made. And, the Tar Heels aren’t talented enough to win games against quality opponents shooting as they did from the foul line or allowing teams to rebound more than 40% of their missed shots.
How good is Texas? Prior to Wednesday’s victory their best wins (computer-wise) were over Stephen F. Austin and Temple, and the Owls were busy being lit up by Texas Southern’s Aaric Murray in a one-point loss to the Tigers. So this clearly was a result the Longhorns needed as the start of Big 12 play approaches, and they’ll have many chances to pick up more quality wins given the strength of the conference.
Texas may have lost some talented players at the end of last season, but this current group has better chemistry and they play with more effort than a season ago. Will that be enough to get the Longhorns back to the NCAA tournament? That remains to be seen, but thanks to those changes Texas at the very least has a shot to do so. And that wasn’t something many people expected back in October.