NEW YORK — Jonathan Holmes is the lone senior rotation player on the Texas roster, which means he’s the only remaining member of Rick Barnes’ vaunted, but ill-fated, 2011 recruiting class. Shelden McClellan, Julien Lewis, Sterling Gibbs and Jaylen Bond all transferred out of the program within two years of enrolling. Myck Kabongo flamed out after two seasons, one NCAA investigation and a 23-game suspension. Kevin Thomas never even made it to campus.
He almost left, too. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He couldn’t leave the ‘Chaminade Crew’ behind.
“I thought about leaving with those guys and transferring,” Holmes said. “But there was a quote I was told when I came in: ‘When you leave here, are you going to leave it better than when you came in?'”
If he had left after the disastrous 2012-2013 season, he wouldn’t have, because that was the season that Texas finished just 16-18, failing to make the NCAA tournament or the NIT, instead losing in the first round of the CBI to Houston. That was the same season that Texas lost to Chaminade, a Division II program located in Hawaii that hosts the Maui Invitational, which is where the nickname the ‘Chaminade Crew’ came from.
“It goes to show how far we came and how we stuck together and made it through,” Holmes said, and he’s right, because the Texas program is most certainly better today than it was in 2011 when Holmes enrolled.
On Friday night, No. 10 Texas cruised to a 71-55 win over overmatched Cal in the finals of the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden, with the most impressive part of the win being that they did it without starting point guard Isaiah Taylor, who broke a bone in his wrist on Thursday night after an ugly spill late in a big win over Iowa. He may miss the next month and a half.
Texas was not hurt by the absence of Taylor on Friday, thanks in large part to the presence of Holmes, who is arguably the nation’s most underrated player. The 6-foot-8 forward finished with 21 points, 13 boards and two Lebron-esque, chase down blocks a night after he scored 16 second half points in a come-from-behind win over Iowa.
On the basketball court, it’s easy to figure out what makes Holmes so valuable for this Texas team.
He’s got the size and the strength of a power forward at this level. That’s what he was recruited to Austin as. That’s the position he’s played for most of his career. But over the last couple of years, Holmes has expanded his game. He’s not Kyle Korver, but he’s a good enough shooter that opponents cannot allow him open looks from three. If a defender closes out on him too quickly, he can put the ball on the floor and beat them off the dribble.
“[Holmes is] a 6-foot-8, 230 pound guy that can go inside-outside,” Cal head coach Cuonzo Martin said.
He can play the small forward position, and that creates a huge advantage for this Texas team. He can overpower a typical small forward, but he can also spread the floor, meaning that he can’t be helped off of when the likes of Myles Turner and Cameron Ridley are scoring on the block.
“It’s like a five or six headed monster,” Cal’s David Kravish said. “You cut off one and they bring three more after you.”
“We don’t have bodies like that,” Martin added.
As good as Holmes is, as much of a matchup problem as he creates, it’s his presence off the floor that sets the tone for this team. Holmes is a work-a-holic, willing to completely retool his jumper, and unselfish enough that he’s willing to change positions during his final year in school if it will help his team win.
“He’s a senior and that’s what you expect from him,” Barnes said. “I don’t know if there’s a harder worker in the country. If people knew how much time he put into basketball. He literally lives in our practice facility.
“He was willing to learn a new position as a senior.”
When your lone senior, the elder statesmen in the locker room, is willing to work that hard and to make those sacrifices, it sets a tone for the team. Can an incoming freshman be concerned about his shots or complain about his playing time when he sees the face of the program putting the team first?
“Everybody bought in. Everybody wanted to be part of the solution,” Holmes said. “People talked down on us and we didn’t listen to it. We had a season like we had last year and we’re trying to build on that.
“It’s good to win and it’s even better to win with these guys.”
Holmes was named the MVP of the tournament on Friday night after the game, but in the locker room following the win over Cal, Barnes said that he believed Demarcus Holland’s defense and aggressiveness earned him the MVP.
So what did Holmes do?
“Jon handed Demarcus Holland the MVP trophy,” Barnes said.
And he wasn’t even a member of the ‘Chaminade Crew.’