Two years ago, forward Jonathan Holmes and the other five members of his highly rated recruiting class sat in Cooley Pavilion on Selection Sunday as they were selected to play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time. The freshmen were the only Longhorns on that year’s team who had never been to the tournament before.
Holmes sat in the same place last Sunday, watching the same show. But not everything was the same: Nobody from his recruiting class was there, and, this time, he was the only player in the room who had been to the tournament.
“It was definitely difficult,” Holmes said. “You come in with those guys, you build relationships with those guys, and you’re with them everyday for two years, so it’s difficult to see them leave.”
Nobody could have predicted that this is where Holmes would be today. When Holmes, a San Antonio native, arrived on the 40 Acres, the Longhorn basketball program was full of promise. Fresh off one of the best seasons of head coach Rick Barnes’ tenure in 2010-2011, Holmes came to Texas as part of the 2011 recruiting class that ESPN ranked as the fourth best in the nation.
But, after a disappointing freshman season that ended in a first round loss to Cincinnati, things went from bad to worse for the Longhorns in Holmes’ sophomore season. J’Covan Brown, the team’s leading scorer, bolted for the pros; Sterling Gibbs became the first of Holmes’ recruiting classmates to transfer; and Myck Kabongo, who was expected to make up for Brown’s absence, was suspended for the first 23 games.
The missing pieces, combined with a lack of leadership, sent the Longhorns spiraling down the conference standings. Even worse, the team’s failure to live up to expectations wreaked havoc off the court. A clearly strained relationship began to develop between Barnes and some of his players, and the program began to come apart at the seams.
“A lot of things went in to [our struggles] last year,” Holmes said. “No one person was at fault. It was a group effort. But, when you lose, it’s easy to point the finger and say someone else is wrong.”
It all came to a head at the end of the Longhorns’ disappointing season. Texas’ 16-17 record meant there was no possibility of making the NCAA tournament. So, instead of letting his guys watch the selection show, Barnes ran an intense practice.
“Where we were at this time a year ago wasn’t acceptable,” Barnes said. “That’s why we knew we had to take a hard look at everything, and sometimes tough changes have to be made.”
From there, the house cleaning began. Kabongo left for the NBA, Julien Lewis transferred to Fresno State, Sheldon McClellan took off to Miami and Jaylen Bond went north to Temple. Just like that, fewer than two years after he’d arrived in Austin as part of a highly touted, six-man recruiting class, Holmes was the only one left.
“They did what they thought was best for them,” Holmes said. “I thought about leaving too, but I just had to look in the mirror and understand the things that I had to improve on.”
Media and Longhorn fans alike began calling for Barnes’ head and speculating about just how bad this year’s team would be. But, just as everyone on the outside thought the walls of the Texas basketball program were caving in, the people on the inside knew they were just starting to be rebuilt.
“Before the season even started, we knew we had a good group of guys by the way they were in it together,” Barnes said. “Once the season got going, they never flinched."
As the only upperclassman in Barnes’ rotation, Holmes has been the de facto leader for the Longhorns all season. While his quiet demeanor may lead some to wonder how much of a leader he really is, it’s his work ethic on the court that has set an example for his younger teammates.
The junior forward is averaging a team-high 13 points per game and 7.2 rebounds heading into the NCAA tournament. Those are impressive numbers by any standard, but his coaching staff and teammates will tell you that the box score is only a small reflection of the impact Holmes has had on this team.
“He’s not a vocal guy. I’m not sure he’ll be that, ever,” Barnes said. “He leads in the way he goes about his business. He works hard every single day. He doesn’t have bad days.”
Those leadership skills will be put to the ultimate test this week, as Holmes leads the rest of his team in their first appearance at the NCAA Tournament.
Unlike his inexperienced teammates, Holmes has been through just about everything in his three years at Texas. But there’s still one thing that the entire roster would like to experience together for the first time: a tournament victory.