- Eamonn Brennan, ESPN Staff Writer
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The game was already over. Two minutes left, Texas up 64-51. Cruise control.
Texas forward Jonathan Holmes was on the right baseline corner when he caught the bounce-pass product of Javan Felix's scuttled dribble penetration. Cal's defense stretched. Holmes slid past the close-out, gathered his dribble in his right hand, and jumped at the right side of the rim. For maybe a second, it looked like another easy gliding finish.
Cal center Roger Moute a Bidias had other ideas. He jumped too, and when he did he awkwardly and (probably) unintentionally caught his arm around Holmes' neck. The Longhorns forward went down hard.
A few seconds later, Holmes was up again. Rick Barnes, and anyone with a shred of investment in the Texas men's basketball program, could breathe a sigh of relief.
The alternate ending to that collision -- an injury -- would have been next-level cruel. On Thursday night, Longhorns point guard Isaiah Taylor, in the midst of an aggressive 15-point start to his sophomore campaign, likewise soared to the rim, was likewise battered by an opposing center (in this case, Iowa's Melsahn Basabe) and suffered a left wrist injury that will keep him out of the Longhorns' lineup for weeks. Another key injury on an exact replica of Taylor's garbage-time play would have been unfortunate. Star-crossed, even, and we've barely cracked Week 2.
But an injury to Holmes would have been much worse than that, and not just because Texas has a quality backup point guard in Felix. If two nights at Madison Square Garden told us anything, it's that no player is more important to the Longhorns' success than its one and only senior.
In Texas's two 2K Classic wins, Holmes scored 40 points on 13-of-23 from the field, 4-of-6 on 3-pointers, and 10-of-13 from the free throw line. He grabbed 13 rebounds in Friday's end-to-end dismantling of the Bears. On Thursday, his perimeter shooting was the key ingredient to the Longhorns' second-half burst against Iowa, wherein Texas turned a six-point halftime deficit into a 71-57 blowout. (The Longhorns scored 24 points in that first half and 47 in the second. By the 10-minute mark, the Hawkeyes looked astonished. Understandably so.)
And yes, he was more impressive than his lines. Holmes defended multiple areas on the floor, his length allowing him to pinch in to the paint and spread to the wing in nearly equal measure. He disrupted shots, tracked back on fastbreaks. When Cal went to a zone, Holmes was devastating in the pivot -- his best play of Friday night may well have come with 15:11 left in the second half, when he fired a quick high-low bounce pass to Prince Ibeh that made Cal's 2-3 zone look like an art installation. In an event featuring four legitimate NCAA tournament hopefuls, celebrated veteran players like Aaron White and David Kravish and a fair number of talented newcomers -- to say nothing of Holmes' own teammates -- the Texas swingman had no obvious peer.
It wasn't always supposed to be this way. After two mostly nondescript seasons, Holmes was versatile and plenty efficient as a junior, but the fact that he took even 88 3s -- he made 33 percent of them -- was a sign less of his own strengths than of the Longhorns' weaknesses. He averaged nearly two turnovers per assist. In the spring, Texas landed center Myles Turner, the No. 2-ranked player in the class of 2014 (behind only Jahlil Okafor). With Turner en route and Cameron Ridley already on the block, it was fair to wonder whether Holmes' minutes as a quasi-power forward would be displaced.
Put another way: When people talked about Texas, they talked about Taylor and Turner, and how it would all work out.
Holmes has immediately made that conversation seem silly. He was braced for a change in his role, so, as he said at Big 12 Media Day in October, he worked on becoming a "true" small forward. Passing, ballhandling, shooting. Playing away from the rim on the offensive end. Playing anywhere Barnes needed him, really.
Turns out he didn't need to brace himself much. Turner has been introduced to the college game as a reserve. Barnes is starting forward Connor Lammert and giving Ibeh plenty of minutes, too. Turner's game has been tantalizing in spots; a 7-footer with soft baby hooks and quality footwork can't help but get the blood boiling. But he also has had his share of ill-advised shots and missed defensive rotations. He hasn't set the world alight, or forced Barnes to give him for 30 minutes a night.
No matter. With Taylor injured and Turner figuring it out on the fly, Texas has had the most impressive start to the season of any team in the country not named Kentucky or Gonzaga. Soon, people are going to start talking about Texas' odds of unseating Kansas from its 10-year reign atop the Big 12 -- if they haven't started already. As long as Holmes is on the floor, you'll know why.