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Texas' long road to national contention

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Two years after a disappointing 16-18 season, the Longhorns are a top-10 team.

Jim O'Connor-USA TODAY Sports

They call themselves the Chaminade Crew.

Upperclassmen Demarcus Holland, Jonathan Holmes, Prince Ibeh, Cameron Ridley and Javan Felix all played two years ago in an 86-73 loss to the Silverswords at the Maui Invitational, and all have stayed at Texas, weathering a wave of losing, early departures and disappointment.

Just over two years after one of the most humiliating losses ever for the Texas Longhorns, that quintet still hasn't forgotten the feeling that day in the locker room. More importantly, the players see how far they've come since.

On Friday night, the Longhorns dismantled California, 71-55, at Madison Square Garden to capture the 2014 2K Classic championship, a night after staging a furious comeback against Iowa.

"It shows the progress of this group," said Holmes, who was named tournament MVP after averaging 20 points and nine rebounds over two games at the Garden. "It's really good to look back and see how we've grown and how much better we've gotten. It's good to win and it's even better to win with these guys."

That Chaminade loss was just the beginning of a disastrous 2012-13 season for the Longhorns, in which they finished 16-18 by losing to Houston in the first round of the CBI.

It was the first time the program had missed the NCAA Tournament in the Rick Barnes era and was the first time it failed to win 20 games since his first season in 1998-99.

Things slowly got better last year when the team hit its stride, beating four straight ranked teams in the heart of the Big 12 schedule. The season ended in the round of 32 at the NCAA Tournament against No. 2 seed Michigan.

The core of that team returns this year, along with highly touted freshman Myles Turner. Both the AP and Coaches polls ranked the Longhorns 10th in the nation.

The championship at the Garden was a sort of redemption for the Chaminade Crew, but only in a symbolic way. A demanding schedule looms for the Longhorns, highlighted by out of conference games at defending champion UConn and last year's runner-up, Kentucky. Not to mention a home game against Stanford and the always-grueling Big 12 slate to come.

But for now, Texas is at 4-0 with a pair of wins against power conference competition. It will host St. Francis (Pa.) on Tuesday before heading to Storrs, though it will likely do so shorthanded after point guard Isaiah Taylor suffered a wrist injury in the Iowa game.

Texas was without Taylor, its second-leading scorer, for the championship game, leaving a void on offense and in leadership. The sophomore had embraced the role of starting point guard and seemed to be nearing his potential, giving Texas a promising backcourt to accompany Ridley, Holmes, Ibeh and Turner, who make up one of the most imposing frontcourts in the country.

Texas needed someone to rally the team, and the Chaminade Crew stepped up.

Holland played 35 minutes of suffocating defense against Cal to go with his 11 points. His teammates noticed the effort.

"John actually handed him the MVP trophy," Barnes said after the game.

Holland says his defense is just a product of how he plays the game.

"I'm just passionate about guarding the other team's best player," he said. "In order to be a great leader you have to be able to lead by example. I'm an everyday guy."

It's taken two years of everyday guys to bring Texas back from the dead. It's still a long road to Indianapolis, the site of this year's Final Four, which is where the Longhorns want to end up. Texas needs to find consistency -- with or without Taylor. It needs to harness the talent of its frontcourt, getting more out of Turner, in what is likely his only collegiate year. It needs to play stronger out of the gate, avoiding slow starts like the one against Iowa.

Then there's still Kansas, winner of 10 straight Big 12 regular season championships. League supremacy still runs through Lawrence.

So the work is far from done.

"Everybody wanted to be part of the solution," Holmes said. "We kept working hard, kept pushing each other. We had a season like we had last year and we're trying to build on that and do something special this year."