The irreplaceable Rori Harmon — Caitlin Clark talks game-winner for Iowa

The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, Jan. 3, 2024

Texas head coach Vic Schaefer literally took his head into his hands as he considered the task ahead of him — “my job”, as he put it — to figure out how to keep the Longhorns pointed at the national title contention that was a given before Rori Harmon was lost for the season due to injury last week.

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“It’s really difficult when you take somebody like Rori off your team,” Schaefer told a group of us assembled on Zoom on Tuesday. “It’s just so many things. That’s why I’ve been telling the country she’s the best guard, baseline to baseline, in the world because of what she did on both ends of the floor and the impact she made in the game. And there’s just nobody else in the country like her. So we’ve got to find a way to do it.”

Can he do it? Vic Schaefer has accomplished everything else in this game but win a national title — something that speaks not to any shortcoming of his, but merely fate. (I won’t go down the rabbit hole of the way the final seconds of the 2018 final were officiated. Look it up, it’ll consume your night if you live anywhere near Starkville, Mississippi. How was that not a foul on Notre Dame with 3.3 seconds left? Okay, I have to stop.)

This team looked ready to surmount the final hurdle, as I wrote last year. Rori Harmon’s loss is a loss for basketball, writ-large. An assist percentage north of 40 with a turnover percentage in the single digits? Making more than half her shots, with a steal percentage approaching six? These aren’t realistic numbers, yet they represent the season Harmon will now leave unfinished.

I asked a coach who had seen the post-Harmon Longhorns if Texas was still a title contender. The answer came back definitively: “No.”

And yet.

I am awfully hesitant to count out a Vic Schaefer team. I remember the 2017 edition, in Mississippi State, 22-point underdogs to a UConn team with 111 straight wins, and how that Final Four matchup ended.

And so it falls to a precocious 6’1 freshman, Madison Booker, to take the reins of the Texas offense. Leave aside the demands of the moment and consider that Booker, should she prove adept at running the offense at her size, will catapult herself atop the conversation for the 2027 WNBA lottery immediately, though with her game already she is in that discussion. She’s collected 23 assists in three games without Harmon.

“The last few games, smaller defenders have been guarding me so I mean, I can definitely just like take them off the bounce, close to the rim, or get to my pull up, because they can’t reach my length,” Booker told me Tuesday when I asked her what had changed in the offense with Harmon gone. “I just have a lot a lot more like opportunity at the point guard to get to my shot, and also to pass to my teammates.”

But it’s on Vic to reinvent the wheel in season. He pointed out that Booker doesn’t look a thing like his classic point guards — a full foot taller than William, more of a pure defender than on-ball pest. It means contesting shots, rather than relying on as many turnovers to limit how many shots their opponents get in the first place.

“You can’t keep trying to do something maybe that you’re not capable of doing as a team,” Schaefer said. “There’s got to be a different way to get the results you want… Maybe it’s your field goal percentage defense gets better you know, you hold people to better field goal percentage defense and and then you you reduce those offensive boards and second-chance points that you’re giving people. So if you’re not creating turnovers, this team has been pretty good shooting the ball, and if we can consistently score the ball like we are at the percentage we’re shooting it at, then I think it becomes a field goal percentage defense goal. We might not get the 20-plus turnovers here that we’ve had forever but we’re still gonna win because we will contest and rebound and then still be good offensively.”

It won’t be easy. A lot of that Harmon slack on the defensive end, the different path to stops, runs through the team’s leading rebounder and shotblocker, Taylor Jones. But the 6’4 big is out due to injury, too, and Schaefer didn’t have a timetable for her return. She’s an incredible defensive presence — she’s north of 3 percent in steal rate, too — and the sooner she gets back, the more likely Schaefer is to make the math work.

But Wednesday night, it worked against Texas Tech, 74-47. The Longhorns controlled the boards, 42-24. They held the Red Raiders to 33 percent shooting. They limited their own turnovers, and hit 46.7 percent of their shots. Even in their lone loss without Harmon, they took Baylor to the wire, the Bears very much a contender to win it all as well.

We’ll learn more at West Virginia Saturday. But circle that rematch on Feb. 1, at Baylor. That gives Schaefer a month to figure it out, Booker a month to redefine what it means to be a Vic Schaefer point guard.

Even if Texas falls short of a title, I can’t wait to see how the Longhorns try to piece it together. And Rori Harmon can’t return to the court, healthy, soon enough.

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Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.