On a team of surprises, center Cameron Ridley is the biggest one

Evan Berkowitz

Texas’ strategy was clear Tuesday night in a back-and-forth game against No. 22 Kansas State: cup feed the big man. 

And sophomore center Cameron Ridley didn’t disappoint.

Ridley connected on seven of 10 shots and a perfect 4-for-4 from the line, a year after shooting 33 percent. His 18 points, six rebounds and three blocks anchored the Longhorns as they completed their second upset over a ranked opponent in as many tries. With the surprising success of Texas midway through the season, Ridley’s emergence may just be the biggest.

When the Longhorns’ basketball season came around, it was met with moans and groans.

Their best rebounder, Jaylen Bond, left for Temple.

Their best scorer, Sheldon McClellan, left for Miami (FL).

Their best shooter, Julian Lewis, left for Fresno State.

Their best point guard, Myck Kabongo, left early to go undrafted in the NBA.

And the expected go-to player for this season, Ioannis Papapetrou, left to play professionally in his home country of Greece, just before students returned to school in the fall.

At best, the preseason prediction was that this team could sneak into the National Invitation Tournament. Head coach Rick Barnes missed out on the rare hometown talent Julius Randle — who chose Kentucky — and was left without a star freshman. When the season finally got going, the Longhorns lived up to their billing.

They barely escaped Mercer. They rallied from down eight in the final minutes against South Alabama. They couldn’t pull away against UT-Arlington. As the schedule grew more difficult, fans were ready for the blowouts to begin.

But, then, next thing you know, Texas pulls off a stunner in Chapel Hill, N.C. Then it played Michigan State, and fans finally started believing.

So did Texas basketball.

Junior forward Jonathan Holmes leads by example. Sophomore guard Javan Felix shoots with confidence at the end of the game. Freshman guard Isaiah Taylor is playing far beyond his years.

But, most importantly, Ridley is living up to the billing.

The former five-star center was a flop in his fist year. He was a higher rated recruit than Oklahoma State superstar Marcus Smart, but Ridley averaged just four points and four rebounds as a freshman, shooting an abysmal 33 percent from the line. For reference, Shaq shot 42 percent in his worst season. Ridley even struggled to catch the ball.

But this year, Ridley could be the most improved player in college basketball.

He is averaging more than 10 points per game to go with seven rebounds. He’s on the floor 54 percent more often than last year. He’s respectable at the charity stripe. His field goal percentage has gone up, and he’s blocking more shots.

He scored 16 and 18 points with eight total blocks in back-to-back upsets over No. 8 Iowa State and No. 22 Kansas State respectively.

He’s more effective than former Longhorn center Dexter Pittman ever was, and it is just halfway through his sophomore campaign.

After losing the first two in conference play, Texas has now won four in a row and sits only behind Kansas in the Big 12 standing.

The surprising success has many people jumping on the bandwagon, but fans aren’t the only ones who are excited about the Longhorns’ potential.

“We’re capable of beating any team we play if we go out there and do what we need to do,” Barnes said. “This team has shown character from day one.”