Big 12 Summer Update: Texas LonghornsPosted by dnspewak on August 2nd, 2012
In an effort to remind you that college basketball does in fact exist during the summer, Big 12 microsite writer Danny Spewak (@dspewak) will roll out three summer updates per week during the next month. The goal is to compile every bit of news and information from the summer months for each team and package it into neat, easy-to-read capsules for your convenience. Next on the list — Texas.
2011-12 record: 20-14, 9-9 (6th place, Big 12)
The worst nightmare happened for Texas’ J’Covan Brown: He went undrafted in June. It’s easy to play the role of revisionist historian with regard to Brown’s decision to enter the NBA Draft and skip his final year of school in Austin. In hindsight, though, perhaps he should have stayed in school and tried his luck in 2013. In reality, Brown made the decision with his family in mind. He has a daughter to take care of, and he’ll find a way to make a lot of money playing this game somewhere. After averaging 20.1 points per game as a junior and taking almost all of the shots for the young Longhorns — sometimes earning the team a reputation as a One-Man Show — his decision to bolt for the pros this summer now leaves a major void for Rick Barnes in 2012-13. It would be silly to use the cliched “addition by subtraction” theorem in this situation because Brown was so important and frankly had a terrific junior campaign without much experience surrounding him, but there’s no doubt Barnes will have a different team without him on the court. With heralded point guard Myck Kabongo ready to take a leap in production as a sophomore after growing up considerably by the end of his freshman season, Barnes should have no trouble qualifying for yet another NCAA Tournament. Despite a close call a year ago, he’s still never missed the NCAAs during his tenure at Texas, and even though his team is maddeningly inexperienced, it should certainly make leaps with a stud recruiting class and improving group of sophomores.
Summer Orientation: Barnes welcomes six new scholarship freshmen to his roster, headlined by one of the Big 12’s presumed top newcomers in center Cameron Ridley. Say goodbye to last year’s woes of lacking a true post presence. Ridley’s 6’10”, 245-pound frame speaks for itself. So does his game. He’s a traditional center with back-to-the-basket post moves, a rarity in this age of Kevin Durant and European-style hybrids. The Texas native’s decision to stay home changes the dynamics of Barnes’ roster, and so does fellow freshman big Prince Ibeh. He’s considered more of a project than Ridley and has a leaner body type, but he’s another true center who could become a monster if he develops his offensive game. Barnes told ESPN’s Andy Katz this summer that both Ridley and Ibeh are right on track to contribute as freshmen, but that article actually mentions another freshman as the biggest surprise of the off-season. That’s DeMarcus Holland, a 6’3” shooting guard noted by Barnes as performing like an “every day” kind of guy. That’s some of the highest praise a freshman can achieve before stepping on the court, and it’s the kind of comment that leads us to believe Holland could be a valuable reserve in his first season. Point guard Javan Felix will need to grow up quickly in order to backup Kabongo, and three-star small forward Ioannis Papapetrou finds himself in an interesting role as one of the only true wings on this roster. To round out the class, Connor Lammert will fight for minutes in a crowded frontcourt. The 6’7” power forward had a decent outing in a summer All-Star game by scoring 14 points. As is the case for every single team in America with rather large freshmen classes, the Longhorns’ Big Six will have to sort themselves out by the end of the offseason and October practice. Ibeh and Ridley are early bets to see a ton of playing time, but there’s no telling who else will emerge in their rookie campaigns. Overall, though, this appears to be a good group with a lot of potential down the road, and 2012-13 should serve as a solid foundation for this class.
Looking Good: Surprisingly, Barnes’ recruiting class did not include any Canadians this time, but Up North native Myck Kabongo carries the torch for Canada as the lone remaining Longhorn from that country (ESPN’s Myron Medcalf actually wrote a terrific piece about Canadian college basketball players this summer, including a chilling section about the Kabongo family’s defection from a war-torn country). Kabongo is more than just a lovable Canadian, though. He’s by far the best and most integral player on this team, the man who dictates everything and will in all likelihood determine the success or failure of this team. Too much pressure? Perhaps. But it’s all riding on the point guard here, and Rick Barnes knows this. For proof, I point you to this practice report about the Longhorns during the 2012 Big 12 Tournament last March. As his team prepared for the most important game of the season — the quarterfinal matchup with Iowa State which would basically determine Texas’ NCAA Tournament fate — Barnes was relentless in attacking Kabongo. He screamed, yelled and demoralized him all practice long, and it was completely evident that Barnes wanted Kabongo to take over the reins of this team. Something must have clicked for Kabongo, because he played a flawless game against the Cyclones to lead UT to a win and an ensuing NCAA Tournament bid. It was vintage Kabongo: Five assists, no turnovers and 11 points. The most impressive sign of Kabongo’s overall maturity became evident during Barnes’ postgame press conference, when he revealed that Kabongo suggested to him with a minute to play that teammate Jaylen Bond enter the game so Texas could switch on ball screens. “Of all the things he’s done this year,” Barnes said at that press conference, “I’m telling you. He’s heading in the right direction.” That’s just one example during an up-and-down season for Kabongo, but it came at the most critical juncture in Texas’ season. He may have made too many shaky decisions with the basketball as a freshman, but his potential as a pure athlete and distributing point guard is obvious. And this summer, he has become The Man on this team, no question about it.
But Kabongo’s not alone in all of this. He has plenty of help, not only from his freshman class, but also from his fellow sophomores. This team has no juniors and just two sparingly-used seniors in Andrew Dick and Dean Melchionni, but these sophomores can play. Sheldon McClellan, the team’s leading returning scorer, needs to use this offseason to grow into his role as the top scoring option for this team in place of Brown. It’ll be a team effort to replace Brown, and the offense will surely run through the post more often this season, but McClellan is a solid scoring guard who just needs to develop a more consistent three-point shot. He’s not Brown, but he might be the next best thing. Julien Lewis is much of the same mold as McClellan, a two-guard who occasionally knocks down a trey but still needs to grow as an offensive threat. As much as Lewis and McClellan look like clones of each other, forwards Jonathan Holmes and Jaylen Bond fit that description, too. Unlike Ridley and Ibeh, these two aren’t necessarily bangers in the frontcourt. They’re both a tad bit undersized as power forwards, but they fit that three/four position hybrid perfectly for Barnes. And hey, according to this article published this summer, Bond seems like a pretty decent fellow, too.
Roadblocks: Obviously, Barnes would have liked Brown to stay. He may have taken double as many shots as anybody else on the team last year, but he would have been a senior and unquestioned leader for next year’s young team. Of any team in the Big 12, Texas’ particular “roadblock” may be the most difficult to overcome. Again, though, this team will find a way to play differently, and as long as Kabongo improves and Barnes’ new bigs can add a new element, the Longhorns won’t collapse without their leader. It’ll also be difficult to replace top shot-blocker Clint Chapman and fellow veteran big Alexis Wangmene, both of whom graduated. Plus, reserve guard Sterling Gibbs transferred to Seton Hall, so there’s a little bit of roster overhaul taking place this offseason. Considering some of the other turnover we’ve seen in this league (ahem, Texas Tech, cough, cough), Barnes could have had a much more disastrous summer.
State of the Program: For as much success Rick Barnes has achieved at a football school, the Texas head coach catches a lot of flack for seemingly no reason. Since 1998, Barnes has never missed the NCAA Tournament. He has turned a gridiron-crazy school into a hoops hotbed, recruiting some of the nation’s top talent on a yearly basis. He’s made a Final Four and two Elite Eights. He has won or shared three Big 12 titles and has brought Kevin Durant, T.J. Ford and countless other stars to Austin. And yet, you’ll hear the same criticism of Barnes almost every November — that his teams underachieve relative to their talent level, and that Barnes is a baby-sitter for top recruits who rolls the ball on the floor and lets his guys fly without any organized coaching. That’s unfair on every level. Yes, for the last handful of seasons, Barnes has had a bit of a “disappointing” run, if that’s even the right word. His 2009-10 team famously crashed and burned from the top overall ranking to a sixth-place Big 12 finish and a first-round NCAA exit. Still, we forget that his 2007-08 team shared the Big 12 title with Kansas (and actually defeated the Jayhawks in Austin in the team’s sole meeting that season) and reached the Elite Eight. We forget that pesky Final Four in 2003 and the countless first, second and third-place Big 12 finishes over the years, as well as all of his success at Providence and Clemson. We forget all of that by claiming that Durant’s 2006-07 team underachieved by losing early in the NCAA Tournament, ignoring the fact that team relied almost exclusively on underclassmen and still won 25 games. At this point, Rick Barnes has actually been called overrated so many times that he’s underrated. Call it the Derek Jeter effect. This man can coach, and he proves that every single winter. Even with another freshman and sophomore-led 2012-13 roster, Barnes will find a way to mold this team into an NCAA Tournament squad. It’s what he’s does.