Night Line: Even Without Kabongo, Texas Has Hope in Watered-Down Big 12Posted by BHayes on December 20th, 2012
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
Texas defeated a ranked North Carolina team in convincing fashion on Wednesday night, but the good vibes from the win quickly took a backseat to the news that sophomore guard Myck Kabongo had been suspended for the season by the NCAA. Fair or unfair (feel free to lean towards very unfair), it appears that the young Longhorns will be moving forward without their best player and leader. As Texas took their lumps in these first two months, most remaining optimism surrounding this year’s team hung on the presumed return of Kabongo. His comeback will no longer happen, but Texas fans should hold off on writing the year off. It would have been difficult to believe in this notion on November 19, the day that Division-II Chaminade authoritatively beat the Horns, but an improving batch of youngsters and a historically weak Big-12 might enable Texas, even without Kabongo, to make the NCAA tournament and salvage a season that once seemed lost.
First and foremost, it’s clear that this Texas team is getting better. They have taken care of business since the Chaminade loss and beaten the teams they are supposed to beat, with respectable losses to USC (in OT), Georgetown, and UCLA sprinkled in there. A late letdown in the UCLA loss prevented the Horns from netting their first win of consequence, but outplaying the Bruins had to be an encouraging sign for Rick Barnes. Throw in tonight’s wire-to-wire victory over the Heels and you have two solid performances against preseason top-25 teams, a definite step in the right direction. The defense has been stingy with a capital S; Texas is best in the country in effective FG% against — a remarkable statistic considering the youth on the roster. Rick Barnes deserves some real credit for the work on that end of the floor, but the offense is still very much a work in progress. Freshman Javan Felix may not have completely erased the longing for Kabongo, but has gained confidence with every outing. The Horns rely on three sophomores for the bulk of the offensive punch, and while McClellan, Lewis and Holmes all had their moments in the win tonight, they must become more consistent for Texas to find any real offensive competence.
The defensive efficiency and flashes of life on the offensive end help the Texas cause, but a weakened Big-12 has added even more buoyancy to the Longhorn Tournament hopes. Kansas looks like a runaway favorite to win the league again, but beyond the Jayhawks sits a wide open conference. Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Baylor seem like decent bets to earn bids, but all are beatable (ask Charleston, who won in Waco). Iowa State is a sleeper team with some upside, but little is known about the transfer-laden Cyclones at this point. Now this is where it gets ugly – the quartet of West Virginia, Oklahoma, TCU and Texas Tech have simply looked bad, with Stephen F. Austin’s win in Norman a night ago providing a nice exclamation point. While true that a 10-team Big-12 should not expect to consistently replicate bid totals of years past, there is clearly a lot of room for upward mobility in this season’s iteration, with Texas being as poised as any team to take advantage.
Nothing will come easy for the nation’s youngest squad. Their defense will keep them in games, but unless one of the sophomores emerges as a go-to scorer, the offense will likely keep opponents around too. As we turn the calendar and head into conference play, everything is on the table for this team — 5-13 feels every bit as possible for a final conference record as 13-5. Kabongo’s absence will hurt and uncertain days lie ahead, but on the one-month anniversary of the Chaminade disaster, it’s safe to say that Texas is at least headed in the right direction.