Texas’ NCAA Tourney Hopes Slipping Before Kabongo’s ReturnPosted by dnspewak on January 10th, 2013
Myck Kabongo is not walking through that door. Not until February 13, at least. His Texas team must play eight more games before he returns from his NCAA-mandated suspension, and by that time there’s a very real possibility the Longhorns could have an overall losing record. Without their star point guard, they’ve managed to reach the midway point of the season with an 8-7 record, fresh off two straight conference losses to open the Big 12 schedule. The hard-fought, overtime loss at Baylor this weekend was excusable.
Last night was not. Texas blew a 10-point lead over West Virginia with less than four minutes to play in regulation, needed a miracle shot by Jonathan Holmes to simply force overtime and then scored three points in the extra period. The Longhorns shot 44 percent from the free throw line, 35 percent from the floor, and had almost twice as many turnovers (14) as assists (8). It’s a good road win for Bob Huggins, whose team needed a boost after its own nightmarish non-conference performance, but let’s not pretend as though Texas’ collapse had nothing to do with this. Without Kabongo, Rick Barnes’ team cannot score. Period. We knew J’Covan Brown wouldn’t be here this year. But Kabongo? He figured to be the heart and soul of this team, the one guy who could create for others and change the dynamic of the offense. Barnes was counting on him to open opportunities for leading returning scorer Sheldon McClellan, blue-chip freshman center Cameron Ridley and the rest of this young squad.
Had Kabongo played last night, there’s no chance Texas would have lost this game on its home floor. There’s no chance it would have blown such a significant lead in the final minutes, and there’s no chance it would have scored three points in an overtime period. When he returns against Iowa State on February 13, this Texas team will transform itself. Kabongo certainly wasn’t perfect a year ago, but this guy changes the game when he steps on the court. His blend of pure athleticism, pure speed and play-making ability is rare for a point guard. Kabongo will have eight games to prove that when his suspension ends in about a month.
The final month of the season could make or break Kabongo’s NBA Draft stock, but will it matter for the Longhorns? Right now, their NCAA Tournament credentials are so abysmal, it’d be silly to even use the word “resume” when referring to Texas’ body of work. What body of work? It beat North Carolina, a team with its own problems right now. Other than that, the Longhorns’ RPI sits at #127. They suffered two bad losses to Division II Chaminade and USC in Maui and then lost to Georgetown, UCLA and Michigan State in December. Now, they’re 0-2 in Big 12 play with a home loss to a West Virginia team that, barring a masterful turnaround by Huggins, will probably finish in the lower half of the league.
Texas has 16 games remaining in the regular season. It wouldn’t be productive to attempt to determine how many games this team would need to win to find itself even remotely near the NCAA Tournament bubble. That’s just a silly exercise at this point, especially after last night’s performance. It gets worse, too. The Longhorns play three of the next five games on the road to close out the month of January. They’ll go to Ames this weekend and then host Kansas. Then, they’ll play in Norman against Oklahoma, host Texas Tech and finally play at Kansas State on January 30. It’d take a minor miracle for the Longhorns to even win three of those five games, so they’re probably staring at a 2-7 or 1-8 start in Big 12 play.
That’s probably all she wrote for this season, who has qualified for 14 straight NCAA Tournaments at Texas, but he has an excuse this year with Kabongo ineligible for most of the season. Plus, you’ve got to remember that he has a roster consisting of exclusively freshmen and sophomores, and some of his younger players (like Ridley, for instance) haven’t quite panned out as expected. McClellan clearly isn’t the go-to scorer Brown was a year ago, and the entire offense breaks down without Kabongo. This 8-7 start isn’t all that shocking when you consider the variables.
Understand one thing, though. Barnes will revive this program. He’s often criticized for failing to reach that “next level” in Austin, but the man has never missed the NCAAs at Texas. He’s a fine basketball coach, and he’ll prove that again sometime in the near future. Just not this season, most likely.