The Texas football program has but one game left, the Holiday Bowl against some tree-dwelling Hippies more likely to pay homage to false idols sponsoring 4/20 rather than focus on that crucial 3rd and 8 play. But never fear, fellow Horns! If you need your sports fix, it's time to start watching your Texas men's basketball team.
For those blissfully unaware of what's been happening on the hardcourt, I'm here to provide you with a transitory primer. The best analogy for Texas' young basketball program is Texas' young football program--well, the offensive side, anyway. On its best day, Texas hoops can run 'n gun akin to Joey B and The Fozz steamrolling Texas Tech. On its worst, well, what's the basketball equivalent to scoring 5 football points against almighty Mizzou? I'd go with those black unis against Duke at MSG.
First, a quick rundown of the roster. For those that skipped it the first time around, here's my State of the Union write-up prior to the season; much of it still applies. Also, check out Reggieball's consistently excellent weekly "Inside the Numbers" column on Burnt Orange Nation for more statistical goodness.
J'Covan Brown : Fozzy Whittaker
A moment of boneheadedness aside, this is the J'Covan we've been waiting 3 years for. His storyline mirrors Whittaker's. Fozzy continually tantalized us with his talents (PB's white whale), but injuries and a broken GD running game always left fans wanting. This year, Whittaker was well on his way to being the team's MVP before being derailed with a torn ACL. Let's hope Brown's season ends better. It's started similarly spectacularly.
After two frustratingly inconsistent years, Brown has burst onto the scene in a big way. He's been Texas' best scorer (18.9 PPG) and emerged as a floor general (4.5 APG) while elevating his play to incredibly efficient (127.1 O-Rtg). He's a guy that loves to play on the biggest stage, and upcoming games against Temple and UNC (see below) give him that opportunity going into conference play. Our best player this year, by far.
Myck Kabongo : Malcolm Brown
A full year before Kabongo made it to the 40 Acres, he was being hailed as "The Savior" of Texas basketball as fans continually espoused the "Barnes needs an elite PG to win!" meme. Likewise, MB1 seemed destined to revive the Horns' moribund ground game, only he didn't--at least, not by himself, anyway. Just as a runner needs tangential factors (playcalling, o-line, credible passing threat) to succeed, so does a freshman point guard.
Kabongo struggled earlier in the season (just 1 pt, 3 ast in the loss to NC State), but he's really come on and a scorer and lead guard in a big way. His stat line against UCLA--13 pts, 5 reb, 8 ast--was a huge factor in breaking down the Bruins. As Kabongo improves on cutting turnovers (3.0 TPG) and hitting jump shots (31.8% 3-FG%), Texas will likewise ascend. How quickly he does both will determine how high Texas flies this year...and the draft class to which Kabongo decides to pledge.
Sheldon McCllelan/Julien Lewis : Jaxon Shipley/Mike Davis
Texas' two wing players are mercurial talents that, more often than not, need the ball passed to their hands to succeed. McCllelan is averaging 12.0 PPG, and Lewis 10.0 PPG, as tertiary scorers. Both are most comfortable hanging out at the perimeter waiting to catch-and-shoot the 3-ball. Not that they can't make a little magic happen from time to time. Lewis has deft hands on D, and McCllelan should turn out to be a slashing machine. For now, they're pups growing into the offense.
Like Lil' Ship and Mike D, their performances this year will be a mixture of potential and disappointment. I'm much more interested in growth. The next great Texas basketball team will need developed complementary starters that can shine when called upon. Both McClellan and Lewis have the chance to be stout four-year contributors
Alexis Wangmene : Cody Johnson
Wangmene has taken to his new role as undersized starting center just like CoJo as bulldozing fullback. At this point, Wangmene is what he is--strong as oak with a low center of gravity. On offense, it works when all cylinders of the offense is running, but not when Alexis is asked to be an offensive focal point. Wangmene is hitting 60.5% from the floor and grabbing a decent amount of offensive rebounds (2.2 ORPG, 10.5% O-Reb%).
He'll struggle against bigger, more talented 5's and needs to be able to play without fouling (he fouled out in both losses) because there's zero center depth behind Wingman and Chappy. Watching him try to defend UNC's Tyler Zeller will be telling.
Clint Chapman : Blaine Irby
Chapman has all the makings of a feel-good story along the lines of Blaine Irby. Now, in no way am I comparing a redshirt year taken to get stronger to overcoming a serious knee injury that threatened Irby's ability to walk properly again. But Texas fans had pretty much written off Chapman after Barnes chose to redshirt him last year--as a junior...on a squad that was forced to play natural 4 Tristan Thompson at the 5...with only sparsely-talented Matt Hill as a backup.
Chapman couldn't even win the starting center job over Wangmene this year, and Alexis is generously listed at 6'7". But surprisingly, Clint has chipped in 5.4 PPG and 4.8 RPG as a backup big, larger numbers than I ever expected. It's hard to believe, but Chapman's 10 rebounds against Nicholls St. was his first double-digit rebounding game in his career. Irby started the year slow adjusting to life on the football field again. But he ended his career with a bang; let's hope Chappy can too.
Jonathan Holmes/Jaylen Bond : DJ Grant/Luke Poehlmann
Holmes has been a revelation early this year, coming on strong like Grant's 3 TD game against UCLA. Holmes has played just 21.6 MPG but has made use of his court time, posting 9.5 PPG and 5.5 MPG. He's best labeled as a combo forward and should rightfully draw comparisons to Damion James. If Texas had a stronger, more experienced frontcourt, Holmes' per game totals would likely be worse but his efficiency stats would improve.
Bond has been a junkyard dog specialist, sans Poehlmann mullet. His 18 point, 12 reb (8 offensive) game against Nicholls St mirrors the successful run-mauling Poehlmann had when he first lined up at tight end. By the end of the year, Bond will probably have his "wide open TD" moment. As of now, he's a bulldog rebounder and around the basket finisher.
Sterling Gibbs : Miles Onyegbule
Gibbs has potential, but like Miles O, if this were a championship-contending year for Texas, Gibbs would be redshirting. Gibbs scored 14 points in Texas' last game against Nicholls St., and I wouldn't be surprised if that was his only double-digit game of the season.
Andrew Dick/Dean Melchionni : John Paul Floyd
I'm not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing that I couldn;t find a reasonable comp for McAsh. Generally, one would go PG : QB, but Kabongo and Brown just seemed like a much better fit. Thus far, none of Texas' players have crushingly disappointed, which in the end, I suppose is good.
Also lucky for us, Dick and Melchionni have yet to play significant minutes, instead just high-fiving from the bench and enjoying garbage time, a la QB3.
Texas sits at 8-2 going into the weekend, but it's a pretty empty eight wins. The Horns have played just three power conference schools to-date, and won but one of those games. Normally, a win against UCLA in Los Angeles would be noteworthy; this year, the Bruins are just 3-5 with an abysmal team chemistry that D-Money can appreciate.
The Horns' two losses are bubble bursters come tournament time. Oregon State is 8-2 but lost at home to Idaho. If Bryan Harsin had a Twitter, that would have garnered an #SMH from the ex-Boise OC. Record-wise, North Carolina State is worse: 6-3 with respectable losses (Vandy, Indiana, Stanford). They also beat Princeton and NC Central by a combined 7 points. Both are in the same boat as Texas, middle-of-the-pack conference teams looking for some magic come conference play.
But despite the dos L's, Texas has had a fairly good season statistically. They're currently ranked 25th by Ken Pomeroy, with top 35 rankings in both offensive and defensive efficiency. By comparison, NCST is 69th, OSU 70th, UCLA 115th.
Further, Texas' losses weren't terrible: a combined eight points after leading both late in the 2nd half. But both coffee and NCAA tournament bids are for closers, and we'll soon find out just how good this Texas team will be come March.
5 Games to Watch
vs. Temple (Dec 17, 1:30p, ESPN2)
I know precious little about Temple's team thus far this year, but Peter Bean has a great preview for the game at BON.
@ North Carolina (Dec 21, 6:00p, ESPN2)
Going into the season, this looked like the only surefire non-conference loss. Despite the Tar Heels looking vulnerable early on (losses to UNLV and Kentucky; close calls to Wisconsin and Long Beach State), this is a terrible match-up for Texas. The Horns have no match for UNC's frontcourt aircraft carriers (John Henson, Tyler Zeller, and Harrison Barnes) and Kabongo is probably still too green to consistently attack the defensive black hole liability that is Kendall Marshall.
Still, it should be a great test and a March Madness-type atmosphere for the Horns. If they can hang with the Tar Heels for a half and start to believe, I can dig the upset vibe. But...don't count on it.
As exciting as TCU vs. LA Tech in the Poinsettia Bowl sounds, do yourself a favor and change the channel to the Deuce--this is the first must-watch Texas hoops game of the year.
vs. Texas A&M (Jan 11, 8:00p, ESPN2)
Texas' third conference game against the Aggies starts a brutally tough schedule stretch. Beginning with Texas A&M, 6 of the next 9 are against currently ranked opponents (Aggies twice, Tigers twice, Kansas, Baylor). Every win Texas can scrounge up in those nine is an important one.
If 27-25 didn't get you all riled up to show the Aggies the door, you have two more chances to root for the good guys during regular season hoops play. The Aggies have one loss on the year to a feisty Mississippi State team, but don't really play anyone else of non-con consequence besides Florida this weekend. The Ags just returned Big 12 POY candidate Khris Middleton (injured knee), and in his stead, Ray Turner has had a breakout year (13.0 PPG / 6.3 RPG / 63.8% FG%).
Traditionally, Texas has split the home-and-home with A&M. If either team this year can take both, it'll be huge. The two bitter rivals are in the range of 4th to 6th best in the conference, and the difference between those two spots is huge to the tournament committee.
@ Missouri (Jan 14, 12:00p, ESPN2)
Don't act surprised when the Tigers end up Big 12 champions. Missouri hasn't missed a beat under new head coach Frank Haith. After big man Laurence Bowers was lost for the season with a torn ACL, pundits wrote off the vertically-challenged team. But Ricardo Ratliffe has more than held down the fort inside (14.2 PPG / 7.2 RPG / 76.0% (!) FG%), and hyper efficient scorers Marcus Denmon and Kim English have combined for 37.5 PPG. Denmon and Ratliffe are Big 12 POY contenders, and both currently rank top 5 in the nation in John Hollinger's College PER.
As a team, Missouri has been running roughshod over everyone. Their closest margin of victory is 10 (against Villanova), and the Tigers throttled tournament contenders Notre Dame by 29 and Cal by 39. They're legit. Missouri has one more difficult non-conference game against Illinois, and also play Kansas St. prior to facing the Horns. If the Tigers can get by those two, they'll most likely be undefeated when they host Texas.
vs Kansas (Jan 21, 3:00p, CBS)
This isn't the stacked Kansas teams of years past, but that could a good thing for Bill Self--maybe they won't implode in the NCAAs, either. Thomas Robinson is the household name. He's posted double-doubles in 7 of 9 games. Impressive, when three of those were against Kentucky, Georgetown, and Duke. Other than that, it's a motley crew of names. Former walk-on Connor Teahan has emerged as an offensive threat but plays ole D, former top 100 prospects Jeff Withey and Elijah Johnson are finally playing (and playing well), and transfer Kevin Young has been incredibly efficient in limited minutes (20.2% of avail min, 132.0 O-Rtg).
Starting point guard Tyshawn Taylor just underwent knee surgery and is out for approximately three weeks, meaning he should be back for this game. That's probably a blessing in disguise for the Horns; he's one of my least favorite players in recent memory (his A/TO ratio is 1.1!). Kansas was good enough to beat a Sullinger-less Ohio State but bad enough to lose to Kentucky and Duke. Sounds about right. Their beta is probably somewhere between first and third in the Big 12.
I'd put the over/under on losses by Jan 22 at 4.5. UNC and Mizzou look like losses, but if Texas can win the rest, it'll set up really well for the rest of the year. If the Longhorns are as good as I think they are, they'll be able to hold serve at home against A&M and Kansas, who I both feel are overrated in comparison to their top 25 ranking.
Even 5 losses may be fine (at Kansas St. prior to the KU game will be a toughie), but 6 would be pushing it. After Kansas, Texas still has road trips to Baylor, A&M, and OK State before ending the year in Lawrence. Getting home home victories early are critical.
With the Horns' two early season losses, Texas needs to finish in the top 4 of the Big 12 to feel comfortable about their tourney hopes. A 10-8/9-9 record in conference play would put them in the 5th to 7th range and hoping their bubble doesn't burst. Right now, the bracketologists are favoring the latter scenario.
But maybe, just maybe, Texas upsets UNC and sends fan expectations through the roof yet again. Hey, at one point this season, football fans were talking up 10-2 and the Cotton Bowl as possibilities. So fingers crossed.