Tonight's game against the Oklahoma Sooners is Texas' last home game of the year. That means it's also Senior Night for two longstanding Longhorns: Clint Chapman and Alexis Wangmene. Both have been much maligned through their Texas careers for what they couldn't do, but today we celebrate them for everything they've accomplished.
Chapman and Wangmene were both four star, Top 100 recruits in the class of 2007, a class built to complement the stellar 2006 class headlined by Kevin Durant, Damion James and D.J. Augustin. Wangmene and Chapman were both spot contributors as freshmen during Texas' last "successful" season, the 2007-08 Elite 8 run. In subsequent seasons, neither player blossomed as originally expected.
Wangmene sat out most of the 2008-09 season after a knee injury, while Chapman redshirted the 2010-11 season to build strength. In between, neither player was able to crack the core rotation, losing minutes to not only future NBA players like Dexter Pittman and Tristan Thompson, but also to a college glue guy in Gary Johnson and roster filler in Matt Hill.
Here's a sobering fact: prior to their senior seasons, neither player had ever registered a single game in which he grabbed double-digit rebounds or scored double-digit points. That's especially disconcerting when you contrast their careers to other mid-tier four star big men in the 2007 class. Players like Robbie Hummel (Purdue, ranked #75 by Rivals), Jon Leuer (Wisconsin, #82), Matt Howard (Butler, #91), Robert Sacre (Gonzaga, #102), Rick Jackson (Syracuse, #103), and Mike Scott (Virginia, #115) all blossomed to become All-Conference competitors.
Going into the 2011-12 season, both Wangmene and Chapman found themselves presented with opportunity. The fifth-year seniors went into the year as the only returning frontcourt lettermen after Johnson graduated and Thompson elected to stay in the NBA Draft. Further, efforts by head coach Rick Barnes to bolster the lineup failed, when transfer players like Olu Ashaolou and Tony Woods said "thanks, but no thanks" to Texas.
Wangmene was awarded the starting center job at the beginning of the season and has been a solid contributor all year. He notched his first double-digit scoring game against North Carolina St., scoring 11 in the overtime loss. After a brief stretch of ineffectiveness, Wangmene has come on strong in the latter half of conference play. The best game of his career also came in Texas' biggest win this season, when Wangmene had 15 points, 13 rebounds, and 2 blocks against Kansas State.
A lot of Wangmene's contributions have come beyond the box score. As a strong, low to the ground big man, Wangmene has been quietly efficient at disrupting offensive post players. Never one to back down (remember his "tussle" with Texas A&M's Brian Davis?), Wangmene has often provided a physical, fiery interior presence on both sides of the court. And while he still lets the occasional bullet pass or surefire rebound slip through his mitts, Wangmene has done a great job improving his catch and finish ability around the rim.
Chapman's solid season has been a little more unexpected than Wangmene's. Despite being the only player on the roster listed taller than 6'7", the 6'10" Chapman started the season on the bench, and logged just 21 combined minutes in early season losses to NC State and Oregon State. After being inserted into the starting lineup at midseason, Chapman has put together some great games in Big 12 play. He started with his first career double-double against Iowa State, registering 19 points and 14 rebounds. He hung tough against Jeff Withey and Kansas with 15 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 blocks, and scored a career high 20 points in Texas' first win against Texas Tech.
While Chapman won't remind anyone of Tristan Thompson or Gary Johnson, the redshirt year did Chappy a lot of good. He was able to pick up aspects of Thompson's uncanny ability to rotate in help defense, and Chapman's 8.2% block percentage currently ranks 61st in the nation. Like Johnson, Chapman's ability to knock down the midrange jumper has helped stretch the opposing defense. And both Chapman and Wangmene have been money on the offensive boards, helping mitigate Texas' lack of offensive efficiency by generating second chance opportunities.
Going into the final home game of the year, Texas fans should appreciate both players' contributions. In the 2011-12 season, Chapman and Wangmene have combined for 43.1 minutes per game, 11.9 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.5 blocks, while shooting 51.1% from the field and 71.5% from the charity stripe. For a team that badly needed solid frontcourt play, Wangmene and Chapman have helped keep Texas afloat and in contention for an NCAA Tournament bid.
As for tonight's game against Oklahoma, it can't be understated how important this game is to Texas' tournament hopes. First of all, a win guarantees that Texas will finish no worse than 6th in the Big 12, ensuring a first round bye in the Big 12 Tournament. It also guarantees at least a .500 record in conference play. and 8-8 looks a heck of a lot better than 7-9 in the Tournament Committee's eyes. And of course, it's always a good feeling when Texas beats Oklahoma.
The Longhorns held off the Sooners during their first matchup in Norman, though frankly, Texas didn't look very good while doing it. Unsurprisingly, the Longhorns immediately went on to lose their next game at Oklahoma State. This tilt is a home game for Texas, and it is also senior night. Given the Sooners' height deficiencies, I'm hopeful for big games from Wangmene and Chapman. Off the dribble, Myck Kabongo should be able to abuse Sam Grooms like he did during the first game. On defense, the gameplan is the same as the first go-around: contain Steven Pledger and the rest will follow. Ken Pomeroy likes Texas to win, 75-64, and I do too. Let's close Erwin Center up right.