Now that our football team is finally great good at least bowl-eligible again, you, intrepid Texas fan, may have forgotten that we also play something called bas-ket-bawwwwwl on the 40 Acres. For those of you who remain blindingly optimistic even in the face of certain death, the 2011-12 Texas basketball team is just like its football counterpart: we're not rebuilding, we're RELOADING! For the rest of you pragmatist Barkers: well, we're probably rebuilding.
I talked at length about Rick Barnes' new "recruiting philosophy" last week. We appear well positioned to compete for championships starting next year, but I won't lie to you: this year will be a challenge. Right now, the Horns look like a bubble team, fifth or sixth best in a down year for the Big 12. That said, we should be a terribly fun team to watch, especially if Barnes embraces the run 'n gun style that suits our personnel so perfectly.
In Cory Joseph's draft declaration statement, he espoused: "[W]hen Kabongo follows in my footsteps, there will no longer be any of the blood of the sacamores AAU Grassroots, for my boy is the last of the Mohicans Canadians." Basically, if you're a fan of Terrance & Phillip, Alanis Morrissette, or the Ro the Rev pipeline, don't hold your breath for new hits. Myck Kabongo looks like Texas' last Canadian for the foreseeable future, now that assistant Rodney Terry has departed for a better pay grade. But if Kabongo is the last one, he's a heckuva curtain call. He'll be one of--if not the--best freshman point guards in the country. He's also a very real possibility for one-and-done, so Barnes desperately needs to work some Peter Gabriel "In Your Eyes" type magic to convince the new Oingo Boingo to stay. Kabongo is lightning quick, a fearless penetrator, and deft distributor. He's the Horns' best passing point guard since T.J. Ford, for serious. He'll also turn the ball over quite a few times trying to force plays, and needs to work on keeping defenses honest by hitting a handful from long range.
Junior J'Covan Brown steps up from his sixth man role last year to start at the 2 as Texas' combo guard. He gets a bum rap from a myriad of reasons--academic ineligibility, attitude problems, and general association with the last two seasons of crushing disappointment. He also happens to be Texas' best shooter with a wickedly good understanding of how to create offensively. For more, check out Reggieball's fantastic piece discussing Brown's offensive prowess on BON. This will be Brown's first year playing next to an offensively competent point guard, and I expect a breakout season akin to LaceDarius Dunn, Jacob Pullen, or Ashton Gibbs' junior campaigns. If he's not the Horns' leading scorer this year, it'll be a shock.
Brown will take over ball-handling duties when Kabongo gets a blow, and the third-string point is freshman Sterling Gibbs, younger brother of aforementioned Ashton. Sterling was a lightly regarded 3* prospect; then again, so was Ashton. He's a stash-and-develop guy for Barnes. But given Texas' recent track record with non-star player development, I wonder just how well Texas will "develop" Gibbs the younger. Prove me wrong, Rick. Also, since we don't have any other upperclassmen warm bodies, the stash part won't really come to fruition, either. He'll get some run, whether he's ready or not.
Junior walk-ons Andrew Dick and Dean Melchionni return for another year of playing Rosencrantz & Guildenstern in RTF 101, lending an extra hand during tip drills and raising the team GPA. I mention them only because we're carrying nine scholarship players and can't afford playing time lost to injury, suspension, or general ineffectiveness. If Dick and Melchionni are getting Ian Mooney-like PT, something is rotten in the state of Texas (and, no, I'm not talking about Willie Lyles).
Texas will roll with a three-guard lineup because our two forwards from last year, Jordan Hamilton and Tristan Thompson, decided to get paid (in fictitious Wonderworld Dollars, printed by Billy Hunter, the NBA's Uncle Dave). Enter two more freshmen, Julien Lewis and Sheldon McClellan, both Houston-area products. Lewis is considered a glue guy that plays bigger than his 6'3" frame indicates. He's an effective mid- and long-range scorer, rebounds well for his size, and plays heady on-ball defense. If he has a first year like freshman Justin Mason, Texas will be thrilled. Then hopefully, Barnes doesn't nerf him the same way he did to Mason's stunted development. If I were to predict which one of these freshmen end up making Seth Davis' Glue Guy team, I'd put my futures bet on Lewis.
McClellan is the bigger wing at 6'5", and his recruiting bio reads a lot like Lewis'. Good all-around player, strong mid-range shooter and slasher, capable three-point shooter. Barnes will basically just roll with whichever hand is hotter until he figures out which player gives the Horns a better chance to win as a starter. Lewis got the call out of the gate because he's the stronger long-range shooter and extends the offense, but McClellan's size may become increasingly important as the teams get bigger, stronger, faster on the schedule.
Might as well introduce two more freshmen, Jonathan Holmes and Jaylen Bond. Bond likes his defenders shaken, stirred, and then boxed the F out. His best asset is his rebounding motor. Despite being just a 3* recruit, Bond has gotten the most positive publicity as the season drew nearer. He initially signed a LOI with Pittsburgh, but was granted his release to come to Texas. Given Jamie Dixon's history with effectively utilizing undersized big men, I consider that a plus. Barnes has a solid track record himself, and the expectation spectrum for both Bond and Holmes should range from Gary Johnson to P.J. Tucker to Damion James.
Of the two, Holmes is bigger and more highly regarded coming out of high school, so I found it strange that he wasn't getting talked up nearly as much as Bond. He's quite comfortable comfortable playing on the perimeter, and when he first committed, there were pipe dreams of him as a tall 3 spacing the floor next to Thompson. Ideally, he can come in and provide a Johnson-sized impact to the frontcourt. You may now insert your best Val Kilmer joke here.
Texas' two big returnees are Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman, and there's not much more bitching and moaning about these two than has already been written. Wangmene has a solid core and a fiery attitude, but is two inches too short for his style of play. He hasn't yet figured out how to compensate for that height differential, and I doubt he puts it together this season. He provides almost nothing on the offensive end aside from pounding the glass. As a defender, he'll make lesser guys uncomfortable but doesn't have the height to defend talented taller 4's, let alone 5's. If I were Barnes, I'd have given him a tape of Chuck Hayes as a Houston Rocket and made him watch it on a LOST Room 23-type loop.
Chapman is another puzzling Barnes recruiting case in which the skills that Clint came in with as a freshman have seemingly regressed or disappeared entirely by his senior year. He redshirted last year in the hopes that another season of development would turn him into at least a serviceable college player. He has some offensive post skills, but a best case year looks like Matt Hill's: just know where to be on the floor and don't mess up too badly. He's also the only guy on the team taller than 6'7", but couldn't get the starting gig at center. That's telling.
It's a crying shame that Texas didn't get one or two returnees back from last year, because this year's Big 12 is wide open. The conference as a whole looks ripe for a down year. Kansas draws the favorite tag by default, with only Thomas Robinson looking like an NBA player on their roster. Baylor, with Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller, is the most talented, but the Bears limited by the lack of a point guard and Scott Drew as a head coach. Kansas State could be feisty but doesn't have Jacob Pullen anymore, and Texas A&M still has Khris Middleton but little else. Oklahoma State is in the same boat as Texas, with one star freshman (LeBryan Nash), a hope, and a prayer.
The downside is that with just 10 teams, conference play is bumped up from 16 to 18 games with a true round robin. Nebraska and Colorado, traditionally two of the Big 12's weaker basketball programs, drop off the schedule. Texas now plays home-and-homes with the old Big 12 north schools, none of them pushovers.
The non-conference schedule isn't terribly difficult, with a game at Chapel Hill against North Carolina looking like the only surefire loss. The Horns also play at UCLA and at home against Temple. Their preseason tournament this year is the Legends Classic, with a final game against either a rebuilding North Carolina State or a Vanderbilt team without its star center, Festus Ezeli (injured knee).
The goal for Texas should be a 20 win season and an NCAA Tournament berth. I'm predicting losses to North Carolina and UCLA, as well as a couple more head scratchers. That would require 11 conference wins to make it to 20-11. At the very least, Texas is off to a nice start--they creamed Boston University today for their first win of the year.
Given the personnel, Barnes should embrace his talent instead of lamenting on the losses. That means embracing his inner Simple Jack and going full retard with an uptempo style of play. Barnes finally has a point guard that can lead, score, distribute, and push the ball. Further, his combo guard won't be too shabby at that either, giving Texas two above-average options in the backcourt. The 3 and 4 spots will be manned by inexperienced, perimeter-oriented players that would thrive in a "do, not think" offense as well. And if that's not reason enough, the height deficiency should be the last straw pushing Barnes towards a brave new offensive world.
On defense, on-ball, man-to-man pressure defense is Barnes' calling card, and I don't expect the philosophy to change here. Our height disadvantage will make rebounding and defending the paint a challenge, so as much as the Horns can force the opposition guards out of their comfort zones, the better. And if Chapman and Wangmene can focus their efforts on becoming elite rebounders, that would be a really welcome development.
Texas is young, but talented. Small, but fiery. And most importantly, full of potential. This will be one of the most challenging and demanding seasons yet, but stick with these guys. At the very least, they'll be fun to watch.
If you were a fan of my general college basketball musings last year on March to March, check out some of the season preview posts I've been doing for A Sea of Blue (SBNation's Kentucky Wildcats blog). They're not half-bad, if I say so myself.