After sitting out the first 23 games of the season for accepting impermissible benefits, Texas Longhorns sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo is set to return to game action tomorrow when Texas plays the Iowa St. Cyclones. Head coach Rick Barnes has already said that Kabongo will assume starting point guard duties, relieving freshman Javan Felix.
Is Kabongo's reinstatement to the team a case of "better late than never?" That's debatable.
Texas is just 10-13 going into Wednesday's game, and has lost 80% of its Big 12 games (2-8). With just 8 games left in the regular season, the Longhorns' only realistic shot at making the NCAA Tournament is to win the Big 12 Championship and lock down an automatic bid. With Kabongo now playing--and possibly also a healthy Jonathan Holmes--that's not unrealistic, especially given the down years of Big 12 programs acrosss the board.
What if Texas were to run the table in the regular season but lose in the Big 12 Tournament: say, a 20-14 record? The committee might look favorably at Kabongo's return, but it could certainly also be a case of "too little, too late." Value-added wins at Kansas and vs. Oklahoma St. would have to be weighed against bad losses to USC, Chaminade, and West Virginia (twice).
As for Kabongo, he has to be thrilled to return to the court, in what amounts to a 10-15 game showcase for NBA scouts. After getting throttled by the NCAA's byzantine compliance system, Kabongo no doubt has one foot out the door. If he performs at a high level--enough to get NBA scouts to consider drafting him, basically--I don't see him as anything other than gone.
However, there's the very real possibility that Kabongo could be a disappointment, rusty from sitting and missing the appropriate complementary pieces to elevate his game. With a few bigger, more athletic combo guards getting NBA Draft Lottery buzz (Marcus Smart, Michael Carter-Williams, Archie Goodwin), Kabongo currently sits on the outside looking in. Certainly, Kabongo's season is nowhere as accomplished as Michigan's Trey Burke, who built upon a promising freshman year and turned himself into a POY candidate. Can a short shift season by Kabongo push him into this group in the eyes of NBA scouts? We'll find out soon.
I do think Kabongo's presence will be a boon to Texas' other players like Felix and Sheldon McClellan. Felix appears to have hit a freshman wall. He averages 34.4 MPG and has played 84.6% of available minutes, putting him amongst the top 150 players in the nation in both categories. A much-needed rest would serve him well and allow him to be more of a sparkplug distributor rather than primary ballhandler. A similar story exists for McClellan, who no longer has to initiate offense but can rather work off the ball and position himself for better shot selection.
But if you're counting on Kabongo being a magic bullet for Barnes' massive disappointment of a season, it may have come way too late.