We can officially close the books on the Texas basketball season. Texas finished the season with a loss to K-State in the Big 12 Tournament Thursday night, 66-49, in a game that was competitive until the latter part of the second half. The Longhorns finish the season 16-17. And, yes, Texas will keep playing, but the season is over. Back to that in a minute. How did we get here?
The Horns were 28-8 in 2011 and were it not for a stupid and blatantly wrong call by a referee who didn’t have the ability to COUNT TO FIVE like a human person over the age of three, they would have been playing Duke in the Sweet 16. Yes, that still bothers me a great deal. Shame on you, Richard Cartmell. SHAME ON YOU. The end of that season meant the end of the college careers of Tristan Thompson, Jordan Hamilton and Cory Joseph, who all turned pro and were drafted into the NBA.
It was also the end for seniors Gary Johnson, Matt Hill and Dogus Balbay, three starters/significant contributors during their careers. It was nothing new for Texas to lose players to the NBA: Daniel Gibson, LaMarcus Aldridge, TJ, Avery Bradley, but this time it was different. This time it was three guys at once, and coupled with the loss of four seniors it meant seven of the 13 players on the roster were gone.
Headed into the 2011/2012 season, Texas still had plenty of ammo. Junior guard J’Covan Brown was back, as were senior big men Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman. The Horns went 20-14, led by Brown’s 20.1 points per game and Chapman/Wangmene’s 11.3 rebounds per game. The bigs also chipped in 12 points per game.
Close to half of the team’s 72.7 ppg came from the three of them and after the loss to Cincinnati in the opening round of the 2012 Tourney, they were no longer Horns. With Brown off to pursue NBA dreams, Texas once again lost a ¼ of the roster (three departed from the 11-man team), including the leading scorer and top rebounders.
Heading into this season, Texas had one go-to player: sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo. As a freshman he started every game, finishing third on the team in points per game (10.4) and first in assists (149). Texas expected Kabongo to drive and dish, opening up shots for returning role players Sheldon McClellan and Juice Lewis. Seemed like a good plan. But it didn’t happen.
Word began to leak out in the fall that the NCAA had some issues with Myck. As basketball season approached, Kabongo was held out of all press conferences, team activities and scrimmages. The NCAA was investigating whether agent Rich Paul — The agent to Lebron James as well as former Texas teammates (and childhood friends) of Kabongo Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph — covered costs for Myck to work out with a professional trainer in Cleveland. Most of the time getting nailed for “impermissible benefits” results in a brief suspension and repayment of benefits.
Not the case here, as the NCAA felt Kabongo misled them. Texas held him out as they investigated. He remained in limbo for the first 11 games and as Texas was beating North Carolina on December 19, word came down: Kabongo was gone for the year. Texas appealed and the suspension was reduced to 23 games, 11 of which had already happened. It was better than nothing, but it was far from good. Texas would lose their best and most experienced player for all but 10 games.
It affected everything. Already the youngest team in college basketball with only two seniors (both walk-ons) and no juniors on the 14-man roster, Texas got even younger and less experienced. True freshman Javan Felix was not prepared to take over the point guard role so early and he struggled. The quiet and reserved Sheldon McClellan and Juice Lewis didn’t have the personalities or experience to command the locker room.
With Kabongo’s 149 assists gone, Texas had no one to create shots for others and the offense stalled. Texas looked tentative and uncertain for sizeable portions of games and, as you know, that’s a huge problem. An uncertain and tentative player cannot be his best, and when things go wrong it snowballs. Come-from-ahead losses to Baylor, WVA and Kansas led to a blowout on national TV at K-State were Rick Barnes said, “We were not ready to play right from the beginning… This is what you get. We definitely deserved what we got because we did not do anything right in a lot of ways and they did a lot.”
Texas needed a leader on the court and they just didn’t have one.
They got that guy against Iowa State. Myck Kabongo’s return to the court seemed to invigorate Texas with energy and confidence. Sheldon McClellan scored 10 points in the second overtime and Myck added 13 points, five assists and seven boards as Texas upset The Mayor’s Tourney-bound team, 89-86, in double overtime. Everyone seemed more comfortable with Kabongo back and McClellan said “Today was like a new season for us. … It was good to have our Speedy Gonzales back."
It took Texas some time to adjust to him being back, but they played much better down the stretch, going 4-2 to end the year. AND they beat ou, which was awesome. And remember, sooners: whatever you may or may not do in the Tournament, this still happened.
But still, Texas shouldn’t be this discombobulated when one guy goes missing. What if he leaves this summer for the NBA? What if he turns an ankle? This can’t be about one guy. No, the rest of the team has to pick up the slack, and that is why the CBI is important.
The Horns were offered and accepted an invitation to play in the CBI, or College Basketball Invitational, which is a 16-team tournament comprised of teams not invited to the NCAA Tournament or the NIT. So exclude the top 100 teams (68 when you include the play-in games in the Dance and the 32 teams invited to the NIT), and the next best 16 get to play in the CBI.
It isn’t exactly the cat’s meow of trophies, is it? The field is not sexy: Western Illinois, C.O.C., something called Bryant. Nobody wants to be in this tournament: They would all give anything to be in the play-in game of the NCAA’s or playing in the NIT. But this where we are.
The good news is Texas gets to keep playing, which is the most important thing when you have a young team. The more reps and minutes Texas gets against live competition only benefits the team next year. Barring someone leaving early (update: someone did. Sophomore Jaylen Bond has left the team and will not play in the CBI), everyone that played last year is back. Let me say that again: EVERYONE THAT PLAYED LAST YEAR IS BACK.
I remember watching Oklahoma State and ou the last few years wondering how it could get so bad at big name schools. They truly looked horrible on the court; but those lost and tentative kids took their lumps and grew up, and now they are Tourney teams.
Texas is taking their lumps, but they will get better. And as long as Texas is playing and they are keeping score, I’ll be rooting and watching. The Horns play Houston in Houston on Wednesday on AXS TV (Yeah, I have no idea, either) at 8 pm Austin time. A win and Texas moves on to the quarterfinals against the winner of George Mason and College of Charleston (C.O.C.) on March 25, and then it carries on to the semis before a best-of-three championship series starting April 1.
Let’s finish on a high note, boys. Enough lumps, time to start dishing them rather than taking them. Hopefully we are back next week talking some more hoops.
You can follow me on Twitter @TreyMcLean or you can email him.