Myck Kabongo Leads Texas Basketball Past North Texas 73-57

Texas built an early 8 point lead, extended it to 18 in the second half and comfortably held off an athletic North Texas squad 73-57 on Tuesday night at the Erwin Center. We played quite well for stretches, but we aren't yet consistent enough to pull away and run the Mean Green out of the gym, which on a couple of occasions it looked like we might do. Still, we never let North Texas get within striking distance, we took care of the ball, played good team defense, and got looks at the rim when we needed scores.

Myck Kabongo led the scoring with 16 points, joined in double figures by Julien Lewis (11 points) and Jonathan Holmes (12 points). Texas didn't shoot the ball particularly well from the outside, connecting on just 6 of 18 threes, but we did a good job of getting to the line and after hitting 13 of 19 tonight are now shooting a very solid 73% from the stripe, a huge improvement over last year. The Mean Green outworked Texas on the offensive glass, out-rebounding the Horns 46-30, the fourth time this season an opponent has secured more than 40% of their misses.

That was the Horns' only glaring deficiency on the night, though, and Texas' +8 advantage in turnovers helped the team improve to 4-2 on the season before Saturday's match up with UCLA.

TEAM ANALYSIS

Overall, I was satisfied with the performance -- a good bounceback game that featured demonstrated understanding by our players of what we need to be trying to do. The execution came and went, but our approach was sound and Rick Barnes is developing this young team purposefully.

Our team defense was mostly very good tonight, but our young players at times make experience mistakes that force us to help and leave us vulnerable to committing fouls and giving up offensive rebounds. I'll have more on that in the individual notes, but the overall rebounding performance by the team was terrible, and we got an object lesson in what will happen to us in Big 12 play if we're not getting after it on the glass. I talked about UNT's big guards in the preview, and they outhustled and outplayed our guards on the glass. As weak a rebounding frontcourt as we have, our guards have to be more active and aware in helping to clear the defensive glass.

On the offensive side, for the most part I was pleased with the way we were running our offense, even when we didn't score. We didn't have a great shooting night, but that's not a concern when we're getting good looks by executing our offense. In fact, one of our biggest issues on offense tonight was passing up great looks that we got from running our offense. As problems go, that's a great one to have. We did a pretty good job taking care of the ball and generally played under control and with purpose. At this stage of the season, seeing us develop in that regard -- understanding what we want to do offensively, and purposefully trying to execute it -- is of much greater importance than whether our young team is inconsistent in getting points out of it.

Very much related to that point, I'm most impressed with Rick Barnes' offensive approach with this team/season. Fans need to be careful not to mistake the ability of this particular assemblage of talent and experience to successfully execute the offense consistently with a failure in the approach itself. We're running a really neat group of offensive sets that revolve around utilizing smart spacing, and purposeful motion and screening away from the ball to open up specific opportunities at specific spots on the floor. Not that Rick didn't achieve a lot of success with the more anarchistic dribble-drive offense, but those who wished Texas' head coach would embrace a more systematic approach to offense should be delighted to see what we now run on offense. Again, it's a work in progress, but not only do I see this young team improving in understanding and running the offense, but also improvement from last season to this season in terms of the development of our offensive approach -- which I must admit I didn't really anticipate, but perhaps it should be expected that there's a learning curve and improvement to be seen in terms of the coaches' ability to implement and teach that offense to their players.

At the end of the day, this was a solid game for Texas in the development department, which is always nice to do while still picking up a win. Our fundamental weaknesses aren't going to go away and our limitations are clear, but right now the important thing to see is good approach and productive development. By that standard, tonight's win was satisfying enough.

INDIVIDUAL PLAYER NOTES

Myck Kabongo -- 30 minutes, 16 points (3-4, 2-2 3PFG, 8-10 FTs), 4 rebounds, 7 assists, 3 turnovers, 1 steal

I noted in the preview that I thought this match up was ripe for Texas' freshman point guard to get back on track, and Kabongo did just that, turning in what I thought was his most complete performance of the season. Like all freshmen, Kabongo is having to adjust to the substantial elevation in size, speed, and style from the high school to college level, and though it didn't show as visibly during Texas' opening two games against mid-majors, it was clear enough against both Oregon State and NC State, the size and strength of whom Kabongo struggled to adjust to. Those struggles shook the freshman's confidence a little bit, which showed during his tentative performance against SHSU on Saturday.

It's been obvious to me that Kabongo is a very intelligent basketball player with a high capacity to learn quickly from experience (and coaching), and his performance tonight certainly seemed to reflect that. Myck took the lead role in the offense from the get-go and he ran the point with confidence and purpose. Early on he used his dribble to get to the rim, but unlike in previous games when he frequently wound up in the air amongst tall players with nowhere to go, tonight Kabongo used his body to instigate contact, earning a trip to the line. With his quickness and handles, Kabongo can get into the paint, but he's having to learn how to finish those drives at the college level, and one of the most important lessons he can learn is how to turn that driving ability into free throw attempts. He did a terrific job of that tonight, and as he continues to refine the practice he's going to be a much more dangerous and difficult player for defenses to deal with.

Also important, Kabongo shot the ball in rhythm tonight. Myck's not yet a great shooter, but with his great form and follow through Myck probably will be a great shooter by the time he's been a pro a couple years, and right now he can be a good shooter if and when he shoots the ball in rhythm and without hesitation. Kabongo shot jump shots within the offense with confidence tonight, hitting 4 of his 5 jump shots. If he can continue to shoot solidly within the offense, the rest of his game will open up even more.

As encouraging as it was to see Myck play in a way that showed him learning and developing, he's still got lots and lots of room to improve. You can see Kabongo struggle at times with the need to direct set offense and the requirement that he make plays within that offense. Reid Gettys wisely observed of Kabongo's charge at the end of the first half that he had decided what he was going to do before he did it. Gettys was exactly right, which is how a player winds up running into a defender overplaying a screen, instead of reading that defensive position and penetrating the other way. He'll get there, but he's got lots more to learn. Which, of course, is pretty exciting.

J'Covan Brown -- 36 minutes, 6 points (3-10, 0-3 3PFG, 0-0 FTs), 2 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 rebound, 2 steals

I suspect the move in recent games away from a J'Covan-centric offense is purposeful, and I think it's smart on the part of Rick Barnes. The fact of the matter is that we can flip that switch to ON if need be -- and we almost assuredly will at times this season, perhaps many times -- but there's much more to be gained for the team and offense as a whole by constraining his role in the offense in these non-conference games against mid-majors. I'm pretty sure that's what we're seeing right now, much more so than Brown passively just slipping into the background. When the going gets tough, he's still our key offensive player, and I have no doubt that we'll make him the focal point of our approach when we need to.

Tonight J'Covan just played shooting guard within the set offense directed by point guard Myck Kabongo. Brown didn't have a stellar night in that role, primarily because his jump shot is a little off right now (he looks like he's leaning backwards just a smidge too much), but the shots he took were quality looks within the offense, and he as usual made three beautiful passes to get teammates easy scores. It's a joy to watch a player who really knows how to use the bounce pass, and J'Covan's a master.

Big picture, there's nothing really to see here. J'Covan is still a player capable of taking command of the offense, and right now we're focusing our energies on developing the players around him, and the set offense as a whole. Again, I think that's really smart, particularly with how much I like the offense we want to run. And not only is a J'Covan-centric approach there as a fallback if we need it, but Brown can be a very productive and dangerous player within this offense that we're developing. That's a win-win.

Jonathan Holmes -- 27 minutes, 12 points (4-7, 1-3 3PFG, 3-5 FTs), 6 rebounds, 1 turnover, 1 block, 1 steal, 4 fouls

Holmes is in many ways as important a player to this team as are Brown and Kabongo, and he's been the player I've been most surprised to find myself instantly falling in love with since PJ Tucker's freshman year. Holmes had a solid night tonight -- not particularly great, but productive and valuable in ways we desperately need. He's improving as a rebounder, and though he has a lot to learn in terms of defensive fundamentals (positioning on a defender's hip on the block, how to properly front in the post, getting lower when defending penetration, etc.), his raw skills on the defensive end are pretty solid and he's pretty good at disrupting shots.

Holmes isn't strong enough yet to be a good rebounder without compensating with smart positioning and determined effort, but he's steadily shown improvement this year in adopting the right mentality, and he's looking like he's going to give us 6-8 boards per night, which is terrific if that holds through conference play. I've already raved multiple times about his offensive skill set, so I won't repeat it all again tonight, but instead will note the one area that really concerns me: fouls. Holmes is getting whistled at a rate of 6.5 fouls per 40 minutes, a rate which if sustained into conference play will spell big trouble for this team -- we need him out there for 30 minutes per game, and without long stretches on the bench to protect him. The bad news is that part of the problem is related to his size and his learning how to defend college forwards in the paint without fouling, issues which won't go away this year. The good news, though, is that he's drawn more than a few of his whistles on sheer inexperience mistakes -- dumb fouls that even a freshman can learn to minimize. We'll see how he does over the next month, but I'll be worried if it's a sustained problem heading into conference play.

Julien Lewis -- 26 minutes, 11 points (4-10, 2-5 3PFG, 1-2 FTs), 3 rebounds, 2 assists, 0 turnovers, 2 steals

Lewis turned in his most solid performance since Rhode Island, giving Texas solid minutes on both ends of the floor. I already love Lewis for his mental toughness: the kid is unflappable and isn't the type to let past failures hurt him twice by being passive afterwards. He just gets back on his horse and does his best to do what he's good at doing. He did a nice job tonight shooting in rhythm and made one particularly impressive pass to the interior for an easy bucket. The defense remains solid, and like Kabongo he's getting better at learning what to do with himself when he gets to the rim. Lewis is still fairly raw and consistency will be an issue, but he's giving us valuable minutes more often than not.

Sheldon McClellan -- 17 minutes, 8 points (3-5, 0-1 3PFG, 2-3 FTs), 2 rebounds, 1 turnover

I thought McClellan might get the starting nod tonight, but Rick clearly knew better. Although McClellan is just bursting with talent and looks like he might explode into a star at any moment, right now he's still in the heavy learning phase with respect to the aspects of team basketball that are critical at the collegiate level. McClellan did a lot of really good, impressive things in his somewhat limited minutes, but he kept making the kinds of mistakes that required Barnes to pull him out of the game and tell him what he did wrong and what he should have been doing. After he passed up a wide open look 30 seconds after coming into the game for the first time, Barnes pulled him out, held him there on the sideline to tell him to shoot the damn ball in those circumstances, then sent him right back to the scorer's table to check in again. Two minutes later, he was back on the bench after losing tack of his man and allowing an offensive rebound and score. And so on. McClellan's already improved a good bit since the first game of the season, but it looks like learning to play more complete team basketball at all times is going to be a sustained process.

That's fine, and hardly unusual for a freshman. It's just that his progress is of particular interest because the parts of playing the game that come naturally to McClellan reveal an enormously talented player with incredible potential to be a dominant college player. When he's experienced and has a more complete and comfortable understanding of how to play at this level, he's going to be a guy capable of having a few 30 point nights. He's got range on his jumper, but it's his ability to get his shot -- and a good, clean look, at that -- whenever he wants it that separates him. With his length, quickness, and springy athleticism, there aren't but a handful of college defenders who can stop him from getting a clean look from 8-10 feet, and in. And McClellan's got the touch on his shot to score in any number of ways. It'll be a while before he's anywhere close to maximizing that potential, but how far along he makes it this season will say a lot about our post-season ceiling.

Alexis Wangmene -- 25 minutes, 4 points (1-4, 2-2 FTs), 5 rebounds, 3 fouls

It was a classic Wingman game complete with bumbling hands and comical near-misses, but over the past three games he's showing signs that he can provide at least some of the value we really, really need him to provide. Again, we're not talking about much here -- call it 7 points and 7 rebounds a game -- but if he can provide that over 25 minutes with useful defense, that will be most valuable to helping us mitigate our vulnerability to being doomed by our frontcourt limitations.

The discussion of Lexi seems an appropriate place to note how many charges this team has taken in the early season. We certainly didn't take many last year and I'm pretty sure we didn't draw a single charge over the entire 2007-08 season, but all of the sudden we're taking charges like we're Dukies. I haven't heard it discussed anywhere yet, but I've been meaning to write about it for a couple of games now, and we drew at least three more charging calls tonight. What gives? I don't know if it's the result of an increased coaching focus, or just that we have a group of players willing and able to do the dirty work, but we're good at it, and it's a quietly valuable defensive weapon that helps us with our size issues.

Clint Chapman -- 22 minutes, 9 points (3-5, 0-1 3PFG, 3-3 FTs), 4 rebounds, 1 block

About halfway through the game it looked like I was going to use this space exclusively to blast Chappy, but he contributed a few buckets in the second half and -- critically, to avoid my ire -- made all three of his free throws. He absolutely has to put the ball in the basket and give us points, because he's so often just a total liability in every other regard. His rebounding hasn't been particularly good all season, but he drove me mad with his ineptitude on the boards for most of tonight's game. After my frustration peaked, I started rewinding each UNT offensive rebound to see what the hell Chapman was doing, which helped me figure out that his real problem is that he is either unwilling or unable (I lean to the latter) to go and get the basketball; Chapman can only react, belatedly, to the ball upon its coming towards/near him. That's too late in college basketball, which is why Chapman is rarely the one to clear any rebound that isn't right within his immediate reach. Unfortunately, his subpar vertical and limited upper body strength also mean that he's not very good at clearing even those balls that are in his neighborhood. After watching Chapman closely this season, I don't think it's an effort issue. He's just a very slow-reacting athlete with very limited range from a standstill position.

Anyway... he is who he is, and Chapman has the offensive skills to contribute points, so any game where he chips in 8-10 on the scoreboard is not without value. With that said, Chapman does not have the excuse that these true freshmen do with respect to decisionmaking, and it's especially maddening to waste possessions or give up points because Chapman made a purely dumb, entirely avoidable mistake. For example, shooting a 23-foot jumper on the dribble with 25 seconds on the shot clock... no, Clint. And there should be no reason Rick Barnes should even have to yank you for something like that.

Sterling Gibbs -- 11 minutes, 5 points (2-5, 0-1 3PFG), 1 assist, 2 turnovers

I'll give Gibbs this: the kid's got a real scorer's mentality, and he's just productive enough to provide us with 10 minutes a game of back up play. But not more than that, because his defense remains a liability and the pace of the college game is still too fast for him not to be extremely turnover-prone. I like him, though, and am interested to see what kind of college player he can develop into. He's got something to contribute in the right role, but he's got lots of polishing to do before he gets there.

Jaylen Bond -- 6 minutes, 2 points (1-2), 4 rebounds, 1 block, 1 steal

Bond was again giving us some quietly productive minutes and seemed more integrated in the offense than he has been, but after he went to the bench he never returned, and we were told by Samantha Steele that Bond had a stomach virus that kept him out the rest of the way. As much as I have to say about all the other players on this team, I still don't feel like I quite know what I think about Bond. I keep saying I need to see more, and I do.

And that's quite enough for now... Next up for the Horns is a Saturday afternoon tip with the UCLA Bruins in Los Angeles.

Hook 'em

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