Starting to feel good, are we Myck?
It's December, which means the return of the Texas Basketball Report. We'll kick off the fifth season of the TBR with a look at the Longhorns' 69-59 win over UCLA on Saturday, and a progress check on the team since losing its first two games against power-conference opponents.
Texas fell behind 17-6 at UCLA on Saturday afternoon and trailed by that same 11-point margin with just over two minutes left in the first half, but the Longhorns closed the half on a 7-2 run and then opened the second half on a 20-7 run to take a 6-point lead they would never relinquish, defeating the Bruins 69-59. The Texas basketball team that rallied to victory today would have closed out both of those losses in New Jersey, and we're starting to see glimpses of what some of us thought this team could eventually develop into.
I said it in my season preview and again on Friday previewing this game: "The real potential of this team lies in both Brown and Kabongo being primary guards who give defenses fits." J'Covan Brown has been dominant from the season's opening tip, but if Tuesday night's performance against North Texas was Myck Kabongo's first complete performance of the season, today's was his coming out party. The J'Bongo duo combined for 70 minutes, 35 points, 5-11 three-point shooting, 6 rebounds, and 9 assists against just 4 turnovers.
When Texas is getting that kind of play from its two lead guards, everyone else just needs to fill their roles. That's exactly what happened at UCLA on Saturday, and Texas (5-2) has its first big victory of this young season.
And yes, whatever UCLA does with the rest of their season, this was a big victory for Texas. If UCLA struggles throughout the season it may not be a victory that does much for our resume on Selection Sunday, but picking up the win on the road over a power-conference team filled with size -- and the manner in which we did it -- represented an important and impressive step forward for this young team.
Much more after the jump...
Reviewing the Keys to the Game
In looking at how Texas got past the Bruins, let's revisit my five keys to the game from the preview:
1. Will UCLA have the right game plan for Texas? The Bruins didn't overly-settle for jumpers and did make some effort to work it inside, but after watching this game I think I over-emphasized the importance of UCLA's game plan. Not because such a game plan wouldn't have presented Texas with a huge problem -- it would have -- but because they're not good enough to do what I was worried about. The two biggest problems the Bruins have are that they don't have a single guard who can penetrate with any efficacy, and they're an incredibly slow team as a whole. Together those two weaknesses lead to choppy, bogged down offense with no obvious point of attack. Looking at that roster of Bruins players today, it's hard to believe they were recruited by the same guy who brought Russell Westbrook, Kevin Love, and Aaron Afflalo to Westwood. UCLA is a mess right now, and they're fortunate that the Pac 12 looks to be down this year.
2. What is Texas' strategy for playing defense and rebounding without committing fouls? Not only did Texas not get murdered on the glass, the Longhorns outrebounded the Bruins 34-30 on the game. Now, part of that is accounted for by the difference between the number of defensive rebounds available to each team: Texas made 29 of its 53 shots (55%), while the Bruins connected on just 22 of 57 (39%). UCLA did have 17 offensive rebounds, but -- importantly -- Texas picked up 12 of its own and on the whole did an improved job of team rebounding.
For this undersized Texas team, that's the key -- team rebounding -- and I take you back to the season preview one more time to the discussion on how we might overcome our size limitations: "The one silver lining is that defensive rebounding at the collegiate level is not about size and strength to nearly the degree it is at the professional level -- athleticism, quickness, reach/length, timing, instincts, positioning, and pure effort are all important factors beyond being big and tall that can make a good defensive rebounding player/team."
Size does matter, and two weeks from now we'll all probably doubt the relevance of the above point after Tyler Zeller's 13th tip-in basket of the game, but at this level all those things really are as important as size, and as a team Texas did a really good job of focusing its attention on the work required to rebound. Myck mentioned in his post-game interview that Barnes spent all week harping on the importance of all five players doing their parts to rebound, and if we can do that all season we'll go a long way towards mitigating the damage caused by our size deficiency.
As for defending without committing fouls, Barnes had Texas play UCLA straight up with pressure man defense, and although Texas' final numbers were aided by some point-blank misses by UCLA, we did a great job of being disruptive without fouling and we're really starting to play good team defense. With that said, I'm not so sure today's performance showed that we're not still vulnerable in that regard, because again, UCLA simply didn't have anyone who could penetrate and their forwards were strong but not quick. We'll see how we do against teams with frontcourts that are athletic as well as being big (North Carolina and Baylor, for example).
3. Will Texas get the performances it needs from Wangmene and Chapman? The key here was not for one or both players to turn in dazzling performances, but for each to give us 20 solid and productive minutes. On that mark, both scored a solid 'A' for their performances Saturday. Wangmene turned in his fourth straight quality game, scoring 8 points on 3-3 field goals, with 4 rebounds and just 1 turnover and 3 fouls, along with solid, hard-played defense. As for Clint Chapman, the senior turned in his best performance of the year, playing like a guy who got challenged following his frustrating performance against North Texas on Tuesday. He responded with 19 important minutes, scoring 6 points and grabbing 7 rebounds, with 2 blocks and a steal to boot. Again, it's not important to the team that these two players be more than we know they're capable of, but that they consistently give us 20 solid, productive minutes. Nice work by both today.
4. Can Texas punish UCLA with outside shooting? I was worried about our halfcourt offense if we couldn't extend UCLA's defense by hitting some outside shots, and indeed it was a barrage of jumpers by J'Covan Brown that sparked the rally that turned the game. Texas had been just 1-for-7 from beyond the arc when Brown cut UCLA's lead to 6 with a three pointer with 38 seconds left in the half, then opened the first three minutes of the second half with 8 points on three more jumpers, the last of which tied the game at 38. After that everything opened up for Texas, Kabongo really started slicing up the Bruins with his penetration, and Texas started getting quality shot after quality shot. That's how you go 17 for 24 for a half, and although you're not going to shoot 70% from the floor very often, Texas made it look easy today. Speaking of which...
5. Is Myck Kabongo ready for this caliber of athlete? When this season tipped off I think that Texas fans -- myself included -- remembered what it was like watching TJ Ford carve up defenses all the way to the Final Four and wanted to see Kabongo do the same. The trouble was that we were remembering TJ Ford from the end of his sophomore season, and watching Kabongo from the very beginning of his college career. Now, Ford and Kabongo are different players, but as for seeing exciting and devastatingly effective point guard play... well, we certainly got some of that today.
Kabongo showed flashes of his elite talent in the season openers against mid-majors, hit a wall and struggled against Oregon State and NC State in New Jersey, played without confidence against Sam Houston State, and then regrouped and took what he'd learned thus far to take a big step forward on Tuesday against UNT, turning in his most complete performance of the year. The big question heading into Saturday was whether Kabongo could carry that elevated play forward against a big and strong power-conference opponent like UCLA.
As Saturday's game neared halftime, it looked like we might still have some waiting to do before Kabongo was ready to play at a high level against bigger competition. With 2:16 left in the first half, Texas trailed UCLA 32-21 and Kabongo had just 2 points on 1-of-3 shooting, with 1 rebound, 0 assists, and 2 turnovers.
From that moment on, he was absolutely brilliant: 9 points on 4-7 shooting, 3 rebounds, 1 steal, and 8 assists without a single turnover. Based on what we saw today, I'd say that adjustment period? It's over.
Over the game's final 22 minutes Kabongo was unstoppable, carving up UCLA with penetration that opened the floodgates for our offense. He ran the pick and roll to perfection, forcing UCLA to start showing higher and higher on the screen, and even trying to double team him to slow him down, but he navigated everything with patience, polish, and poise. No matter what they did, the Bruins couldn't keep Kabongo out of the lane, and unlike earlier in the season this time he was under control and knew what to do when he got there. Time and again, once he'd gotten the defense out of position, he found the man who was left open, setting up teammates for uncontested shots. He picked up a dime hitting Chapman on a beautiful bounce pass on the screen and roll. He drove and dished to set up McClellan for an open three. He punished an overplay by dropping a perfect pass to Bond on a backdoor cut. Things were going so well that Texas even got a lay up after Kabongo fired a bullet inside to Wangmene, who actually caught it.
I'm sure Texas' freshman point guard will still have his share of struggles this season, but we're starting to see the game slow down for Kabongo, and as it does we're seeing him more and more able to put his considerable skill set to use. An important part of that is that as he becomes more accustomed to the level of play, and more comfortable playing against more physical players, Kabongo is becoming a lot more patient and purposeful. To borrow Rick Barnes' favorite nugget of wisdom that he received from UCLA legend John Wooden: early in the season Kabongo was more activity than achievement. As he continues to adjust and develop at this level, he's only going to grow more comfortable, more efficient, and more effective. Exciting stuff.
Like I said, today's outcome was as much a reflection of UCLA's flaws as our strengths, but again, it was nevertheless an impressive, important win for this Texas team, particularly because of the way we played over the game's final 22 minutes, when Kabongo took over. Because of his impact on everyone else, each step forward for Kabongo represents a step forward for the team, so if Saturday's performance carries forward, now things start to get interesting for this Texas squad.
To reiterate once more, what made me wonder whether a team this young and small could develop into a more dangerous squad than most thought was the fact that we might have two elite lead guards. Lots of teams -- including UCLA this year -- have none, and rarely do you find a team with two. My question heading into this season for Texas was how long it would take Kabongo to get there, and though it's still too soon to say, after his two games this week, there's no question that he's moving up the learning curve, and fast, and if his second half today is any indication of what's to follow, come January we might be looking at the best point guard in the conference.
Having both Brown and Kabongo playing at a high level has a potentially huge impact on the rest of our team, as well. Brown and Kabongo are the reason Clint Chapman has, what, ten dunks this year? Brown and Kabongo are the reason Lewis and McClellan are getting open looks from three, and why McClellan is able to develop productively instead of trying to do too much (remember Jordan Hamilton as a freshman?). Brown and Kabongo are a big reason we have great spacing on offense, which is helping the surprisingly suave Jonathan Holmes flourish right out of the gates. And on and on.
And for those who pushed back against the idea that it was smart to constrain J'Covan against a pair of mid-major opponents in order to facilitate Kabongo's development, it might be time to rethink that position if you liked what you saw from Myck Kabongo today. Not only that, but we saw today what I meant when I said that constraining J'Covan would ultimately help J'Covan, who stands to benefit as much as everyone else from playing in an offense with a second elite lead guard.
Our potential to a better team than anyone expects isn't tied to seeing if J'Covan Brown can be Jimmer Fredette. It's in trying to develop into a team with two elite lead guards who know how to break down a defense. That's the one path to getting more out of a roster of freshmen and small forwards than would otherwise be conceivable. The season is still young, and so are we, but the early returns from this group are promising, and I'm to this point exceptionally pleased with the approach Rick Barnes is taking in bringing it along.
Next up, Texas gets three home games against mid-majors ranging from solid (UT-Arlington) to awful (Texas State and Nicholls State), before our next big progress check when the Longhorns will host a quality Temple team loaded with experience on 12/17, before traveling on 12/21 to Chapel Hill to take on North Carolina, a favorite to reach the Final Four.