Texas fans will remain football-focused for at least the next month, but for the relatively smaller number of fans who are equally obsessed with Texas basketball, this is one of the most exciting weeks of the year, as the hoops team gets ready to tip off a new season. The first game of the season isn't especially meaningful, but it's always one of my personal favorites, as I get my first look at the players in the gym, where I can get a much more complete picture of a player than on film. Sometimes you need to see a guy in person to appreciate exactly how big he is, or how quick his first step really is, or the way that his lower body mass allows him to hold his position in the paint.
Tonight at 7:00 p.m. CT, the Texas Longhorns basketball team will tip off its 107th season in program history in the season opener against Fresno State, who head to Austin under the direction of second-year head coach Rodney Terry, a Rick Barnes assistant from 2003-11. Jeff Haley has been doing a great job setting the table for the season through posts covering a variety of topics, including Wednesday's rundown of the roster and yesterday's preview of tonight's game against Fresno State. Now it's my turn to take the baton and in the first post of my season preview series we'll take a look at the 2012-13 Texas Longhorns basketball team through the lens of five questions heading into the opener. The series will pick up again after tonight's game, with a report back on how the team looks and any revised expectations based on what some of these guys look like. We'll continue the series next week with another game report and a holistic look at the team, before pausing to pack my bags for Hawaii, where Wiggo and I will catch the Horns play in this year's Maui Invitational on November 19th, 20th (my birthday), and 21st. Best birthday ever? Best birthday ever.
Alright, let's talk about a few of the big questions heading into tonight's opener...
1. What's the state of the program heading into the season?
Let's go ahead and get this out of the way: there may be room to debate whether Rick Barnes will take Texas all the way to the top, but most agree that the overall health of the program remains strong. After earning just 16 NCAA Tournament bids in the 60 years between the inception of the Tournament and Tom Penders' last season in 1998, since Rick Barnes was hired in advance of the 1998-99 season, the Longhorns have made 14 consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament -- one of just six schools to have accomplished that feat, along with Duke, Gonzaga, Kansas, Michigan State and Wisconsin. Rick Barnes carries a personal streak of 17 consecutive NCAA Tournament ppearances into the 2012-13 season, a mark that is tied with Duke's Mike Krzyzewski for the longest current streak of any active D1 coach. Although Texas has not advanced to the second weekend of the Tournament the last three seasons, Barnes is responsible for 5 of Texas' 13 all-time appearances in the Sweet 16, 3 of its 7 trips to the Elite Eight, and the program's lone Final Four appearance since 1947 (when it was an eight-team tournament field).
Since Barnes' arrival, Texas has won three Big 12 titles and is 160-66 in conference play, closer to the top mark held by Kansas (187-39) than the third-best mark held by Oklahoma (132-94). Barnes has also led the Longhorns to 57 wins over Top-25 ranked teams (shattering the previous high mark of 10 held by Tom Penders), 13 consecutive 20-win seasons, a pair of 30-win seaons, and 10 seasons with 10 or more conerence wins (with 9 wins in each of the other four seasons). He's recruited 13 McDonald's All Americans (1 in program history prior to Barnes), coached two National Players of the Year, four consensus first-team All Americans, and 16 NBA Draft selections (10 in the first round), and the Longhorns are one of only five schools that currently have 11 or more players on NBA rosters (Aldridge, Augustin, Bradley, Durant, Gibson, Hamilton, Ivey, Joseph, Pittman, Tucker, and Thompson).
Last but not least, under Barnes the Longhorns are getting it done in the classroom, as well, leading the Big 12 Conference in Academic All-Big 12 selections in each of the last four years, with 6 honorees in both 2008 and '09, five in 2010, and four last year. In sum, Rick Barnes is not only far and away the best basketball coach that Texas has eveer had, over the last 14 years he's been one of the 10 most successful in all of college basketball.
2. What if Kabongo is a no-go?
As you know, Myck Kabongo has been sidelined the past month or so, while he and Texas await an official ruling as to whether Kabongo broke any NCAA rules when he allowed Tristan Thompson to pay for his travel expenses to attend a workout this past offseason. Although Kabongo should absolutely have known better and was stupid to let this happen, the facts appear to be pretty benign and Thompson says Kabongo's brother paid him back. But after the NCAA this week handed out stupid and disproportionate 9-game suspensions to Indiana freshmen Peter Jurkin and Hanner Mosquera-Perea for receiving benefits from an AAU coach who donated $185 to IU back in the 1980s, I'm not counting on anything, and at the very least worry that the investigation could drag out for weeks, because the Texas compliance office has no choice but to be cautious and sit Kabongo while uncertainty remains, rather than risk letting an ineligible player take the court. All of which leaves us more or less stuck in limbo.
I'm pretty plugged in to the Texas basketball program and have done my diligence asking around on this situation, and it's clear to me that Texas is in the dark, sitting and waiting just like you and me. Which is why you have to take Rick Barnes' comments on the matter at face value:
"It is what it is. We don't even discuss it," Barnes said. "We just want to go. It's no different to me than if a guy is injured and is not going to play. Myck has worked hard and done everything we've asked him to do. We all hope for the best for him because he's really worked at it."
At the very least, Kabongo will not play in tonight's opener against Fresno State, and while you'd hope that with the season tipping off a decision will be made soon, but where the NCAA is concerned, all bets are off. I have no idea what to expect, and the range of possible outcomes is ridiculously wide. In the meantime, the situation raises two questions: first, assuming he plays most of the season, what should Texas fans expect from Kabongo this year? And how badly will it hurt Texas if he misses a substantial amount of time?
On the first question, I honestly don't know. The reports I've been getting have all said Kabongo looks good, and I have no doubt that he will be improved. For that matter, I'm certain that he will be no worse than a good-to-very-good point guard. The million dollar question, though, is whether he can be a great point guard for Texas as a sophomore. From what we saw last year, Kabongo possesses a sufficiently high amount of raw talent and physical ability that I'm comfortable saying that I expect he will be very good, but what we saw last year also raised questions as to whether he's likely to be better than that -- to be great. Myck Kabongo possesses elite talent, but he displayed a subpar feel for the game on a troubling number of occasions last year -- enough to raise questions as to whether it will limit his ability to reach his potential from a pure talent perspective. It'll be interesting to see, because by all accounts he looks great from a physical perspective and has begun to really fill out like his frame suggested he could.
What if the worst case scenario, though? If Kabongo were to miss all or a big chuck of this season, how badly would it hurt Texas? There's no sense in pretending that it would hurt us. We'd miss him from a depth perspective, and even if Myck only took a modest step forward from last year -- hell, even if basically the same player from last year returned -- he would be a valuable asset that makes us a better team. And of course if he might be ready to be more than that, which would really suck to miss out on.
With that said, I'm hoping that Javan Felix surprises a lot of Texas fans with how much of the loss of Kabongo he's able to mitigate. Felix possesses half the physical talent of Kabongo, but what he does have is precisely the elite feel for the game and pure hoops instincts that were missing from Kabongo's play last year. Felix is a fearless gamer with tremendous basketball IQ that enables him to play far more effectively than his physical limitations would otherwise allow. I'm excited to get my first look at him in person tomorrow night, and hope he's as impressive as I'm optimistically forecasting him to be. Where true freshmen are concerned, that's usually a recipe for disappointment, but Felix is a confident player who trusts himself out there. The physical challenges may limit him, but not the mental ones.
3. Will Sheldon McClellan take a step forward... or a leap?
I think this Texas basketball team is going to have its fair share of struggles, but I also think there's some potential for this squad to be sneaky good, depending on a number of factors, but perhaps none more decisive than how far up his growth curve Sheldon McClellan has elevated. It took about 15 seconds last season to see that McClellan doesn't fully understand just how good a player he already is, and I decided pretty quickly that McClellan is going to be one of those players who suddenly explodes when the light finally comes on... right around his 24th birthday.
What would be a lot more fun, of course, is if he started to put it all together while he was still at Texas. Even if he doesn't get all the way there, if he were to take a leap forward this year, as opposed to just a step, things suddenly become very interesting with this team, because McClellan has as much scoring potential as a college player can hope to have. He's going to be our best player this year, but there's at least a chance he'll be outright special. I still expect that if that happens at some point it will be down the road a ways, but not because it has to be. McClellan could be a dominant player as early as this year. He probably won't be, but he has that potential, and as high as his ceiling is as a college player, he doesn't even need to get all the way there to be an outstanding, All Conference-type player.
If he makes that leap, we're suddenly very dangerous... because Sheldon McClellan can get a good look any time he wants it. And score it.
4. Who's your Papa?
Who is Ioannis Papapetrou? Right now, he's whatever you want to project him to be. That's because none of us have really gotten a chance to see Papapetrou play yet. There simply isn't any film of the Greek export, leaving us to rely on scouting reports of the few who have seen him play in person.
I've spoken to a couple people who've been around the team the past couple months, both of whom managed to elevate my intrigue in Papapetrou even higher than it already was, which is saying something. As one recently wrote me in an email:
"Knowing the kinds of players you get off on, you're going to love this kid. He's coordinated, fluid in everything he does, understands the game, and really versatile. We can use him in a lot of little ways to help us get what we're looking for. And he's got consistent mechanics, which most need help with at that age but is a bitch to teach."
Needless to say, I'm dying to talk a lot more about Big Papa, but like everyone else I'll have to wait until tonight. Again, right now Papapetrou can be anything and everything we want to project into him, but the real question will be what his warts look like. Nevertheless, based on what I do know about the kid -- or think I know -- I've got a great feeling about his ability to contribute value in a lot of different ways, and can't help but think he might be one of those players who produces value just by virtue of being on the floor.
5. Who and how many will Rick Barnes play?
Rick Barnes hinted in September that he was planning to go 11 deep this year, and I buy it. Barnes has often been at his best when he's molding together a deep, diverse cast of players, and while we've gone 10-11 deep before, I suspect this will be the most talented of such groups that he's had. There's a lot he can do with this group, on both ends of the floor.
So who plays this season, and how much? I pulled out a pad of paper and jotted down the projected minutes for each player that felt about right, and was pleasantly surprised when they added up to 200 minutes right on the nose.
Obviously, Kabongo's the wild card here, but assuming his absence doesn't stretch well into December, those numbers feel about right and should tell you a little bit about what I'm expecting to see from this group of players this year. What are your own expectations? What does your projected minutes chart look like?
Fire away in the comments, and enjoy the opener tonight. I'll check back in late tonight to continue this season preview series with observations from tonight's game. The season is here! Hook 'em!
Be sure to check our jc25's excellent season preview series over at Barking Carnival, as well.