As the clock wound down to zero, and the Texas Longhorns celebrated their 85-67 win over North Carolina, Yahoo! Sports broke the news that Myck Kabongo will be suspended by the NCAA for the remainder of the season. As of this writing, no official announcement has been made. I will deal with the Myck Kabongo issue at the end of this post. First, let's talk about the game.
Texas showed what can be a winning formula. Competent offense plus with one of the very best defenses in the nation equals wins. For the first time this season, the Longhorns were competent offensively, only turning the ball over 13 times, hitting 35 percent of their threes, and sealing the game with 19-26 shooting at the free throw line. Sheldon McClellan led the way with 18 points. Julien Lewis and Jonathan Holmes chipped in 16 points and 15 points, respectively.
Texas won this game rather easily, which is remarkable when we consider that the two best players on the floor were dressed in powder blue. Rick Barnes' squad slowed down both James Michael McAdoo and Reggie Bullock; both players got their points, but took a lot of shots to do it. The rest of the Carolina players were crushed by the Texas defense, at times wilting against the pressure.
Javan Felix had an outstanding game. The Louisiana native is starting to show off his basketball gifts. He played 37 high energy minutes, controlling the pace of the game throughout. He only turned the ball over four times, notched eight assists -- many in transition -- and registered three steals. Sure, he only shot 3-12 from the floor, but I can live with that when he does everything else well. He was great attacking Carolina in transition and finding the open man, giving Roy Williams' squad a taste of their own medicine.
Texas' perimeter shots were falling. Texas' 6-17 three point shooting may not seem great, but when combined with ball security it is good enough for a team that defends like this. Holmes, Lewis, Connor Lammert, and Ioannis Papapetrou all hit shots from long distance.
To put things simply, the Texas defense was great. The Longhorns chewed up the potent Carolina attack, holding the high powered Tar Heels to 0.81 points per possession. Interestingly, Texas only blocked two shots on the night. But Barnes' team shut down the UNC transition game, cut off the rim, and forced the Heels into turnovers and difficult shot attempts. This game was only as close as it was because Carolina managed to get to the free throw line 32 times.
Another bit of encouragement for Texas fans is this -- the young Longhorns took care of business down the stretch. North Carolina can be a dangerous team when they are full court pressing and have nothing to lose, as they demonstrated when they almost erased a 29 point deficit to Butler in Maui. Once Roy Williams dialed up the pressure down the stretch, Texas had a rough possession. But then Rick Barnes called a time out, and made an adjustment that I really liked. Javan Felix is 5-10. Ioannis Papapetrou is 6-8, and can pass and handle the ball. I have always believed that is is very hard to press a team with a big man who can pass and dribble, and Texas demonstrated this principle when they switched their press break to an approach where Papapetrou received the inbounds pass and simply passed over the double team.
The Longhorns finished the game with poise, took care of the ball, and made their free throws. They protected a hard earned lead in the final minutes of the game.
A Few Words About Myck Kabongo
What does the future of Texas basketball look like without Myck Kabongo? The loss of Myck Kabongo limits the ceiling for the Longhorns this year, but this can still be a very good team.
I imagine that you might be skeptical, but notice a critical word that I used in the last paragraph -- the word can. Top level defense with competent offense can take you far in the world. Exhibit A for this is the 2011-2012 Louisville Cardinals, although that team was likely at the far upper end of what one can expect with this style of play. But make no mistake, this Texas team's defense is very good. I fully expect that it will end the season as the best defense Rick Barnes has ever coached.
Without Kabongo, what will it take to make that "can be a very good team" statement come true? It will take more games like the one tonight. Felix doesn't have to dazzle, but he does have to make the right plays. Keep in mind that Texas won tonight against North Carolina in a game where Sheldon McClellan shot 4-17 from the floor. The Longhorns beat Carolina by 18 points without a stellar game from their best scorer.
This team can be very good. They showed that tonight.
If this is the end of the road for Kabongo in Austin, it is also the end of Texas' Canada/Findley Prep recruiting pipeline. It is a group of players that has a complicated legacy. One one hand, Avery Bradley, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, and Myck Kabongo all were likable Longhorns and good players. On the other hand, this group never really yielded much in the way of post season wins. And if all four now end up as one and dones, it will be hard for Longhorn fans to look back on this group's years in Burnt Orange fondly.
I don't know how I will feel about this tomorrow. I don't know how Texas will do for the rest of the season. What I know is this; I know that only one Big 12 team looks to be truly unbeatable. I know that Texas' flaws are probably no worse than Kansas State's, West Virginia's, and Baylor's. And I know that, at least for tonight, Texas wiped the floor with a bunch of guys who expect to get paid serious money to hoop in the near future.
This team can still be very good.