Entering tonight's game at 10-13 overall and 2-8 in the Big 12, few believe the Longhorns' season can be turned around in time to maintain the program's streak of 14 consecutive seasons with an NCAA Tournament bid. The odds are long, but even if that fate was 100% certain, the return of Texas' pre-season All-Big 12 point guard would still be welcome news arriving not a moment too soon; because the fact of the matter is that both the team and fans alike are in desperate need of a jolt of fresh energy right now.
The lofty expectations that had waned a bit following Kabongo's lukewarm freshman season have elevated during his 23-game suspension this year, not because opinions of the point guard himself suddenly changed but because his return marks the last best chance for something good to happen this season. If last year the high hopes were for Myck Kabongo as The Phenom, this year circumstances have made generated high expectations for Myck Kabongo as The Savior. In that regard, Kabongo may be arriving at the toughest moment possible: too late and in too big a hole to make a turnaround realistic, but just soon enough that it's possible.
In any event, he's back, and Texas fans will tune in to Wednesday night's game against Iowa State genuinely engaged and intrigued. There is of course another group of people who will be glad to see Kabongo finally take the floor: his teammates and coaches.
The Longhorns who Rick Barnes has leaned on to excel in Kabongo's absence have faltered in larger-than-expected roles. Playing a complementary role a year ago, Sheldon McClellan was one of the nation's most efficient offensive freshmen, but without Kabongo or J'Covan Brown this season McClellan's usage (25.7% of possessions this year, up from 19.8%) and share of shots (31.5% this season, up from 23.3% a year ago) have increased dramatically while his offensive efficiency rating (99.6, down from 116.5) has plummeted. He's buttressed his scoring ability with a slight improvement in getting to the line, but his shooting from the floor has taken a nosedive--after Saturday's lackluster performance against Oklahoma State, McClellan's effective field goal percentage has sunk a full 9 points to 41.9% on the season--having hit just 41% of his 136 two-point field goal attempts and a dreadful 29% of his 87 threes.
Elsewhere, while Javan Felix has filled in admirably in a bigger-than-expected (and probably too-big-in-in-any-case) role during Kabongo's absence, if there was any question that the burden was wearing him down, Felix's 8 turnovers in 27 minutes left no doubt. Both he and McClellan will welcome Kabongo's first minutes back from their seats on the bench, with Kabongo assuming the starting point guard duties and the rapidly improving Demarcus Holland taking McClellan's spot.
Although I'm skeptical that he'll see many minutes, with the news that Jonathan Holmes has received medical clearance to return from his wrist injury, Wednesday night's game will be the first all season for which all 11 Longhorns scholarship players are available. Freshman Ioannis Papapetrou will join Kabongo and Holland in the starting backcourt, while freshmen Connor Lammert and Prince Ibeh--better fits against Fred Hoiberg's quick and perimeter-oriented squad than is Cam Ridley--are getting the starting nods down low. If you're scoring at home, that's four freshmen and a sophomore point guard making his season debut, going up against an Iowa State squad starting three seniors, a junior and a freshman.
What To Watch For
Although it's virtually impossible to know what to expect to see from Kabongo and Texas on Wednesday night, there are several things that I'll be watching for in evaluating how he and the team perform in his debut, and what they might mean for the team down the stretch run of the season.
1. Does Kabongo's presence spark greater energy and confidence among the team? Sitting directly behind the Texas bench in Maui, I was struck by Myck Kabongo's role during games as a (if not the) team leader, despite being in street clothes. Whatever it said about the team without him, he's finally back and will be out there on the floor with his teammates. Will playing alongside their emotional leader and floor general inspire Kabongo's teammates to play with greater energy, confidence and purpose? That would certainly be a welcome sign, if so.
2. With Kabongo in the line up, will Texas improve (a) getting to the free throw line, (b) three-point shooting accuracy, and (c) offensive rebounding? We may well brick so many free throws so as to neuter it adding any value, but the one area in which Kabongo was elite last year was in getting to the line. And he helped his teammates in the frontcourt get to the line at healthy clips as well. Without him this season the Longhorns have sent opponents to the line at a substantially greater rate than they've earned trips themselves, with the team's negative free throw differential a decisive factor for a team that is 1-7 in games decided by 6 points or fewer.
I'll also be watching to see if Kabongo's penetration and distribution lead to more open shots in rhythm for Texas' three-point shooters. Saturday's 1-for-18 abomination may have been the most egregious fail parade, but it's been a season-long struggle that has the Longhorns ranked in the deep abyss of the D1 rankings at 29% shooting from beyond the arc for the year--320th in the country. Likewise, Kabongo's ability to break down a defense and get to the rim could provide a boost to Texas on the offensive glass, where to date the team has been only so-so, grabbing 33% of their own misses (113th nationally, down from 38% and 17th a year ago).
3. What other cascade effects might Kabongo's return have on the team? Along with the three just discussed, I'll be looking for other areas where Kabongo's return has a cascade effect in other areas and on other players. I'm interested to watch for some unexpected effects, but two that I know I'm hoping to see are improvements to the games of both McClellan and Ridley/Ibeh. Rescued from having to play an alpha role with which he's still not yet ready for, will Sheldon McClellan thrive in more of the same ways as he did a season ago? And will there be a benefit for Texas' twin towers, Cam Ridley and Prince Ibeh? It's hardly remarkable that neither freshman center is developed enough to create his own offense from the low block, but there is plenty of reason to believe both players capable of contributing more offense with a point guard that can penetrate, draw help, and either dish or get the ball to the rim.
4. Will Kabongo facilitate more and better transition offense from Texas? Rick Barnes has wanted this team to run more -- you can hear the North Carolina-accented calls for the team to "Go! Go! Go!" every time Texas pulls in a defensive rebound -- but the team has struggled to produce transition offense, completing the offensive Unholy Trinity: no free points at the line, no extra points beyond the arc, and no easy points on the break. Myck has terrific baseline-to-baseline speed, but often struggled to channel that productively last year. Will he be improved in the open court this year? And can he get this team to start picking up some easier scoring in transition? Lord knows we need it.
5. Will Kabongo be game-ready right out of the gate? He's been practicing with his teammates throughout his suspension, but you can't simulate a live game against a real opponent, and this will be Kabongo's first in 11 months. Will there be an adjustment period, and if so, how much of one, and for how long? If there's to be any hope of the team building some exciting momentum, Kabongo will have to hit the ground running, literally and figuratively.
I shouldn't bother--not under these circumstances, not with this team--but we're one discouraging loss away from there not being any reason to harbor an optimistic outlook other than willful denial or stubborn contrarianism. This is it: the last place we can hop aboard the Hopeful Express, and I'd be lying if I tried to deny that my natural preferred state is that of the optimist and his forward-looking view.
So let us hope, one last time. While we can, and until we can't. Myck Kabongo shows how much he's improved himself, catalyzes improvement from all of his teammates, and Texas protects home court against Iowa State to live another day. It ain't science--just being a sports fan. The Longhorns keep this fan's hope alive: Texas 75 Iowa St 70
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