Texas and Kansas State went down to the wire in a terrific conference game at Bramlage Coliseum, but the Longhorns couldn't quite pull of the upset on the road as the Wildcats hung on for an 84-80 win. Give Kansas State credit: they absolutely had to win this one, and they battled hard and got it done -- particularly Rodney McGruder, who did what I said he couldn't do and hauled his team on his back, pouring in a career high 33 points.
Kansas State did a particularly good job making things difficult for J`Covan Brown, who finished with 22 points but needed 28 shots to get there. On the one hand, if you're going to go down pinning it all on one player, you want it to be your best guy -- God help me if we'd lost with Julien Lewis finishing 2-15 from the floor -- and several of Brown's misses were great looks that he just couldn't get down. On the other hand, I thought in the second half we really pulled away from our biggest advantage in the game when we stopped attacking the paint with Myck Kabongo. It was clear to me that Kansas State didn't have anyone who could stay in front of Myck without fouling, and though Myck coughed up a couple turnovers after the refs started swallowing their whistles, it was a mistake not to keep having him attack anyway. He was getting to the rim or fouled, and once we got away from that our offense got progressively more passive and our trips to the line all but dried up. As I emphasized in the preview, attacking K-State relentlessly and getting your points at the free throw line is essential, and after it was our bread and butter in the first half, we struggled to score without it in the second.
Who knows how responsible Rick Barnes is for our getting away from that, but he was yapping at Kabongo after he turned it over on a drive to the paint, and Kabongo never took it to the rim after that, so I have to believe he told him to stop. If so, it was a mistake, and though I've been very pleased with the job Barnes has been doing bringing this team along, on the whole I didn't love what he did with tonight's game. Along with allowing us to get away from what was working so well for us, I was confused by Barnes' decision to start Bond and Wangmene, probably the last of the six possible combinations of starting forwards I would have gone with for this match up, and thought we needlessly went to a zone early in the first half, which was when K-State went on their big run of the game.
On the more positive side of the ledger, I was once again impressed with how we competed, and with a few more things going our way we easily could have pulled off the upset in one of the two toughest road venues in the Big 12 (along with Allen Fieldhouse). I'll have a bit more on that in the next Texas Basketball Report, but for now it's at least encouraging to see us closing in on a breakthrough. Close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, and if we don't get there quickly and close out the back half of the schedule very strong we'll be NIT-bound, but it's also clear what these kids will be capable of whenever they do get there. Hopefully they'll get there this year, and next year is looking mighty interesting, provided we can dodge the NBA Draft bullet for once.
In any event, considering what a longshot it was to win this game at Bramlage, the big takeaway from this game really has to be what we saw from Kabongo and Sheldon McClellan, both of whom really showed their talent against as tough and physical a defensive team as they'll see all year. That's what we've been waiting for, and if it's disappointing to have fallen short of the win, getting to that next level this year has always been about the light coming on for both of those players. They're getting closer, and so is the team.
For once I'm too tired to stay up until 3 a.m. writing, so I'll have to defer detailed individual notes for now. I can't say that this loss was a bad one, but it's awfully tough to keep getting so close to a breakthrough and falling just short. The optimist in me wants to focus on how good a sign that is for our chances to finish strong down the stretch, but with each loss our margin for error keeps getting that much smaller.
Next up? Kansas... Thank God. This team could use a breather.