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Texas Basketball: Longhorns Wear Down Rice 73-59

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Texas closed out 2011 year with a solid 73-59 win over Rice on Saturday afternoon, concluding the non-conference season with a 10-3 record. The first three games of the Big 12 season look like they may be defining games for this season, and it was important that Texas hold serve at home against this sold Rice squad and get back on track as it heads in to Big 12 play.

The Owls are actually a little bit better than I thought coming in to the game, but other than a pair of runs fueled by some hot three point shooting, Texas controlled the game pretty nicely. J`Covan Brown (23 points) and Sheldon McClellan (19 points) provided the scoring, while the Longhorns turned in a strong team effort on defense and on the glass.

Representative of the difference between the two teams were the lines of Texas' McClellan and Rice's Tamir Jackson. Both finished with 19 points, but McClellan got there on 5-10 shooting while Jackson finished 5 of 19. Rice played well on Saturday -- they did a nice job of attacking the rim (19-26 FTs) and they had a very good day shooting from downtown (8-19) -- but they had to earn everything they got.

There wasn't anything particularly groundbreaking about this game, but the Longhorns did roll out a new starting line up on Saturday, subbing McClellan in for Julien Lewis (out a week or two with an injured hand) on the perimeter, while going with Jaylen Bond and Clint Chapman over Alexis Wangmene and Jonathan Holmes. I've been calling for the move to McClellan for a while now, and Barnes had been going that way with minutes distribution prior to Lewis's hand injury anyway, so this might have just been the moment that makes it official.

Clint Chapman made his first collegiate start, and completely blew it, drawing fouls 1 and 2 within the game's first 90 seconds, foul 3 in the opening 15 seconds of the second half, and foul 4 within two minutes of being reinserted back into the game in the second half, finishing the game with a final line of 9 minutes, 2 points and 3 rebounds. Wangmene didn't do much better with his 25 minutes, and Bond was pretty quiet throughout the game, but I liked what we got from Jonathan Holmes in 27 minutes, particularly on the glass where his steady improvement continues.

Myck Kabongo had a few nice moments offensively, but mentally seemed to me more the uncertain freshman of November than the controlling point guard we started to see more and more heading into Carolina. With that said, Myck was very engaged in the game and busted his ass to make a difference in the game. He played strong defense throughout, and was active on the glass in the way I really wish Sheldon McClellan would be more often. I've emphasized on numerous occasions that while our frontcourt size is certainly a limitation in some very real ways, in terms of rebounding, size is not determinative to nearly the degree as it is at the professional level. After Kabongo racked up a team-high 9 boards against Rice -- 8 on the defensive glass -- the 6-1 point guard now has 42 defensive rebounds on the year (second-most on the team), with a DR% of 11.8, besting that of McClellan (9.9%), Lewis (9.8%), and JCB (7.6%), and not far behind Wangmene (13.0%) and Holmes (14.3%).

The sample sizes here are still relatively small, so I don't want to go overboard with any conclusions here, but as we head into conference play I want to suggest again that we are not necessarily doomed to terrible defensive rebounding merely because we don't have a strong front line. Our size may limit us from being a strong defensive rebounding team, and we definitely may choose to sacrifice some defensive rebounding as part of emphasizing some other things (e.g. rotating aggressively with help defense, and aggressively contesting shots in the paint), but pure awareness and effort from guards as athletic as ours can make all the difference between poor and acceptably average defensive rebounding.

Lastly on the individual notes, a quick hat tip to Sterling Gibbs, who has steadily made better and better use of his limited minutes of late. His defense is still such a liability that his role is necessarily limited, but he's cut his turnovers down substantially and continues to demonstrate a robust skill set as an offensive scorer. Early in the year I underestimated his shooting ability because his release was rushed and his shot looked flat, but after starting the year 2-9 from downtown he's drained 8 of his last 11. I'll be thrilled if we can steal 5-6 points a game from Gibbs in his back up role, as increasingly looks possible.

All in all, this was a solid win that I was glad to see in terms of rebounding from the messy performance in Chapel Hill, but also pretty representative in terms of showcasing our weaknesses and the challenges this team will face in conference play. It's easy to envision how this young team could fall short of .500 in Big 12 play, but also how this group could win 11 games and look really exciting heading into March.

More on the Big 12 schedule ahead in this week's Texas Basketball Report.

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