Kansas has two star upperclassmen while Texas has just one, and that was the difference in the Jayhawks' 73-63 win last night, as Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor combined for 47 points, enough to overcome the 33 points scored by J'Covan Brown.
The Longhorns were actually hanging tight with the Jayhawks as the second half got underway. On the opening possession of the half, Alexis Wangmene stymied Thomas Robinson and pulled down the defensive rebound, and to that point in the game Texas' hard-working senior had held the Jayhawk star to 7 points on 3-for-11 shooting, and 6 rebounds (2 offensive). Then on the Longhorns ensuing possession, J'Covan Brown drained hit a three-pointer and Texas was suddenly within two of Kansas, trailing just 26-24.
But the Jayhawks' second possession would not end so well for Texas. At the same time that Robinson got free and scored a bucket inside, Alexis Wangmene fell backwards and in trying to break his fall wound up breaking his wrist in gruesome fashion. The injury undoubtedly ended his season and career at Texas. And it effectively ended Saturday night's game, as well.
Without Wangmene the Longhorns had no answer for Kansas' two big men, and Thomas Robinson dominated the last 19 minutes of the game, scoring 18 points on 7-of-8 shooting and grabbing 9 boards (3 offensive). While in both meetings this season Wangmene had done remarkably well keeping Robinson in check, both Jaylen Bond and Jonathan Holmes were overwhelmed by KU's manimal power forward, and both wound up fouling out of the game.
Huge props to J'Covan Brown, who despite suffering a cold night shooting from deep (1-6 from beyond the arc), did his best to haul the Longhorns on his back all by himself, pouring in 33 points on 9-of-18 shooting and setting a career high in made free throws (14, out of 15 attempts). It was the fourth 30-point game of the season for the Big 12's scoring champ, and in five career games against the Jayhawks Brown is now averaging 24.8 points per game. The kid is a hell of a smart scorer and without looking it up I'd guess that if he returns for his senior season he'll have a decent shot at catching Terrence Rencher for the all-time scoring mark at Texas. He's one of my all-time favorite Longhorns, he's poured his heart into this season and is almost singularly responsible for the team having a shot to get an NCAA Tournament berth. As a fan of the team, I obviously hope we get a bid, but I also really, really hope that we get one for J'Covan, who deserves that reward for his incredible efforts this season.
Along with Robinson's monster second half, Kansas also won the game because their senior star at guard was so much better than Texas' freshmen not-yet-stars at guard. Although he did finish with 6 assists and played some solid defense, Myck Kabongo was shut out on the scoreboard, finishing 0-7 from the floor (0-3 from three) and failing to get to the line even once. He's talented, and he's played well in spurts this season, but the light hasn't fully come on yet for the freshman point guard, who remains too-often indecisive and still doesn't have a good feel for what to do when.
Meanwhile, after scoring 24 points on Wednesday against Oklahoma, Sheldon McClellan couldn't maintain his high level of play against the Jayhawk defense, whose guards were in his jock all night and had him rushing his shots. McClellan finished with just 6 points on 2-of-10 shooting, with both his makes coming from beyond the arc (2-5 3PFGs overall). Like Kabongo, McClellan did not manage a single trip to the free throw line, and he grabbed just 2 rebounds in 26 minutes. McClellan did some nice things and it's still exciting to think about how high this kid's ceiling is, but he's still a good ways away from putting it all together.
Elsewhere, Texas' other freshman guard, Julien Lewis, returned from his back injury to give Texas 20 solid minutes (8 points and 2 steals), and though the Longhorns got a strong opening twenty minutes from Clint Chapman (8 points, 5 rebounds), the senior center had a quiet second half and finished with 10 points and 7 boards.
As disappointing as it was to lose last night, and as up-and-down as this season has been for this freshmen-heavy Longhorns squad, Kansas provides a nice reminder of the promise that lies ahead. As a freshman in 2009-10, Thomas Robinson played just 7 minutes a game, averaging 2.5 points and 2.7 rebounds per game, and then last year as a sophomore still only averaged 15 minutes, 7.6 points and 6.4 boards per contest. Meanwhile, Tyshawn Taylor started from day one upon his arrival in 2008-09, when as a freshman he averaged 9.7 points and 3.0 assists per game, and only with experience grew into the star senior we see today (17 points and 5 assists per game).
As Texas fans we've become accustomed to exceptional freshmen, and in comparison to guys like Kevin Durant, DJ Augustin and TJ Ford, Kabongo and McClellan have not been as able to be high-impact players right from the starting gun. But the operative word there is 'exeptional,' and most freshmen -- even highly-talented ones who will play in the NBA -- need some time to develop. And the fact that they aren't quite the freshmen freaks that some of their predecessors were makes it easy to lose sight of the fact that by (mortal) freshmen standards Kabongo and McClellan have been quite good this year. Kabongo is averaging 10.1 points and 5.3 assists across 30 minutes per game, and has vastly improved his outside and free throw shooting over the season. And for his part, McClellan is averaging 11.6 points and 3.4 boards in 26 minutes per game, even though he hasn't shot the ball from the outside as well as he's capable (30% from three on the year).
In any event, the offseason is the time to talk about what might be ahead for Texas next season. For now, the loss to Kansas closes our regular season, giving us a 19-12 overall record, 9-9 in the Big 12. The Longhorns will enter the conference tournament as the No. 6 seed, earning a first-round bye and a quarterfinal match-up with Iowa State, who knocked off Baylor on Saturday to earn the No. 3 seed.
As nice as it would be to knock off Baylor, the Bears present a more difficult challenge to Texas in terms of match ups, and the Longhorns are probably better off to have drawn the Cyclones in the quarters, considering how much a single win in the Big 12 Tournament could wind up meaning to Texas' NCAA Tournament hopes. Particularly without Wangmene, Baylor's huge size advantage would have been very problematic for Texas, while Iowa State doesn't present nearly the same frontcourt issues.
It's still possible Texas could get a bid without winning their quarterfinal game, but as thin as is the margin for error, it's certainly going to feel like everything is on the line for the Longhorns. Texas and Iowa State will tip on Thursday night at 8:30 p.m., with the game to be televised on the Big 12 Network. The winner will face the winner of Missouri vs Oklahoma State/Texas Tech.