It's no surprise to anybody who followed the premium boards here, but freshman forward Tristan Thompson announced that he was returning for a sophomore season. The move wasn't a shocking one, if nothing else, Thompson figured to benefit from extra offensive polish and would seem to enjoy a chance to unite with fellow Canadian standout Myck Kabongo, a Texas signee.
But then an unexpected thing happened. Media received word that Jordan Hamilton, the Longhorns' star sophomore swingman, was also going to return next season. Before going into the impact of Hamilton's return, it seems necessary to state the fact that Hamilton's stance could certainly change. Players who put together big tournaments, as Hamilton could, often see their stock rise. And Hamilton wouldn't be the first to announce he was coming back, only to change his mind a few months later.
But assuming that Hamilton will stay true to his word, and that Thompson stays in Austin as expected, the Longhorns have put together what appears, on paper, to be the Big 12's top squad for next season, and a top two or three team overall.
Who's the top team? Most would suggest that a Kentucky team sure to return multiple key pieces, and one that is adding the top point guard, small forward and power forward in the class of 2011, according to Scout.com, would be destined for that spot. Duke will lose Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, and likely Kyrie Irving, but will return a ton of depth and will add five-star prospects at point guard, shooting guard and small forward, respectively. And Kansas could find itself in that mix should the Morrises elect to return, though they're likely gone.
But that's a subject for another day, one filled with ifs and buts, NBA questions and potential recruiting coups.
What's certain is that the Longhorns, should they return both players, would be in an excellent spot to compete for the top spot in both league and overall play. They would lose three key players — point guard Dogus Balbay, power forward Gary Johnson and forward Matt Hill — from the overall rotation.
But the Longhorns have capable replacements in mind. Myck Kabongo, the No. 2 point guard according to Scout, will replace Balbay. Kabongo is a fantastic athlete, lightning quick and a great distributor. He has excellent defensive potential, but also brings more offensively to the table than Balbay does, particularly in terms of setting up teammates. He's a former teammate of Cory Joseph's, and the duo have proven that they work well together. At power forward, Jonathan Holmes brings increased length and athleticism. Like Johnson, he's more of a spot-up shooter offensively, though he also has the ability to use his quickness and handles to get to the basket off the drive. But he's also a superior athlete with better size and length than the senior.
Hill will be replaced by a combination of signee Kevin Thomas, a raw 6-foot-7 commitment with some athleticism, and Clint Chapman, who redshirted this season. Chapman has added some weight and strength to his frame over the course of this year.
But most importantly, Texas returns its core: Joseph at shooting guard, Hamilton at small forward and Thompson in the post. Hamilton and Thompson will be arguably the top returning players at their positions in the Big 12, while Joseph — who should benefit by playing with Kabongo again — could develop into one of the league's top shooting guards. He's already one of the top defensive guards.
The Longhorns will also be deeper than this year. J'Covan Brown is back as the league's top scoring threat off the bench. Incoming freshman Sheldon McClellan gives the Longhorns a legitimate scoring three to rest Hamilton for, a luxury they didn't have this year. And Julien Lewis is a fantastic shooter who could help rest Joseph, another luxury that Texas could have used this year.
So Texas would have a legitimate backup for every guard spot and five post players to rotate through, and that doesn't count the potential addition of another recruit in this class.
Hamilton's return has a wait-and-see feel to it. But if or when Longhorn fans see it, they should also be able to see a team stacked in both talent and depth to make a deep run in the 2012 tournament.