"We believe that what we're going through right now with Myck's situation, with Jaylen's situation, in the long run, is going to make us better." — Texas coach Rick Barnes.
Barnes spoke those words after the Longhorns cruised to an easy win over Sam Houston State to move to 4-2. But perhaps they should have been said even earlier, to warn those who watched Texas get blitzkrieged in the Maui Invitational.
It seems that a world of time has passed since we first heard that the NCAA was looking into the eligibility of Texas guard Myck Kabongo. And now, with roughly one-fifth of the season gone, it seems that we're no closer to a solution. Sure, there are rumors that Kabongo will be sat for 10 games, with credit for time already served. But that's just a rumor until an official announcement. And with the NCAA, who really knows?
Make no mistake, Kabongo's absence has hurt the Longhorns. His return would upgrade the 'Horns both offensively and defensively. The latter might be tough to believe, as Texas is ranked third nationally in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency and first in field goal percentage defense. But then you look at the offenses Texas has faced, and the top group was Fresno State, which is ranked No. 165 in Adjusted Offensive Efficiency.
Toward the end of last year, Kabongo was Texas's best perimeter defender, and by most accounts, he's stepped up that part of his game further this year, hounding Javan Felix up and down the court at practice. Adding that kind of defensive point of attack, especially with the length issues the Longhorns already present, could be deadly for other teams.
But the place where most expect Texas to make a leap is on the offensive side of the ball, and with good reason. While Felix is dishing out 5.8 assists per game, he's also committing almost four turnovers per game. And those don't count the turnovers other players get when they don't get the ball in the right spots.
It's silly to blame it all on Felix. A 2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio is good, 3-to-1 is great. But Texas as a team is almost 1-2 the other way with 67 assists to just 115 turnovers. But that's also where a veteran guard, and one built around distribution like Kabongo can help out. Not only does he cut down on those turnovers, but often he'll put teammates into good positions to make the pass themselves.*
* How many times have you seen a point guard penetrate into the paint and kick it out, only to have a wing player make one more pass for a more open look? ALL THE TIME. That's what I'm talking about here. Flanking the defense.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not one of those people who believes that Kabongo returning from NCAA purgatory will automatically fix this team's issues. But right now, you have a team that is forced to create … without its primary (and some would argue without any) creator. And Kabongo's teammates have pointed out that he's not just the leader off the court, but its heart and soul on it.
How good can the Longhorns be with Kabongo? The vague answer would be to say we don't know. But the obvious answer, without any sort of increment, is "better than they are now."