Decimated By Early Entries
This story starts, as so many do, on the recruiting trail. But in the Texas version, the Longhorns were saddled with a more peculiar problem. Rather than the traditional "recruiting falls off" mantra that hits many successful programs, Texas's coaching staff actually recruited a bit too well.
In the 2010-2011 season, the Longhorns were overloaded with not just young talent, but young talent that was projected to stick around for a bit.
* J'Covan Brown, a sophomore at the time, seemed like the ideal recruiting catch: somebody with the talent to be an elite-level college scorer, but also a player without ideal NBA measureables. He projected as a four-year player.
* Freshman guard Cory Joseph was another great get. A five-star prospect in the 2010 class, Joseph was a multi-talented player with solid fundamentals. But he wasn't a fantastic athlete, and Joseph had a tendency to defer. Most thought, when he signed with Texas, that he would be a three-year player before jumping to the NBA prior to his senior season.
* Freshman forward Tristan Thompson was the best NBA prospect of the trio, an athletic but raw post presence who rebounded and blocked shots at a terrific rate. Still, his offensive game was pretty much energy-based and at times non-existent, and the Texas staff felt that he would be around for two seasons.
That trio, along with seniors Dogus Balbay and Gary Johnson and sure-fire NBA draft entry Jordan Hamilton, ripped off a 23-3 record in its first 26 games, including a two-point loss to a top-10 team in Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden and a one-point overtime defeat to eventual national champion Connecticut. That mark included an 11-0 record in the Big 12, and the Longhorns appeared to be in the national championship hunt.
Even with a rugged close — Texas went 2-3 in its final five Big 12 games — Texas went to the Big 12 Tournament Championship game, falling to a hot Kansas squad, and figured to have the personnel to make a run in the tournament.
Then, against Arizona, disaster struck. The Longhorns got down big, then made a run back to the lead thanks to an unreal effort from Brown, who lit the Wildcats up on repeated pick-and-roll plays. The Longhorns got the ball on a Hamilton rebound, up 69-67, and called timeout with 14 seconds left.
Then, controversy. Joseph was inbounding the ball and was slapped with a five-seconds call, which was later shown to have been an awfully quick five count. Arizona got the ball back, and star Derrick Williams hit a jumper as he was fouled, with the and-one putting the Wildcats back on top 70-69. Texas put the ball back in the hands of Brown, who had 23 points. Brown appeared to get clocked as he put up a shot in the lane, but no foul was called, and the Wildcats escaped with a one-point win.
The loss was devastating. Texas matched up well athletically with Duke, which would have been its Sweet 16 opponent, meaning that the Longhorns would have had a great chance to make a Final Four run. Texas's Elite Eight opponent would have been the Huskies, who the Longhorns had essentially played to a draw earlier.
Instead, the near-run was Arizona's, with the Wildcats blasting Duke by 16 and falling to the Huskies by two.
As was no surprise, Hamilton went pro, and Balbay and Johnson graduated. But the Longhorns figured to potentially be in an even better spot in 2011-2012, with Thompson, Joseph and Brown a year better, an incoming two-way point guard — arguably the 10-11's biggest weakness — in Myck Kabongo and a ton of added depth with Holmes figuring to do a reasonable Johnson impersonation, while fellow four-star recruits Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis could buff up depth considerably more on the wings.
But Thompson had improved so much more quickly than anybody could have imagined. So much so, that he became a top-five pick in that next year's NBA Draft. And then the real surprise: Joseph received first-round assurances from the San Antonio Spurs and also elected to leave early.
So that experienced veteran core, the one that had led the Longhorns to 28 wins the previous year, was now down to Brown.
That lack of experience showed in 2011-2012, a season that often saw big possessions end with Brown trying to take difficult shots against double teams. Brown did the best that he could, but without any real post threat — a year after Thompson was an All-Big 12 player, Clint Chapman took the highest percentage of Texas's shots from post players — the Longhorns limped to a 20-14 record and a .500 mark in Big 12 play, getting an 11 seed in the NCAA Tournament and falling to Cincinnati.
After that season, Brown elected to declare for the NBA Draft. He wasn't taken, and is now playing in Europe.
So, what's the point here?
Had those three players stayed as they were projected to, the 2011-2012 team would have been significantly better, and would potentially have contended for a Big 12 crown. Its main weakness was an utter lack of post play, and adding Tristan Thompson to that mix, while also giving the team another capable ball-handler and scorer in Cory Jospeh, would have fixed so many of those issues.
But those early entries truly hurt this past season. In a lineup consisting entirely of freshmen and sophomores — there wasn't a single scholarship junior or senior on roster, making Texas the nation's youngest team, per KenPom — not having a senior J'Covan Brown and a junior Cory Joseph — was a major blow.
The Longhorns could have gone into this season with a backcourt trio of Kabongo, Brown and Joseph. Instead, Texas played the bulk of the season with a freshman at the point and rotating sophomores at the two.
While Brown and Joseph both jumped out of college basketball before their projected time, the final hammer blow came when Myck Kabongo, Texas's point guard and leader, was declared out for the season after accepting a $475 plane ticket to Cleveland to train, then lied about it to Texas compliance staff.
Texas appealed, and the NCAA knocked the suspension down to 23 games, but the damage was done. For one thing, Texas had prepared all summer like Kabongo was going to be the guy, meaning that Javan Felix was expected to get ready to play 15 minutes per contest, tops. Instead, with no other pure ball-handlers available, Felix's minutes jumped up to more than 35 per game, tops in the Big 12 over that time period.
And while Felix likely has a bright future in a Longhorn uniform, his inexperience showed. He was often just a bit late in getting the ball to where it needed to go, with the Longhorns especially suffering in terms of getting the ball into the low post. That stagnated the growth of players like Cameron Ridley, who went for 14-10 against UCLA, only to disappear shortly thereafter, in part thanks to no point guard feeding him.
Texas also missed his leadership. Teams with strong leadership don't lose to Chaminade, especially by the number of points that the Longhorns fell by. Despite Texas coach Rick Barnes warning the players to take Chaminade seriously, the Longhorns showed very little urgency, and seemed genuinely shell-shocked. They missed a player to take command of the huddle and halt the other team's momentum.
By the time Kabongo returned, it was too late. Texas was 10-13 and 2-8 in Big 12 play, with their only two league wins coming against the two bottom teams in Texas Tech and TCU, both at the friendly confines of the Frank Erwin Center.
After Kabongo's return, the Longhorns beat two NCAA Tournament teams in Iowa State and Oklahoma, while also defeating the eventual NIT champion in Baylor. And by beating TCU and Texas Tech on the road, the Longhorns claimed their first road wins of the entire season.
Margin of Error Removed
Neither of the above was a death sentence. What it did was create a razor thin line that the team, and its players, had to walk to be successful. Even without Kabongo, the Longhorns led in the final minutes of five games — USC, UCLA, at Baylor, West Virginia and Kansas — only to lose all five. They were also within striking distance of Oklahoma (a 73-67 loss) and West Virginia (a 60-58 defeat) on the road.
Yes, it goes both ways. But Texas only had one win pre-Kabongo that was decided by single digits, a two-point victory over Fresno State in the opener. So the Longhorns had eight games decided by two baskets or less in the 23 games before Kabongo came back, going 1-7 in those matchups.
If those close games were reversed, Texas would have been 16-7 before Kabongo returned, with an 8-2 Big 12 record. If the Longhorns simply split those eight games and went 4-4, the Longhorns would have been 13-10 when Kabongo returned. And considering that the Longhorns went 6-4 after Kabongo's return, it's not stretching to think that Texas would have made the NCAA Tournament at 19-14.
So the Longhorns were still plenty capable, even without Kabongo, Joseph or Brown. This was a team that had a chance to make the NCAA Tournament, but quite simply, couldn't close out in close games. The margin for error was so slight that a play here or a play there ultimately left Texas in the CBI, instead of the NCAAs.
It should also be noted that little things, from an injury to Holmes right when he was starting to play well, and Ridley and Felix coming into camp overweight, also could have factored in. Ridley especially hurt: he was a five-star prospect and was expected to come in and make an immediate impact down low, but instead found himself having to cut his weight down from a peak of 312 pounds. When he was in high school, Ridley was closer to 250-260, and actually earned rave reviews for his motor and nastiness, two things robbed by his excess weight.
And McClellan spent the whole season clashing with Barnes over his overall effort level and his seeming reluctance to be the main scorer. McClellan was a great pairing with an Alpha Dog scorer like Brown, but didn't seem to understand the importance of all the little things that a primary scorer must do correctly to get points when opposing defenses gameplan for him.
Of course, had Joseph and Brown been around, the Longhorns could have absorbed Kabongo's loss, and likely would have not just been a no-doubt NCAA team, but also a squad at or near the top of the Big 12, potentially for the third straight year.
What's Up Next
The losses of Kabongo, Joseph and Brown really hurt in that Texas went about forming the rest of the roster around four-year players who weren't necessarily elite talents, but guys who could fill roles around the big-time talents. So, when none of the those three were available, Texas was trying to win games with a roster full of those role players.
Texas will be without at least two more of those players in 2013-2014, with both Sheldon McClellan and Jaylen Bond announcing their transfers. Julien Lewis was also noncommittal when asked about his status prior to the team's annual banquet this week.
But some of those other role players have the chance to grow into considerably more. Ioannis Papapetrou might be the top asset in the program, a player that Kabongo said would be "special," and someone that Texas coach Rick Barnes said has already assumed the leadership mantle in the offseason workouts for next year. And Barnes has high hopes for Jonathan Holmes, who averaged 11 points per game and 7.7 rebounds per game over a seven-game stretch before he was injured. With his rebounding ability, toughness and ability to stretch the floor, he has the chance to develop into a Romero Osby-type player.
And Ridley, who has gotten his weight down to 275, nearly 40 pounds down from where he arrived on campus, figures to be a much bigger figure. Between he and Prince Ibeh, who closed the season with a 12-point, 11-rebound, five-block performance against Houston, Texas should be set at center for the foreseeable future.
The depth of the Texas program is as strong as it has been in a long time, with a backbone of capable, and now, experienced, players to draw from. But the roster does seem to lack elite talent to add to that backbone, with the Longhorns falling short on Julius Randle (Kentucky) and Keith Frazier (SMU), among others.
But even with those misses, the Texas recruiting class has a chance to make an immediate impact. The Texas staff knew that Kabongo would likely turn pro and adjusted accordingly in recruiting. Kendal Yancy-Harris and Isaiah Taylor are both bigger point guards who can be paired with Felix to add more ball-handling to the mix, attempting to fix arguably Texas's biggest problem in 2012-2013. And Demarcus Croaker is a stone-cold scorer, the type of player who can help the Longhorns get past their occasional stretches of offensive struggles.
Without major improvement in the offseason, Texas doesn't project to be one of the Big 12's top teams, though with all the returnees, the Longhorns could certainly make a push back to the NCAA Tournament.
That would represent a nice step forward, albeit still short of the Final Four dreams the Longhorns had just a few short years ago.