When a team gets knocked out in its NCAA Tournament opener as a No. 11 seed and loses its leading scorer to the NBA, it’s not usually a sign that they’re in for a big year in the immediate future.
For the Texas Longhorns, however, a sensational recruiting class and a strong crop of returning players will make 2012-13 a season to watch, regardless of any omens from last year.
One of the biggest reasons Rick Barnes’ squad will be a factor on the national stage is the return of outstanding point guard Myck Kabongo. After an impressive freshman campaign, he’ll get a chance to lead a team on the rise in a battle for the top of the Big 12 standings.
Read on for more on Kabongo and nine more reasons Texas should be on every college hoops fan’s radar for next season.
Texas’ likely starting lineup for 2012-13 includes three sophomores (Myck Kabongo, Sheldon McClellan, Jonathan Holmes) and two freshmen (Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh).
In years past, that lack of experience might have been a crushing handicap, but it’s now the rule rather than the exception for Top 25 teams.
Kentucky’s starting lineup for last year’s national title run featured two sophomores and three freshmen, and the Wildcats are near the top of the rankings again with a similarly callow group.
With the notable exception of Louisville, almost every elite team in the country is relying on freshmen in key roles, making Texas’ lack of upper-class leadership far less worrisome.
The toughest of Texas’ Big 12 opponents—Kansas, Baylor, Kansas State—feature punishing half-court defenses. One of the best ways around that problem is to score before the defense can set up, and the Longhorns have the personnel to do just that.
Myck Kabongo can run the fast break with the best, and he’ll have loads of options to feed. Freshman PF Prince Ibeh will be the roster’s most impressive finisher, but the Longhorns have depth and speed up and down the roster to help Kabongo run the floor.
Texas may not have any upperclassmen to speak of, but the deep class of rising sophomores got thrown into the fire in 2011-12.
After a disappointing start (including a 3-6 conference record at the end of January), the freshman-laden Longhorns rallied to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
That late-season surge can only be a good sign for Texas, and especially for the leadership ability of point guard Myck Kabongo.
It won’t hurt that, when Texas returns to the Big Dance next March, Kabongo and his classmates will have been there before, even if in a losing effort.
Texas was automatically going to have a leg up in terms of depth with the return of two of last year’s top reserves, Julien Lewis and Jaylen Bond.
That inside-outside tandem gets even stronger thanks to the arrival of more help from the nation’s fourth-best recruiting class.
Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh are safe bets to start up front, but that leaves the enormously talented Connor Lammert as a first-class post option off the bench.
On the outside, highly regarded PG Javan Felix will be able to spell Myck Kabongo as needed while providing some scoring punch in his own right.
One of the biggest questions facing next year’s Longhorns will be how to replace the 20.1 points per game that J’Covan Brown poured in a season ago. No one on the Texas roster is in a better position to start filling that void than SG Sheldon McClellan.
As a freshman, the 6’4” McClellan was the Longhorns’ second-leading scorer at 11.3 points per game.
If he could manage that kind of point production while Brown was taking nearly 16 shots a night, just imagine what he’ll do as the primary scoring option on the perimeter.
As realignment shakes up the Big 12 again, the latest changes appear to work in favor of the Longhorns.
Gone are perennial conference title contender Missouri and the always-dangerous rivalry games with Texas A&M, replaced by solid-but-unspectacular West Virginia and overmatched TCU.
Of the returning conference teams, veteran Kansas is clearly superior to the Longhorns, but that’s about the only matchup that doesn’t look winnable.
Even powerful Baylor is going to get a tough fight from Texas, with both teams returning similarly outstanding point guards—Pierre Jackson and Myck Kabongo—to run offenses based around similarly elite freshman forwards.
Clint Chapman’s best efforts notwithstanding, Texas’ frontcourt was hardly a strength in 2011-12. Part of the problem was that the now-graduated Chapman was the only player on the roster taller than 6’7”, but that shortfall is no longer a concern in Austin.
Three of Rick Barnes’ top recruits—Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert—stand 6’10” and weigh in between 220 to 230 lbs.
That trio will make Texas one of the Big 12’s biggest teams, especially if 6’7” rising sophomore Jonathan Holmes makes a successful transition to SF.
In college basketball, there’s no player who can change the course of the game more readily than a point guard. Fortunately for the Longhorns, they’ve got one of the Big 12’s best in rising sophomore Myck Kabongo.
The 6’1” Kabongo excelled on both ends of the floor as a freshman, dishing out 5.2 assists per game while racking up 1.3 steals a night on defense.
He’s likely to look for his own shot more often with J’Covan Brown gone, so don’t be surprised if his unremarkable scoring average (9.6 points per game a year ago) spikes next season.
Last year’s Longhorns didn’t help themselves any by playing mediocre defense. This season’s edition will benefit from a year of experience—especially for wing players such as Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis—but also from the influx of new talent.
Freshman PF Prince Ibeh is a sensational shot-blocker in the mold of a young Marcus Camby, and having him roaming the paint will allow the quick-handed perimeter defenders to take more chances.
Factor in the presence of two more 6’10” frosh (both of whom have some shot-blocking chops of their own), and Texas will be a far tougher team to score on in 2012-13.
The gem of Rick Barnes’ recruiting class, Cameron Ridley is a 6’10” center who (with apologies to Myck Kabongo) will be the best player on the Longhorn roster next season.
Ridley has the bulk and the skills to dominate as a low-post scorer, even in a Big 12 where there are going to be high-powered centers—Jeff Withey, Isaiah Austin, Aaric Murray—in abundance.
Ridley is also a talented defender who won’t be easily overmatched on that end of the floor. The only thing likely to keep him from being one-and-done is the exceptional depth of the center position in this year’s freshman class.