After falling behind 40-27 to Kansas State at the end of the first half, the Texas Longhorns' NCAA Tournament chances were on the line. The young team, with five freshman making huge contributions, responded with their finest half of the season, outscoring the Wildcats by 24 points to pull out a 75-64 victory.
Texas has been one of the most under-achieving programs in the country over the last two years, flirting with the No. 1 overall ranking both seasons and placing six players -- Avery Bradley, Damion James, Dexter Pittman, Jordan Hamilton, Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph -- in the NBA. Yet for all that talent, the Longhorns only had a 1-2 record in March to show for it.
Rick Barnes, for the first time in his 14-year tenure in Austin, was suddenly on the hot-seat. It hasn't cooled considerably this season, as Texas, who returned only one contributor -- 6'1 junior J'Covan Brown -- from last season's rotation, struggled to a 16-9 start. But the victory over the Wildcats, even if it's too late to save their Tournament chances, should have Longhorns fans extremely optimistic for the future.
Brown, the least heralded of the six recruits in the 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes, has matured tremendously in his time in Austin. He should put to rest any question about Barnes' ability to develop talent, going from a maddeningly erratic freshmen to a steady junior, a 6'1 200 combo guard who uses a high basketball IQ to overcome a limited amount of athleticism.
On Saturday, Brown was at his best, scoring from every part of the floor and ably running the team for huge stretches. For the season, he is averaging 19.9 points on 42% shooting with a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio. As a senior, he should be able to increase his offensive efficiency and put together an All-American type season, which would give him a chance to make an NBA roster despite his inability to jump over anything thicker than a credit card.
Brown's ceiling as a collegian will depend in large part on whether freshman PG Myck Kabongo, one of the most talented PG's in the country, returns as a sophomore. Barnes has been burned by underclassmen jumping before they're ready, but Kabongo, who could be a lottery pick in 2013, should have a much easier decision than fellow Canadian Cory Joseph, a 6'3 combo guard who couldn't afford to return to school and jeopardize a guaranteed first-round contract in 2011.
An extremely athletic 6'2 170 guard with a 6'7 wingspan, Kabongo has the ball-handling ability and athleticism to get to the rim at will and the floor vision to make the correct pass. Texas opened the second half with Kabongo isolated at the top of the key, and he repeatedly got into the paint, fueling a 9-4 run that got the Longhorns back in the game.
But for all his talent, like most freshman PG's, he has been maddeningly inconsistent, averaging 9.6 points on 41% shooting and handing out 3 turnovers a game to go with his 5 assists. He's not nearly as polished as Tyshawn Taylor (Kansas), Scott Machado (Iona) and Kendall Marshall (UNC), and he hasn't significantly outplayed the other promising PG's his age -- Keith Appling (Michigan State), Trey Burke (Michigan), Marquis Teague (Kentucky) BJ Young (Arkansas) and Tony Wroten (Washington). He should return to school as a sophomore, and if he does, Texas will be a legitimate Final Four contender.
That's because Barnes learned an important lesson in the last two years: recruiting solid four-year contributors is as important as grabbing McDonald's All-Americans. The real story of the epic collapse of the 2009-2010 team was the lack of effective role players: the Longhorns starting guards, Dogus Balbay and Justin Mason, couldn't knock down open 15-foot jumpers, an inexcusable hole in the game of a Big 12 caliber guard.
So while Kabongo, the only McDonald's All-American Barnes brought in this year, has drawn significant interest from the NBA already, four of his fellow freshmen -- 6'4 guards Julien Lewis and Sheldon McClellan, 6'7 forwards Jonathan Holmes and Jaylen Bond -- will form the nucleus of Top 25 teams for the next three years.
All four have dramatically improved as the season has progressed, with Lewis and McClellan providing outside shooting and tough perimeter defense, scoring 18 points on Saturday, and Holmes and Bond clearing the defensive glass and playing tough interior defense, grabbing 6 rebounds in 30 minutes of action against an athletic Kansas State front-line.
And while big men Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman, the team's only two seniors, have exceeded expectations this year, Barnes' 2012 recruiting class, rated No. 3 in the country, should give Texas a much more balanced team. The centerpiece is 6'10 245 Cameron Ridley, a five-star recruit with a solid low-post game. Ridley has yet to sign a letter of intent, but the Longhorns still have another four-star recruit coming in -- 6'10 230 Prince Ibeh.
This season, even after the win over Kansas State, Texas is still firmly on the NCAA Tournament bubble. With a 6-6 record in Big 12 play, they can't go any worse than 4-2 in their next six games and probably need a home win over a reeling Baylor team as well as a strong showing in the Big 12 Tournament to ensure Barnes' 14th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance at Texas, which would put him behind only Mike Krzyzewski (Duke) at 17 and Tom Izzo (Michigan State) at 15.
But next year, the Longhorns could field one of the country's top teams: Kabongo and Brown starting in the back-court, Lewis and McClellan providing outside shooting and solid two-way play as the wings, Holmes and Bond doing the dirty work at the power forward position and Ridley manning the center position. Even without Kabongo and Ridley, the Longhorns will be a solid Top 25 team for the next three seasons, needing just one or two top recruits for their four freshmen role players to play around.
Things are pointing way up in Austin, as Barnes has bounced back to give one of the best coaching performances in his career, proving that Texas basketball is in extremely good hands going forward.