To preview the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City, SB Nation Dallas managing editor Jonathan Tjarks had an e-mail conversation with Jeffrey Chao, whose covered Texas basketball all season long for Barking Carnival.
Tjarks: I've been covering college basketball from a more national perspective this season, so I haven't been able to follow Texas as closely. But from my point of view as more of an outsider, this season is already successful, even if the Longhorns don't make the NCAA Tournament.
Look around the country and you're not going to find many schools in the top 25 not named Kentucky playing five freshmen. The biggest knock on Barnes in the last few years has been his inability to develop role players, guys like Dogus Balbay, Justin Mason, Alexi Wangmene and Clint Chapman, like he does big-time prospects. This class kind of answers that, even if Kabongo goes pro, you've got four guys -- McClellan, Lewis, Holmes and Bond -- who have grown together as freshmen and are likely to be the core of this program going forward.
If you're going to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 14 years, which is an incredible statistic that doesn't get mentioned enough, this is exactly the way you want to do it, by building for the future. In a best-case (and fairly plausible) scenario, with Kabongo and Brown returning and five-star center Cameron Ridley enrolling next year, this feels like a Top 10 team to me.
As someone who watches the team on a nightly basis, am I being too optimistic?
Chao: First, I think you have to put into perspective that we're talking about Texas "We Are the Joneses" Longhorns fans here. We have sky high expectations, and when they're not met, we tend to stew and simmer. Couple that with the past few iterations of Texas basketball, which started strong out of the gate, only to peak in January/February instead of March, and Longhorns fans are understandably pessimistic.
With that said, I think Texas played up to my preseason expectations. It's imperative to remember that the Longhorns had a nine-man rotation consisting of six freshmen and two senior forwards who had never recorded double digits points or rebounds at any point in their careers. J'Covan Brown carried this team all year, and was rightfully named first team All-Big 12. He is, simply put, an outstanding collegiate player. Myck Kabongo experienced freshmen growing pains and still turns the ball over way too often, but he's lightning quick in the lane and is a gifted passer and finisher. And like you said, the freshmen have all shined at various points this year.
The pessimism I see is two-fold. The first is that the Longhorns, thanks to an inability to win close games against ranked opponents, are on the tournament bubble. To put it in football terms, a bid to the NCAA Tournament versus the NIT is a lot like finishing the season 7-5 and going to a bowl versus finishing 5-7 and staying home. Judging from the national media, it appears that Texas needs a second-round Big 12 Tournament win against Iowa State to get in, and even that may not be enough.
More problematic is what the future holds if this doomsday scenario occurs: both Myck Kabongo and J'Covan Brown both go pro after the season, and Cameron Ridley, who remains committed to Texas but unsigned, winds up not coming to Austin. If that happens, the 2011 and 2012 recruiting classes are chock full of nice complementary pieces but no elite stars to elevate Texas back to the perennial Final Four contention that fans expect.
Tjarks: If Texas fans expect a "perennial Final Four contender", they should probably consider selling out some home games. Just a thought.
Without the ability to test the waters (which the NCAA rather hilariously banned to "protect student athletes" last year), J'Covan would be crazy to declare. 6'1 200 guys in the NBA with his athletic ability have nearly perfect skill-sets; he needs to get his field goal percentage to at least 45% and his assist: turnover ratio to 2:1 next year.
Kabongo is a much more interesting decision. Personally, when you look at athletic ability, overall floor game and perimeter shooting, I think he's the most well-rounded PG prospect in the country. If he stays, he could be a lottery pick in 2013, but UT does have a history of losing guys too early. If I'm Barnes, I'm getting Cory Joseph on the phone and having him tell Kabongo how much fun it is to develop in the Rio Grande Valley.
As for Baylor, where to even start. In your write-up over at Barking Carnival, you mention that this team has a lot of 2009 Texas in it. Not only is there the 17-0 start and the late-season collapse, there are similar structural problems that have hamstrung an extremely talented team. It's been two years since Tweety Carter graduated and Scott Drew still hasn't been able to find a generic D1 point guard. Pierre Jackson is talented but it's insane to have a 5'10 junior college transfer taking more shots than a future lottery pick like Miller. And running a 1-3-1 defense? Drew might want to think about why no other Top 25 team uses it consistently.
When the Bears made the Elite Eight in 2010, they went through a 14, an 11 and a 10 (St. Mary's). Do you think Baylor can make another run this year or will they struggle in the Tourney like they have against Mizzou and Kansas?
Chao: Prior to the season, I put Baylor on my "All-Sleeper Final Four" watch list. I thought their frontcourt was amongst the most talented in the nation, and surely they would be able to find some production from a plethora of guards. I still think that holds true.
Quincy Acy is one of my favorite players in college basketball, and the level of improvement from his freshman year to his senior year has been remarkable. It's something college coaches drool over. A junior Pierre Jackson is like a better freshman Myck Kabongo--he's a better shooter and a better passer, and also better at turning the ball over. Quincy Miller, a former five-star prospect, has also been Kabongo-esque. He flashes an unreal amount of talent at times, but complements that with stretches of head-scratching play.
Of course, Baylor's run is really all about two people: Perry Jones III and Scott Drew. Jones III has been rightly criticized for shirking from the spotlight, but from a pure talent perspective, the only player I would take over him is Kentucky's Anthony Davis. If he can string together six dominant games ... he just has to watch out for Scott Drew mucking it up. That 1-3-1 zone is laughably bad, but their man-to-man defense works, especially if the opposing team does not have above-average guard play. For example, if the Bears draw Ohio St., they can stifle Jared Sullinger with tall, athletic bigs and play Aaron Craft and William Buford to draw. That definitely sounds like a winnable game to me.
Speaking of Missouri and Kansas, how far do they get? I'm not betting against Kansas winning their sixth Big 12 Tournament title in seven years, but I can't shake the feeling that the Jayhawks will lose before the Final Four. As for Missouri, the Tigers are insanely efficient on offense and have oodles of experience. But I don't think that will do them any good against an uber-talented, frontcourt heavy team like Kentucky or North Carolina.
Tjarks: Yea, as much as I enjoy watching Missouri play, I can't see them matching up with a 7'0/6'10/6'8 UNC front-line or a 6'11/6'9/6'7 Kentucky one. They're a team whose draw is going to be crucial in terms of determining how far they go.
That being said, I'm really curious to see how their style translates on a national stage. That's probably one of the coolest parts about March Madness: the match-ups of different styles. There's a much more random element in college basketball, where you have teams who primarily run zones defensively, and teams who play on opposite ends of the tempo spectrum (Missouri vs. Wisconsin) as opposed to the NBA where it's just endless varieties of isolations, pick and rolls and man defenses.
As for Kansas, I'd put them in a tier of 10-12 teams behind UNC and Kentucky. Those are only the two teams who I'd be surprised if they didn't make the Final Four. The other two regionals should be pretty wide open depending on the matchups and the random chance element of the Tournament (if Cory Joseph knows how to count to 5 ... ). The one team I think could surprise people and make a run is Iowa State. I'm a big Royce White fan; he's a 6'9 forward who leads the Cyclones in points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks. He has some Boris Diaw in his game and they surround him with a bunch of pure jump-shooters. If they see Syracuse, that's murder on a 2-3 zone.
You have any off-the-wall predictions? More importantly, you think Texas makes the field of 68?
Chao: Iowa State lives by the 3, and dies by the 3. In the Big 12 Tournament, I think Texas rotates Jonathan Holmes and Jaylen Bond on White, but continually sends the double team and hopes that Iowa State doesn't make enough treys to win. But absolutely: if the Cyclones get hot from beyond the arc in the tournament, I see them making the Sweet 16. The big problem for them is they don't have the "name brand" cache, and if they end up as a 7 to 10 seed, they will need to beat a 1 or 2 seed to make it to weekend two.
Who's the last Big 12 team on the list to discuss? Oh yeah, Kansas State. The Wildcats use so many different parts it's hard to isolate who to stop. Honestly, they remind me of 2010 Tennessee. Bruce Pearl took a bunch of spare parts and made it all the way to the Elite 8, beating 2 seed Ohio State in the process. Now, I don't think that Kansas State makes it past the the opening weekend, but I wouldn't rule it out either.
As for off-the-wall predictions ... prior to the season, I really liked unranked Michigan State as a Final Four darkhorse. At one point this season, the Spartans were in contention for a 1 seed, but ended the year losing to Indiana and Ohio St., and also losing diaper dandy Branden Dawson with a torn ACL in their season finale. Now I don't know what to make of them. A couple other teams I think have Final Four potential are Marquette and Vanderbilt. Buzz Williams is a heck of a coach, and Jae Crowder is one of my favorite players in college basketball. Vanderbilt is like the Missouri of the SEC, backcourt heavy and experience galore. I absolutely love John Jenkins, and Festus Ezeli has never really gotten untracked this season due to a suspension and various injuries. If there's any time for Ezeli to go bonkers, it's in the NCAA Tournament. After all, there is an NBA contract at stake. Come to think about it, of players I love, Michigan St.'s Draymond Green has to top the list. No wonder I like all three of these teams.
To end this discussion on a good note: yes, I think Texas makes the NCAA Tournament after beating Iowa State and losing a close one to Missouri. I'm a homer and an optimist, but I do think Texas' track record of 13 straight tournament bids will carry some weight in the deliberation room. But if not, it's been a good run, and may the odds be ever in the Longhorns' favor this time next year.