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NCAA basketball preview: How good can Texas be?

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After returning five freshman who played a key role on an NCAA Tournament team, the Longhorns could be one of the surprise teams in the country this season.

Stephen Dunn

The first in a four-part conversation about the upcoming 2012-2013 college basketball season, which opens on Friday.

If Texas fans are tired of watching a coach rack up top-flight recruiting classes while struggling to translate that talent into post-season success, basketball season offers change you can believe in more of the same. But, on a serious note, there's a lot to be optimistic about as Rick Barnes begins his 15th season in Austin.

Barnes was able to squeeze out an NCAA Tournament appearance last year out of a team that started three freshmen and had five in the rotation. More importantly, they're all coming back this year, which is a pleasant surprise for Longhorns fans who've watched the program be decimated by NBA defections year after year. Players tend to make the biggest improvements between their freshman and sophomore seasons, and, with the help of Todd Wright, developing talent might be Barnes' biggest strength as a coach. Remember how bad Jordan Hamilton looked as a freshman? Dexter Pittman? Clint Chapman?

It all starts with Myck Kabongo. He wasn't Kyrie Irving, but freshman PG's, unless they are No. 1 overall pick material, are going to have their ups-and-downs. (I still remember the first time I watched Irving at Duke; he was just toying with people) Take a look at Cory Joseph in 2011 or Marquis Teague in 2012; both walked into far better situations than Kabongo and didn't play nearly as well.

The talent is there: he's only 6'1 170, but he's got long arms as well as the turbo-type athleticism you would expect from such a well-regarded prospect. He can get to the hole fairly easily, and unlike most super-fast guards, he's got a decent jumper as well (not great percentages, but they improved as the year went on). An assist-to-turnover ratio of 5.2-3.1 is pretty high, but Austin Rivers was at 2.1-2.4 last year. If Kabongo can just add some polish to his game, he could be an All-American.

All four of his classmates have the chance to be excellent college players, but I'd separate Shelden McClellan and Jonathan Holmes from Julien Lewis and Jaylen Bond.

McClellan, at 6'4 200, is undersized for an NBA shooting guard, which means he could have a very long and productive career in Austin. He's an explosive scorer who can get to the rim and shoot from the perimeter, averaged 11.3 points a game while shooting 45/31/76 as a freshman. Holmes, at 6'7 230, is a combo forward who can bang on the inside while also stepping out to stretch the floor (shooting 49/25/71 last year). Kabongo will probably be gone after this season, but I expect McClellan and Holmes to be the backbone of this program for the next three seasons.

Neither Lewis nor Bond has much NBA potential, but they're the type of tough-nosed "glue guys" that every program needs. Veteran role players are one of the hallmarks of Bill Self's program at Kansas, and unless you're John Calipari, you need some on your roster, and even he had Darius Miller last year. There isn't a single junior or senior who will receive consistent playing time on this team! The entire ‘09 recruiting class -- Avery Bradley, Jordan Hamilton, J'Covan Brown -- is in the NBA and so is most of the ‘10 class -- Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph.

The good news is that placing so many players at the next level makes recruiting a hell of a lot easier, and as usual, Barnes is bringing a well-regarded class to UT in 2012. Texas has five players coming back -- Kabongo, Lewis, McClellan, Holmes and Bond -- and needs to replace three rotation players -- Brown, Chapman and Alexis Wangmene. This team needs size at the 4/5 positions and depth on the perimeter, and looking at the scouting reports for the new class of freshman, it seems like they can be plugged in immediately to address those needs.

That's more your department, though, so what do you think of Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh, Javan Felix, Connor Lammert, Ioannis (real name) Papapetrou and DeMarcus Holland? Ridley was a McDonald's All-American and Ibeh was a four-star recruit, so if they can step in at the center position, this team looks pretty loaded to me. I'm thinking UT should be a borderline Top 10 team by the end of the season, with the talent to get a favorable draw into the Sweet 16 and maybe make a deeper run from there.

How do the Longhorns freshman stack up with some of the other big names entering the Big 12 this year -- Isaiah Austin (Baylor), Marcus Smart (OK State) and Perry Ellis (Kansas)? What are your expectations for this team? Am I being too bullish on UT hoops this season?

Check back tomorrow for Jeff Chao's look at what should be a talented group of freshman entering the Big 12 this season.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.