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February 13, 2013

He's back ... Kabongo set to return to action

Finally.

At one point, it had to have felt like the world was turned upside down for Rick Barnes. Constantly vocal about how much he loved the NCAA's new rules change, which allowed coaches to work with their players in the summer, Texas' head coach felt much better about the young Longhorns after spending time with them in the summer. Then just before the team's closed scrimmage against Davidson, and just before Texas began the 2012-2013 season, Barnes' basketball world went from sunny to cloudy with a chance (certainty) of a never-ending thunderstorm, or at least one that would last 23 games into what was going to turn out to be an incredibly trying season.

And while Barnes knew at the moment the Myck Kabongo news broke that his team would struggle without its sophomore leader, he didn't imagine Texas would be 10-13 before getting its best player back.

"I don't think anyone thought that," Texas' head coach said recently about Kabongo's suspension lasting this long. "We weren't sure. Once we got everything we thought was needed… no, there is no way. When we left to go to Maui, we thought he might be able to join us and play there. I don't think there is any way we can imagine being what it's been."

There is no doubt that this season has been a long one for the Longhorns and Barnes. After the Maui Invitational, a tournament that included the first red flag that this was going to be a long season as Texas lost to Chaminade in the opener, the days piled up with no official word from the NCAA. Then, the reports surfaced that Kabongo wasn't completely honest during the process. Finally after an appeal, it was decided the former five-star recruit would miss 23 games. It's a big price to pay for what Kabongo did.

"Do I think he was done wrong? I think that a lot of things could be handled differently," stated Barnes about his point guard. "He admitted that he wasn't forthcoming the first couple of times he met with compliance people, but he's a kid and I do believe what he was doing in his heart was protecting Tristan (Thompson) and some people involved with him. I'm not going to say that (the NCAA made an example out of him). I think the NCAA has had cases and I think they set a precedent in the way they've done things. I think they're not going to go against that, which I don't agree with it all the time. But they're the governing body and they do what they have to do. I think every situation should be looked at differently. I think intent is a big part of what should happen. I think we all know in college athletics there are a lot of things that go on that are a lot worse than Myck lost three quarters of his year for. I don't think he NCAA did anything wrong. I'm not saying anything like that. It is what it is. It happened. I wish it could have been done differently, and I think we'll all learn something from it."

So, why didn't Kabongo tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth during the beginning of the process? Only he knows for sure, but there is no doubt that a lot was thrown at the sophomore and that he wanted to do what he could to avoid a long suspension while also protecting other people from getting hurt.

"There is a statement that you sign that says you're allowed to have an advocate, but underneath that statement too it says if you choose that route, it could result in dragging a case out, making it longer, you could lose competition," Barnes said about the documents given to Kabongo by Texas during the beginning of the process. "Think about what happens when a kid reads that. It's right there underneath it. I think kids in general trust us as coaches and administrators that we have their best interest. I do. I believe that. It's hard when you're dealing with compliance and those types because we all have to protect the integrity of the university, and we understand what institutional control is. But again, you're dealing with kids."

Eventually as the process was unfolding, Barnes was able to sit down with his point guard and delivered a message.

"Honestly, I sat down with Myck and I said, 'Look, forget the school, forget the NCAA. You have to understand there are a lot of people that have come through this program.' And I said, 'We're going to do what we have to do to protect the University of Texas and our basketball program. I said, 'Myck it's not fair to anybody if you play and it comes back that you're ineligible. Just tell the truth in terms of what it was.' And what he actually didn't tell the truth about is not a violation. It's not a violation. A part of it was not a violation. And that's the part I think where he was really trying to protect people. He did. He told the truth. Obviously, I wish I had more dialogue with him before all the preliminary stuff was going on because Myck has always been a person… believe me… you talk about coming from a family where honesty and integrity and the values we all aspire for everybody to live by… his family, they live it."

Over the past couple of months, it hasn't sounded like Barnes was as involved in the process as he wanted to be, and that maybe some things could have been avoided if he was. But was he left out of the loop?

"No, I don't think I [was] left out of the loop," he stated. "I just think when they started the initial investigation part of it, I think that's what really got back to Myck, at that point in time, wasn't as forthcoming as he should have been."

Anyone that's been around the Texas program or has listened to any of the coaches and players talk about Kabongo knows how much the young man loves basketball, and how much he works at his craft. Known as the hardest worker on the team and the definition of a gym rat, not being able to do what he loved had to feel like some sort of jail sentence.

"Myck's a tough kid," Barnes said. "I don't know if anyone could handle it better than he did. He's been hurting. You just knew how hard he worked at his game and how much time he put in it and it was taken away from him. He would tell you it's for a reason, and he's going to be a better man for it and he would tell you he's learned some things. It's really great watching him handle it. I know it's a devastating thing for him, but you would never know that. It's never been, 'Whoa is me.' He knows he made some mistakes, but the fact is he's dealt with it like we'd want all our kids to deal with it. I think he's taught us all a lesson in some ways with his resiliency and the way he's handled everything."

Although this probably isn't one of those things Kabongo or anyone at Texas classifies as a "blessing in disguise," Kabongo has learned a lot from the experience. And the way the sophomore has handled the situation has taught others around him some things as well.

"I want him to be… for a guy that works as hard as he [does] and the passion that he has for the game, you want him to do great," said Texas' head coach. "And he's really grown up in a lot of ways. More so than you can imagine. And I hope that part shows more than anything. The things he's done off the court is where he's made great, great strides too. There is no doubt his teammates have great respect for him because what he does very few guys can do. I don't care if it's five in the morning or 10 at night, he's ready to go. He brings energy to the room. He'll make mistakes, but the one thing I know he's going to do ? he's going to play with great effort, he's going to be fearless, and where he's improved is he really wants to be coached."

For Barnes, not thinking about what could have been is impossible. Kabongo is his leader, his hardest worker, and his best player.

"Oh, yeah, no doubt," responded Barnes when asked if he thought about playing this season with Kabongo the entire way. "There is no doubt. I know that we have not at one time this year been able to play and do the things that we had worked on once we got this group together. I was really excited about the rules during the summer because we're allowed to get started with a really young group of guys, but in some ways it turned out the other way because once we found out Myck wasn't going to be able to play two days before the Davidson scrimmage, we had to start doing different things totally. We've had to change and do this and do that because of inconsistencies."

While he joked that Texas could have been 23-0 at this point with the sophomore point guard in the lineup each night, there is no doubt Barnes feels like the Longhorns would be in much better shape than they are now with their leader.

"Well, I can tell you going into the year; we thought we could be as good as anybody," Barnes said. "We believed that. And regardless of what anybody thinks, we think we have a chance to do some good things. How long it's going to take for Myck to blend… I don't think that's going to be an issue. So, we really haven't had our whole team together all year. And when you go back to the beginning of the year you would probably say that the two guys, certainly two of top four guys you were going to count on, were Myck and Jon. IT is what it is. It's never over until the whole season is done. We'll see what happens. I think we'd be 22 and… well, yeah in my mind there is no doubt we're 23-0, number one in the country."

The good news for Texas is that Kabongo has been able to practice the entire season. So, the transition involved with inserting a new player into the lineup shouldn't be as rocky because the Canadian has been working with his guys all year. Plus, the Longhorns, a team that has repeatedly struggled in clutch situations at the end of the game, should greatly benefit from finally having a true, vocal leader on the floor.

"The good thing is he's practiced," stated UT's coach. "It's not like he's been injured. He's worked from day one from the end of last season through the summer and fall. He hasn't changed other than he hasn't played games and when we go on the road he hasn't been able to travel. But from a basketball standpoint, he's in as good of shape as you can be in. I think he'll probably be a little anxious but he's matured a lot. He had a great spring. He was tremendous. He really worked hard. I think he learned a lot from a year ago. He's worked hard at being a better teammate. He's our hardest worker every day. He's never wavered. Even with the fact he knew he wasn't going to play, he's never wavered. He's been exemplary for his teammates. He's been a great leader in that way. I can tell you during games; it's amazing to listen to him during a timeout. He's more engaged than anyone that's playing a game, and a lot of that is what we've lacked. He's not going to be perfect. He would tell you himself he's got to do his part. I don't think he feels like he's got to carry the whole team, and I think that's where he's really matured."

So, here we are. The Longhorns are 10-13 and have defined the word "struggle" with their season so far. Will we finally see the team Barnes sees all the time in practice, which apparently performs much better than it does in the games? Do the Longhorns have a chance to finish strong and maybe make some noise in the Big 12 tournament?

"I'll always believe that," Barnes replied when asked if Texas has a chance to finish strong and win the conference tournament. "I don't' care what your regular season is. I've done this too long not to see that things happen in March at the conference tournaments. I've seen a lot happen. I just think too many things happen. These guys deserve something good to happen. As coaches, we've pushed them and try to get more and more out of them. It's not so much …. We have good guys. It's hard to play this game the way you need to play it well to win, and it's simple things like the spacing and all those types of things that we haven't consistently got. And some of that is taken care of if you have one guy. Just one guy on the floor that is directing traffic. And we've tried hard to get Javan to do that, but it's hard as a freshman to do that. D.J. Augustin struggled with it. T.J. didn't because he never shut up. You need a guy that is vocal and we've missed some of that. I think every game is an opportunity. I have to tell you this: a lot of things that we practiced early that we wanted to do with this team we moved on from some of those things because of Myck not being here. We've had to make so many changes with it where I know we could be a lot further along in a lot of areas if it was the way you wanted it to be. But it's not. We'll see."

Yes, we will. Finally.


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