On Sunday, the Longhorns officially begin their 2011-2012 basketball season, but before they get started we had a chance to meet the Horns up close and in person. Will the Horns run as much as it looks like they should on paper? Is the thin UT frontcourt ready to handle to load? We got those answers, and much more from a very young but excited Texas team this week as it gets prepared to being the season.
Seven seconds - Will UT play that fast?
As Rick Barnes responded to the countless questions fired his way at Wednesday's preseason media session, he didn't really shy away from the fact that he does have a small basketball team that should be driven by guards. UT's coach didn't come right out all the time and say that his 2011-2012 team will run constantly, but he didn't try to hide the fact that this Texas team will need to get up and down the floor. However, the UT players all seemed to be in agreement that the Horns will want to push the ball up the floor at a very fast rate. How fast might surprise you.
"Yeah, they've been making me run a lot," senior Alexis Wangmene joked with the media when asked about the offensive tempo. "It's very challenging for me to see what I need to work on and to keep up so I can stay on the floor for 35 to 40 minutes. I like the style. Each time we get the ball, we're trying to run down the floor and score in seven seconds."
Seven seconds. That's not just fast. That's a speed that would make UNC's Roy Williams, college basketball's number one ambassador of playing at an extremely fast pace, blush. Later, Julien Lewis reiterated that same number and same thought.
"It's going to be real fun," said the freshman from La Marque. "[At] high school, all we did was run. Here coach Barnes wants to run and score in seconds. I really like that."
Is Texas built to play at that speed? Well, when you've got one of the fastest point guards in the country, along with a guard heavy lineup that can handle the basketball, the answer is yes. As expected, the speed and ability in the open floor demonstrated by five-star freshman Myck Kabongo has opened some eyes.
"He's fast," Wangmene said with heavy emphasis about Kabongo. "Sometimes I don't even like it! He's very fast. He plays hard. He's willing to put his nose anywhere. He plays defense all over the place. I love playing with people like that."
Even the veterans know that it's going to be a quick pace, and that once the ball is in Kabongo's hands you better get ready to go.
"We're going to get out and run," stated junior J'Covan Brown about Texas this season. "We've got Myck pushing the ball up the court all day and he has a motor that doesn't stop. We have wings that like to run jump and dunk. That's what we need to get big teams tired."
Even though Texas wants to get out and run, one of the things Kabongo is really getting used to is controlling his pace. That, and Barnes has been on him about one thing in specific.
"Sometimes, I have to slow down," the freshman from Toronto said. "Coach stresses that he wants us pushing the ball up and down the court. That's all I'm trying to do is be an extension of coach on the court. For 40 minutes I can't run 100 MPH. You have to switch it up sometimes. It's probably been one of the adjustments that I've had to make and will make. [That and] just being efficient with that basketball. You have to treat it like it's a pot of gold. It's the college game. It's different than high school. Just being efficient the basketball. That's the biggest thing he's been on me about."
This season, the early expectations should be to see a Texas team that's built to run do just that. An up-tempo game is something Longhorn fans should expect, and they should also expect an ultra-quick, pass-first point guard.
"I'd rather have 30 assists on any given night," said Kabongo when asked if he wanted to score or distribute.
Veterans Chapman and Wangmene ready to shoulder load in the paint with the help of freshmen
From the good of the UT offense - fast, talented guards that can get out and run - to the bad. Texas is a small team. Only senior Clint Chapman is listed at being taller than 6-7. Only senior Alexis Wangmene logged minutes on the floor in the paint last season for Texas. Only Jonathan Holmes is a true inside player out of the six freshmen UT signed. It's going to be tough at times for the Horns in the land of big men down low. Still, both Chapman and Wangmene are confident, welcome the challenge, and are well aware of their roles on this basketball team.
"You know, I can step out now and shoot some open shots," Wangmene said about his improving game. "I do have my confidence all the way to 18 feet. I'll be confident taking a shot. But I stick to the same thing - rebounding. I'm not looking to do any crazy stuff. It's not my role. It's not about me coming out there and showing people how much I've improved or how much I can dribble. It's about me competing. I want to be the guy that grabs as many rebounds as I can. I'm going to find my way around to get some rebounds and get some extra boards."
Like Wangmene, Chapman, who redshirted last season, has a very good understanding of what the UT coaches want from him and what he can excel at on the floor. In Texas' offense, the big men are interchangeable, which should help a team without a true center.
"I wouldn't say we have a true center in our offense," Chapman stated on Wednesday's media session. "The four and the five really complement each other. It's a lot of being able to work with another big on the court. It's not a defined center role. We're trying a little bit of everything. We're going to use our quickness to our advantage. I think we see ourselves as a more guard oriented team. It's really important for our bigs to be able to screen to get our guards open and then play off of that. Everybody on our team can shoot. We've worked hard on that. We've put ourselves in the position to step out and hit shots. But you can never step away from trying to dominate the paint."
Texas will absolutely need Wangmene to play that role and to be one of those guys that fights for the extra rebounds. But he won't be the only one. Chapman and Wangmene, realizing that they're the only two veteran big men on this team, know that they'll have to work together. They'll have to complement each other.
"Yeah, Lexi and I have talked about that many times," stated Chapman about the small numbers at the post spot. "We've got to have each other's backs every time. We're starting to learn as veterans there is no excuse, there is no other choice."
The big man is right. There is no other choice. The entire Texas lineup, especially the bigs, will have to be smart defensively because this team can't afford to be in foul trouble.
"If you play the game the way you need to, challenging shots the right way and learning how to challenge shots without fouling is a part of the game. You have to learn how to be the right kind of aggressive. You never want to foul players. You want to be able to challenge without fouling. We are defensive oriented and intense on the defensive end. We've always wanted to climb into guys on the wing and not allow the ball into the paint. And keeping guys out of the lane keeps you from fouling."
Unlike Wangmene, it's been over a year since Chapman has been in a game for the Longhorns. These last few weeks have been huge for the senior from Oregon.
"I think I've worked through a lot of that through these first few weeks," Chapman responded when asked about any rustiness. "I couldn't be more excited. I've always been a game-time guy. I take myself to a different level on game day. I'm so excited for this game to come around. I want to help my team. I want this team to be successful as a whole."
Texas will need big minutes from this duo this season.
A tight-knit freshmen group with an East Coast bias
"When I first got here the first person I saw was Myck Kabongo and we played one-on-one," said Lewis. "I knew then I was going to fit in."
That's a prime example of this group of six freshmen that will be asked to all contribute this season for the Longhorns. They're a close group. There calmness at Wednesday's media session was well beyond their years, and their vibrant smiles with exuberant personalities made being around them fun. Fun. This group of youngsters seems to have plenty of it.
"All the freshmen, we're like brothers," freshman Sterling Gibbs stated. "You won't see anyone walking alone on campus. We're always together. We always talk about how to get better, and we work out all the time together. We're able to play around but we're able to get serious at the same time."
Even the veterans notice that these freshmen always seem to be around each other.
"They're tight. When you find one you find all six of them. That's a good thing they have they relationship they have. They go to the movies together which is kind of, um, funny to me. We never went out on dates or anything when I was a freshman," said Brown with a big smile and a laugh. "But to see them do that puts a smile on the face."
All of the six freshmen take pride in where they're from, but a trio of players reminded us, with pride, about their roots. On the floor this year, a Texas team could have a lot of East Coast feel. And those guys think it's a good thing. They're probably right.
"East Coast is known for their tough basketball. Jaylen (Bond) definitely shows it. He's a workhouse. He'll pound it down the other team's throat," Gibbs stated. "I think I show it in different ways. You're playing against other tough kids and it makes you tough coming up. I hope it rubs off."
Bond, who has known Gibbs for a long time thanks to their roots, agrees.
"Basically, being from the city of Philadelphia you had to be tough," Bond said. "If you weren't, you wouldn't be able to make it. I think a lot of kids from the East Coast have that tough mentality and show it in their game."
Like Gibbs, Kabongo plays much bigger and tougher than his size suggests. From Toronto originally, the 6-2, lightning-quick point guard spent a lot of time in New Jersey playing basketball before his move to Findlay Prep in Nevada his senior year.
"We're tough. Everywhere is a little different. On the East coast you have to learn how bang in there as 6-2 guard," said the freshman point guard. "It's a gritty game on the East Coast."
A team that is going to expect contributions from six freshmen is definitely going to have tough moments. Barnes and company are hoping that toughness not only rubs off on the rest of the group, but better prepares them for the ups and downs of the college basketball season.
"Staying together when times get tough," responded Brown when asked what might be the toughest thing for this team this season. "We're going to have to find a way. We're going to find ways to get around it when things aren't going our way."
Listen to the veteran, young freshmen. He knows.
They said it…
"He's one of the fastest players I've ever seen with the ball. Sometimes you don't expect his passes. He doesn't look at you sometimes but he makes great passes." - Jaylen Bond on Myck Kabongo
"T.J. whooped me. He gave it to me. He's great. He's taught me a lot. I'm blessed to have someone like T.J. that's been here and been through all of this." - Myck Kabongo on a recent one-on-one game with UT legend T.J. Ford
"It's the position I've played my whole life. As a point guard, you have to be a leader at every level. I'm very vocal." - Myck Kabongo on being a leader
"I've known him for a while. I actually knew Jaylen way before he committed to Pittsburgh. As soon as the coaches told me they wanted him to come, I was on top of it. I like to consider myself the main recruiter for Jaylen Bond." - Sterling Gibbs told the media with a big smile
"Jaylen and I know each other. We're both from the East Coast. We've both been in the same situation. When we first got here, I looked at him and he looked at me and said 'Are we really in Texas playing basketball?' It's different but we help each other get through it." - Sterling Gibbs
"Queso and what's that thing called…salsa and chips. I've never heard of that in my life but that tends to be the thing in Texas." - Myck Kabongo on getting adjusted to the Texas culture
"We think about that every day. It's a great opportunity to be here. Yeah, at first I didn't know there were this many hills. I thought it was all flat. But I like it so far. Up here I haven't found one as good as Geno's or Pat's." - Jaylen Bond on being in Texas and cheesesteaks
"Julien, him and Sheldon they look up to me. They're at my house all day every day. I try to kick them out but they're still there. We sit there and talk about life a lot more than basketball." - J'Covan Brown on taking the young Houston-area guards under his wing
"They make my day every day when I come to practice." - Alexis Wangmene on the freshmen
"I think we don't have size, but we have speed and quickness. We can tire out teams that are bigger. I like running. Our whole team is built to get up and down quick." - Jonathan Holmes