Say goodbye to closed scrimmages, and get ready for the real thing, Texas fans. College basketball is finally upon us, and another young, but much different, Longhorn team is looking to avoid so much sweat come NCAA Tournament time. Will they? Well, the Horns have some questions to answer, and here are five of them as they prepare for Friday's season-opener against Fresno State:
CAN THE LONGHORNS SURVIVE WITHOUT MYCK?
When you think about the Texas basketball season, it's hard not to immediately shift your attention to that one elephant in the room - what's the deal with sophomore Myck Kabongo? Good question.
As the Longhorns wait to hear from the NCAA on its final decision regarding the investigation into one of Kabongo's workouts this summer, it is preparing for life without him. Rick Barnes didn't sound very concerned when he talked about the subject briefly last Thursday at the team's media day session, but the Longhorns scrimmaged Davidson without Kabongo, which meant the starting point guard duties went to freshman Javan Felix. Plus, we're talking about the NCAA here, and it sometimes moves … well, it doesn't always move very quickly with these things.
So, there is a real chance Texas has to take the hardwood with Kabongo, the team's vocal leader and a potential first-rounder in the upcoming NBA draft, for a part of this season. Is there cause for concern? Sure. Any time you lose a leader from a team and an extremely skilled player that plays arguably the most important position in college basketball, you worry. However, there seems to be a confidence developing around Felix from his coach, his teammates and him. Until we actually see Felix in action, no one can truly be sure how a freshman will handle his first taste of college basketball, but no one associated with the Longhorn program hesitated to praise him, including Sheldon McClellan, who noted that the freshman from New Orleans is "more versatile" than Kabongo, and more of a scoring threat.
Still, when the calendar turns to December, Texas is going to need Kabongo no matter how well Felix is or isn't playing. The new players need to gel with Kabongo before the Big 12 season begins. Kabongo needs to play in what Texas is calling a different system. And starting December 4, the Longhorns will play a five-game stretch that includes Georgetown at Madison Square Garden, UCLA at Reliant Stadium in Houston, North Carolina, and Michigan State on the road. Trying to survive that stretch without Kabongo, and entering the conference schedule without him would likely mean Texas is sweating it out again come NCAA Tournament time.
WHAT LINEUP WORKS BEST?
It's been a while since Barnes has had a roster like this, that includes so many different skill sets, so much versatility, and so much height. While that's a blessing for Texas' head coach, it will also prove to be a headache at times, too.
Texas players talked last Thursday about each day in practice seemingly including a different lineup on the floor as the Longhorn coaches search for what works. McClellan even joked that no one knows what the starting lineup is going to be this Friday against Fresno State, and even though he's joking, he's absolutely right.
There isn't a lot of time for experimenting before the schedule gets rough. Whatever lineup Texas chooses, we know it will be one that plays defense because of the guy in charge. That being said, this team will need to score, too. My guess is that McClellan and Kabongo, if eligible, will be in the starting lineup. Cameron Ridley is probably only good for 20-25 minutes a game right now, so he could be a starting candidate with a quick substitution early. Where do veterans like Jonathan Holmes, Jaylen Bond, and Julien Lewis fit? Will Prince Ibeh's potential as a dominant big push him into action at tip-off? Barnes has a lot of things to juggle, and the lineup will be one of them.
TEXAS WANTS TO BE BALANCED, BUT CAN McCLELLAN BE THE GO-TO-SCORER?
Last season, the Longhorns didn't have much of a low post scoring presence with the youth at the position combined with a defensive stopper (Alexis Wangmene) and role player (Clint Chapman). This season, the Horns are older at the position, and have added a lot more score to the position with its freshmen class, which features Ridley, a legit, back-to-the-basket big man with developed post moves.
Barnes and his players both talked about the offense starting from inside-out for the Longhorns, and with the skill Texas has at that position, it's certainly not a bad idea. But how committed will the Horns stay to it? If the Longhorns get good production from the bigs down low, they'll likely stick to it. If not, the offense will probably shift to a more guard-oriented attack, especially with the talent at the point guard spot. Barnes' best teams have benefited from strong point guard play.
But regardless of whether Texas is great at scoring in the point or terrible, it is going to need a go-to-scorer at the guard spot, and there is no doubt that Texas wants that to be McClellan. J'Covan Brown's days in a Texas uniform are done. Texas has a guy picked out to fill that similar role, but can he do it?
McClellan has the size, athleticism, jump shot, and ability to put the basketball on the floor and get to the rim, which is why Texas thinks he can be that guy. When Barnes tells the media he thinks the ball is going in every time the sophomore guard shoots it, he does so with a non-joking look on his face. He believes it. If McClellan believes the same and avoids being selfish - McClellan talked Thursday about assistant Rob Lanier telling him passing up shots is selfish - then he will be that go-to-scorer the Longhorns need.
HOW QUICK WILL YOUNG LONGHORNS GROW UP?
Texas has arguably the toughest non-conference schedule in the country. The Longhorns, specifically Barnes, need to make sure the non-conference slate doesn't break the young team, but instead prepares it for the conference run.
There will certainly be growing pains early. That's just the way it is when your 11-man rotation includes no one older than a sophomore. Plus, Texas has been experimenting with lineups throughout the offseason and while that is good because of the versatility, it still means the Longhorns didn't enter preseason camp with a set starting lineup.
Barnes has repeatedly said that he really likes the chemistry this team has shown in practice. The players echo that same statement. However, Barnes' better teams at Texas have usually been led by veteran leaders, and right now, Texas' leader is sitting out scrimmages as he waits to hear from the NCAA. It's going to take Texas some time to figure things out. Barnes needs to make sure it doesn't take too much time because the first four Big 12 games are at Baylor, West Virginia, at Iowa State, and Kansas.
HOW MUCH ZONE WILL TEXAS PLAY, AND CAN IT BE EFFECTIVE?
Yes, there is a legitimate chance a Texas team coached by Barnes could play zone fairly often this season. The Longhorns showed it at times last year, and most of the time it looked, well, it looked like they really didn't spend much time on it in practice. Fast forward to this year, and Holmes spoke at media day about having a segment of practice each day dedicated to zone on defense. And you know why? Because it's a good idea.
Texas has the ability to put a guy like Ridley or Ibeh in the middle of a zone, and has great length around the perimeter that can get out to challenge shots or extend an offense. Plus, a zone usually leads to jump shots, which usually leads to transition opportunities, and we know the Longhorns want to run.
I'd say we're probably going to see Texas in zone defensively a lot more than we're used to. The blend of length and athleticism on offense combined with legit big men, including one that's best skill is being a shot-blocker, calls for it; it would almost be wasteful if that roster didn't get put in a zone at times.