After they were taken to town by Georgetown at the Jimmy V Classic and swapped spit with a slutty UCLA team that won the game no one shoulda, a 5-4 Texas Longhorns basketball team looked like it might end Rick Barnes' streak of 14 seasons of coaching 20-win teams. Even after they upset North Carolina at the Erwin Center on Dec. 19, there was no guarantee the no-name 2012 Horns would have the game to make the Big Dance in March. Even after they played Michigan State tough at East Lansing on Saturday, before letting it slip away in the final minutes for a 7-5 record.
But then came the announcement that had implications that UT could go far in the NCAA tournamount. Sophomore point guard Myck Kabongo, suspended for the remainder of the year on Dec. 20, had that decision lightened to the tune of 23 games after an appeal. Besides being a magical b-ball number, 23 puts "Mike" back in the lineup on Feb. 13 against Iowa State. Looking like fellow N'awlins native D.J. Augustin, freshman PG Javan Felix has been running the team with authority as Kabongo sits for the crime of taking a free trip to Cleveland (paid for by his friend Tristan Thompson of the Cleveland Cavaliers) and then being a tad creative in explaining it to team officials. C'mon, NCAA, the only person who willingly pays his way to Cleveland is Drew Carey.
Felix is maybe even better than expected, but he doesn't have Kabongo's potential. Myck's the youngest member of the Toronto 3 – following Thompson and Cory Joseph through the Findlay Prep of colleges, and hopefully to the NBA. They are the only three pro prospects from a city where the Tragically Hip is bigger than Jay-Z, so they stick together. It's hard to be an inner-city blacktop wiz when someone's blaring "New Orleans Is Sinking" from their car speakers every 15 minutes.
With speedy Demarcus Holland switching to point guard to spell Felix, the Horns will have a whole lot of freshness in the legs at the 1 guard when Kabongo glides back into the starting lineup.
The 11th-ranked player in the country coming out of high school, Kabongo was a slight disappointment last year with 10 points and 5 assists a game. The Kabongo fury was released, however, with back-to-back double-doubles on the road against ranked Missouri and Kansas State teams. We've not yet seen Mr. Myck at his best, but maybe that's because the lasting image of last season was a loud growth from his ear that looked a lot like Coach "Bad Cop" Barnes.
And the Zaire-born Kabongo thought that first winter in Toronto was harsh.
Kabongo will be stepping back into a team that started finding its identity with an 18-point win over the No. 23 ranked Tar Heels of Roy Williams. The San Antone Twin Tone forwards – Jonathan Holmes and Connor Lammert – are playing well all over the court, and then you've got Julien Lewis and the streaky Sheldon McClellan flinging the ball at such an angle that it hits the net without disturbing the orange metal hoop. The kids have also recently discovered the backboard on wide-open layups.
The player to watch is 18-year-old Greek hustler Ioannis Papapetrou, a 6-foot-8-inch forward who gives announcers a whole lotta "Papa" to work with. He may be "Pop-a-Shot" by season's end, as he looks to be this team's Sydmill Harris, and not just because he's fluent in more than two languages.
Hickory, N.C., hayseed Rick Barnes-Fife has now beat that big ole team from Chapel Hill four out of five while at Texas. He sure had to be pleased with the effort, as the Horns withstood a second-half thrust from the Tar Zombies, who could be nicknamed the Shitheels if they don't get it together. Felix kept the team cool, and Lewis and McClellan hit big shots down the stretch to pull away. Once freshman center Cameron Ridley starts playing like the eighth-best player in the country out of high school – and not someone just hanging around for Dexter Pittman's game-worn jersey – these Horns should be able to run with anyone.
And when the other teams' point guards will be tugging the hem of their shorts during time-outs, Kabongo, Felix, and Holland will be working out dance routines. Big Dance routines.
Note: Tickets are on sale for the second- and third-round games of the NCAA basketball tourney to be held at the Erwin Center March 22 and 24. They're $180 and can be bought online at www.ncaa.com, or by calling 1-866-208-0048. If Texas makes March Madness, they won't play in Austin. Also, Horns season-ticket holders will not get their usual seat if they buy tix to the tourney.
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