Texas Longhorns: Julien Lewis

AUSTIN, Texas -- All of this could have been avoided.

Myck Kabongo could be taking part in his first NBA training camp right now and not be the subject of an NCAA investigation into his relationship with a professional agent, which Yahoo! Sports first reported late Wednesday night.

But the Longhorns sophomore point guard didn’t want his last game in a Texas uniform to be a 65-59 loss to Cincinnati in the first round of the NCAA tournament. He wanted his legacy in Austin to be much more memorable than that and figured he could make that happen with at least one more season as a Longhorn.

[+] EnlargeMyck Kabongo
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireAs a freshman, Myck Kabongo averaged 9.6 points per game last season for the Longhorns.
“Personally for me I didn’t want to go out without winning,” Kabongo said recently. “This program deserves to win. They’ve done everything possible from a Sweet 16, Elite 8, Final Four. They just haven’t gotten to that big stage yet. I just think with the big pieces that we have coming back we could do that.”

The Big 12’s head coaches reminded everyone last week of the expectations he brings with him into the season by naming him to the Preseason All-Big 12 Team. But if the findings in the NCAA investigation cause him to miss time this season, those expectations could be tempered a bit.

Kabongo, a 2011-12 All-Big 12 honorable mention, started all 34 games last season as a true freshman. A pass-first point guard, he finished fourth in the league in assists per game (5.2), second on the team in steals (38) and third on the team in scoring (9.8 ppg).

He was expected to be the face of a program whose roster features just two seniors (both walk-ons) and no juniors. He is up to 180 pounds after adding 10 pounds of muscle this summer, and said he felt much better about being able to handle the rigors of an NCAA season.

“I thought I could use another year of college to get stronger,” he said. “Talent-wise I think I was ready to go. But physically and mentally it was a good thing for me to come back, get bigger and stronger, and build a bond with my teammates.”

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AUSTIN, Texas – Texas has finally figured out that it is offensively limited.

OK, maybe they figured that out when they didn’t break 60 against Oklahoma State at home. It’s just that now Texas has figured out what to do about it. Play defense.

Texas has won four straight and in those games has allowed just 62 points per game. The defense has even become stingier in the second halves of the last two games. Kansas State scored just 24 points and shot 32 percent after leading at halftime against Texas. Oklahoma scored just 25 points and shot 42 percent in the second half after leading at halftime. Now the Longhorns will try for five straight Saturday when they travel to Oklahoma State.

Couple that defense with a more aggressive attack, which allows for Texas to get the free throw line, and that’s why the Longhorns have been successful as of late.

“We got to the free throw line 29 times and shot a nice percentage [against Oklahoma] compared to the fact that they only got there eight times,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s a big step for us. If you go back the last couple games, we’ve been getting to the free throw line”

Texas has made it to the free throw line 77 times in the last two games. The Longhorns have converted 59 of those attempts. Their opponents have been 20 times and made 13. That’s a 46-point differential.

The reason those free throw attempts are piling up for Texas, and not for the opponents, is because of the defense. Alexis Wangmene, after watching Texas A&M’s David Loubeau back down into the lane and get to the stripe 10 times, has stepped up his interior defense.

“The one thing you are always searching for is consistency in every single thing,” Barnes said. “What we need him to do for us is to know we can count on him every single night to play defense, rebound and screen for us. He has been a guy that has made some key defensive plays for us.”

With Wangmene playing solid interior defense that allows Texas’ guards, specifically Myck Kabongo and Julien Lewis, to put more pressure on the perimeter players. With that, the ball has a hard time getting into the paint.

With the ball relegated to the perimeter, Kabongo has been able to get active with his hands, force turnovers and get fouled on breakaways (Texas has 19 points off turnovers in the second half against OU). The rest of the Texas players are seeing the success he has had getting to the rim, and subsequently the free throw line, and doing the same.

“We’ve got a couple of freshman that are way ahead of the curve in Myck and Julien,” Barnes said about the pair’s defensive pressure. “The whole key [for the other freshmen] is how quick they can grasp it, how quickly can they pick it up and move forward.”

It appears as if most of them have started to do just that in the last four games.

Texas chances in remaining games

February, 13, 2012
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It took 24 games and 20 minutes but Rick Barnes was finally satisfied, wait, strike that, almost giddy, with the way his Texas team played on both ends of the floor.

“I’ve been doing this a long time,” Barnes said after Texas’ 75-64 win over Kansas State. “And I sat there in the second half and enjoyed it.

“I love teams that get after people on the defensive end and I love teams that attack on the offensive end. They are in a constant attack mode and that is what we have told our team since they have been here.”

[+] EnlargePierre Jackson
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesTexas had success against Baylor's Pierre Jackson, but can the Longhorns duplicate that success again?
Texas will have to be on the attack as it goes down the stretch. With the current three-game winning streak, Texas (16-9, 6-6) has now pulled to .500 in the Big 12. If Texas can remain at .500 or better through the remaining six games, odds are it will make it into the NCAA tournament for the 14th straight year.

Here is the schedule down the stretch and what Texas’ chances are in each of those games:

Oklahoma (13-11, 3-9): Texas will play the Sooners twice beginning with a game Tuesday night in Norman. Two of the Sooners’ three Big 12 wins have come against Kansas State so there is little doubt Lon Kruger’s group has the ability to pull an upset over Texas. Oklahoma has lost four straight. One of those was by three to No. 4 Missouri. But Missouri seems to play a lot of close games. So that game might be more of an indictment of Missouri than an endorsement of OU’s style of play.

The one OU player Texas will have to watch for is guard Steve Pledger. The junior is shooting 46 percent from beyond the arc and much like Texas’ J’Covan Brown, can get hot. But Pledger struggles finding his shot outside of the offensive sets. That should help Texas’ defense.

Chances of a sweep: 80 percent

Oklahoma State (12-13, 5-7): Texas had some trouble with the Cowboys the first time around before finally putting together a run in the second half to win by 10. But this game is on the road, and the Cowboys have proven to be difficult at home with wins over No. 4 Missouri and Iowa State in the past two weeks.

Oklahoma State gives Texas trouble on the inside because of the length of the interior players -- LeBryan Nash and Michael Cobbins. Both are very good leapers and shot blockers. Texas center Clint Chapman struggles with his back to the basket against those types of players.

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AUSTIN, Texas -- J'Covan Brown has a problem.

He’s a scorer. It’s his game. It’s how he has always played. It’s what he wants to do for Texas.

But The Texas guard can’t score, not with the consistency necessary to be successful in the Big 12. Oh sure, the junior leads the Big 12 in scoring with 19.1 points per game. But it is how he goes about getting those points that has started to bother the Texas coaching staff.

“Everybody thinks everything has to go through J’Covan, but he needs to drop it off some too,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said after Brown went 7-for-26 against Kansas. “He had a couple of shots that you shouldn’t take.”

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Before Texas started its five-game, 12-day trip through the toughest part of its schedule, J'Covan Brown implored his teammates to walk into each game with a chip on his shoulder.

That chip is carrying a little less weight after Wednesday. Texas lost the first of the five, 84-80 to Kansas State. Next up is No. 7 Kansas. Then comes Iowa State, a team that has already beaten Texas. Followed by No. 3 Baylor, and finally there is No. 5 Missouri, again another team that has already beaten Texas.

[+] EnlargeJ'Covan Brown
AP Photo/Michael ThomasJ'Covan Brown has urged his younger teammates to step up their games in Big 12 play.
By the end of the run through the Big 12’s best, Texas might need to forget about carrying a chip on its shoulder and find a shoulder to cry on instead. And they might want to save a few tears for the end of the regular season.

The way things are shaping up, Texas (12-6, 2-3) appears in serious jeopardy of missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 14 years. But those are woes for later. The here and now concerns center around Texas maturing and playing with an attitude.

“We’re not going to let anybody walk over us,” Brown said. “If you’re going to play us, you’re going to play on our terms.”

That all sounds good. And, as a junior, Brown probably means what he said and is able to puts some action behind those words.

However, not everyone is able to play up to Brown’s standard for 40 minutes. Take freshman point guard Myck Kabongo. He has had flashes of brilliance in the last two games and notched back-to-back double-doubles. But Texas has lost both of those games because Kabogno had ill-timed turnovers and allowed the opponent’s defense to dictate how he sets up the Texas offense.

Brown said, in order for the offense to run correctly, things have to be settled by the point guard, and that “everybody is not trying to make that big play.”

Texas has to figure out who its playmakers are. Brown clearly is one. He leads the conference with 19.2 points per game and can seemingly get his shot off at any time. But most of the top teams have a complementary scorer or even a third option. Kansas has Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor. Missouri has Marcus Denmon, Kim English and Ricardo Ratliffe. Baylor has Quincy Acy, Pierre Jackson and Quincy Miller.

Texas has Brown and a collection of freshmen players -- Sheldon McClellan, Julien Lewis and Kabongo -- who have shot 35 percent in five conference games.

Still, as bad as that appears, Texas has had chances to win on the road at Kansas State, Missouri and Iowa State.

Texas had the ball, down two, with 20 seconds left against Kansas State when Kabongo turned the ball over. Texas was within five against Missouri midway through the second half before three turnovers in four possessions allowed the Tigers to take control down the stretch.

“We have to execute our offense,” assistant coach Chris Ogden said.

“We can’t play outside of that offense,” added senior Clint Chapman.

Texas also has to forget about whom they are facing the next four games or what has happened in the last two games.

“You’ve got to play,” Ogden said. “You’ve got to figure out the things that are making us lose and change some things.”

If Texas doesn’t, the one that is going to change is its streak of postseason appearances.
AUSTIN, Texas -- At a time when a team, even a young one like Texas, should be hitting its stride, the Longhorns (12-5, 2-2) are hitting the wall.

And to make matters worse, the players are not hitting shots. Or even taking the right ones for that matter.

In the last three games, the Texas offense has averaged 64 points per game -- 12 below its average -- shot 33 percent in the first halves and started games glacially slow -- averaging just 13 points in the first 10 minutes of each game. The staggering thing is, twice Texas got away with such poor offensive play in large part because of how bad Texas A&M and Oklahoma State were, and because of the Texas defense.

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AUSTIN, Texas -- It was with some degree of certainty Texas' coaches and players said that if J'Covan Brown didn't play because of his injured ankle someone else would step up.

[+] EnlargeJ'Covan Brown
AP Photo/Michael ThomasJ'Covan Brown, on a sprained ankle, scored well below his average in Texas' win over Oklahoma State.
And still, throughout Texas’ 58-49 win over Oklahoma State, no one else did.
Brown, the Longhorns' leading scorer played sparingly, and Texas was still so bad on offense that flashbacks of the football season could have been flickering in the heads of the 12,841 fans at the Frank Erwin Center.

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Texas uses lineup switch to top Rice 

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Coming off a loss to North Carolina that shook up the team, Texas coach Rick Barnes decided to shake up the lineup for the first time this season.

But the replacements were not exactly a roll of the dice. Clint Chapman, Sheldon McClellan and Jaylen Bond had all earned significant minutes off the bench. Plus the opponent, Rice, allowed for a little tinkering. Turned out the experiment worked well enough as Texas (10-3) pulled away from Rice (9-5) midway through the second half for a 73-59 win in front of 14,506 fans at the Frank Erwin Center Saturday.

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AUSTIN, Texas -- Motivational props have long been a coaching ploy.

The sling cradling Rick Barnes surgically repaired right shoulder was not a prop. But that didn’t stop the Texas coach from using it as a little bit of motivation.

“When I was [Alexis Wangmene’s] age I played hard, and have had to deal with it,” Barnes said of the shoulder.

Royal Ivey?

“I played harder than that too,” he said. “I had to.”

Barnes had to because he was a player with more grit than gifts. In that way he mirrors this Texas team. The Longhorns are not blessed with the size or the developed physical tools that are sprinkled throughout the rosters of the teams vying for the field of 65.

So what they lack in mature talent has to be made up for in toughness. And in Barnes’ mind, that toughness begins on the defensive end of the floor. Which is why practice for the past few days has been about fighting through screens not under them, staying in front of the dribble not for one bounce, but for two, until help arrives, and stepping up and taking charges.

All of that played out as Texas extended its win streak to five with a lopsided thrashing of Texas State on Saturday night.

“Of all the games we’ve played this year, we looked most like a Texas team defensively than we have this year,” Barnes said.

Some of that might have had to do with Texas State. Aside from a win against Houston, the Bobcats haven’t done much, except miss shots. Still, Texas was able to shine some light on what its capabilities might be in the future.

The Bobcats went 14:20 without making a field goal. Texas State shot 14 percent for the first half and 26 percent for the game. And, because of the aggressive man-to-man defense, Texas forced a one-on-one game in which Texas State was unable to move the ball and had to settle for contested shots.

“We are getting there.” Wangmene said. “Everybody is buying into it. We just have to get into it and work.”

The work ethic is always an issue with a young team. Freshmen rarely understand the significance of defense at the college level. Texas is loaded with freshmen. Take Julien Lewis, who had a career-high 19 points against Texas State, and Sheldon McClellan, who had a career-high 23 against UT-Arlington.

Barnes wants to play them both. He knows both are pure scorers. But their defense terrifies him. So much so that the coach has told each they will only play extended minutes if they can prove to him they have a willingness to play defense.

While Lewis and McClellan have struggled defensively, point guard Myck Kabongo is the opposite.

“He has competed, and I told them the reason he has played more than most of the freshmen is that he has consistently competed [on the defensive end of the floor],” Barnes said.

What Kabongo has also done is started to communicate with his teammates on defense. When working within a defense that is working angles, communication is paramount to success.

At times, that success is easy to see. At other times, as in early season games against Oregon State and N.C. State, for example, it is not.

“The guys are starting to talk a lot on defense,” Wangmene said. “[The communication is] not great. It is not where we can be yet.”

Neither, for that matter, is the defense. But it is getting better.

“Everybody has to come with the mindset that I'm going to play defense tonight,” Wangmene said.

And if they need a reminder of what that takes, all any of them have to do is look at the coach on the sideline with his arm in a sling.

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