February 10, 2013

Texas Longhorns' Kabongo returns for stretch run

The guard might spark Texas to postseason.

For the Texas Longhorns, the long wait is over. The team's best player, point guard Myck Kabongo, returns to the lineup Wednesday after an NCAA-mandated 23-game suspension.

But is it too late for Kabongo's return to salvage what is turning into a long season for the Longhorns (10-13, 2-8 Big 12) after Saturday's 72-59 loss to No. 22 Oklahoma State?

At the risk of sounding wishy-washy, the answers are "yes" ... and "no." Here's the explanation:

It definitely is too late for Texas to rally its way to an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament. So the only hope for coach Rick Barnes to make a 15th consecutive NCAA appearance in his 15th season at the helm is to win the Big 12 tournament on March 13-16 in Kansas City, Mo.

Texas never has won a Big 12 tourney title under Barnes, even with far more talented teams than this one. So eliminate that possibility. For now.

Instead, consider this: The Longhorns, buoyed by Kabongo's stabilizing influence in clutch situations, close with a flurry, climb above .500 and wind up in the NIT. Once there, Texas could win enough games to extend the Longhorns' streak of 13 consecutive seasons with at least 20 wins. Or finish really close to that total.

From where this team sits heading into Wednesday's game in Austin against Iowa State (16-7, 6-4), that would qualify as salvaging this season. Especially for a young team that features no juniors or seniors in its regular playing rotation and should be much-improved next season.

A meaningful turnaround is possible if Kabongo, a preseason All-Big 12 selection who was the team's floor general during last year's 20-14 season, helps Texas eliminate a season-long trend of losing close games.

The Longhorns are 1-7 this season in games decided in overtime (0-3) or by six or fewer points in regulation (1-4). They've clearly missed Kabongo's leadership and decision-making in crunch time.

Those commodities return Wednesday for the final eight games of the regular season and whatever comes next in the Big 12 tournament or postseason play. From a practical standpoint, this looms as the equivalent of an NFL team getting back its starting quarterback in December with a chance to reach the playoffs.

After Saturday's loss to OSU, Barnes said Kabongo definitely will start Wednesday and has been "our hardest worker all year" in practices. His return, said Barnes, should energize a team that lacks rhythm on offense and consistent effort on defense.

"We don't have anything going," Barnes said, adding that Kabongo's presence on the court should have a "great effect" on teammates.

Let's be honest. The odds are stacked against the Longhorns, even with Kabongo (9.6 points, 5.2 assists per game last season) back in the lineup. But in a less-than-stellar Big 12, where the best team (Kansas) fell Wednesday to the league cellar-dweller (TCU) and is riding a three-game losing streak, you can't consider Texas down for the postseason count because Kabongo can lift this team with his skills and intangibles.

"Oh, yeah, they miss Kabongo for sure," said Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team escaped with a 64-59 victory in Austin last month and will see Kabongo for Saturday's rematch in Lawrence, Kan. "Any time you lose a quality player like Kabongo, it would hurt any team. No question."

Kabongo, who bypassed early entry in last year's NBA Draft after a strong freshman season, has been sidelined for accepting improper benefits and misleading NCAA and school officials investigating the allegations. But he's practiced all season and attended all games. His incorporation into the lineup should be relatively seamless.

His impact, of course, will not be evident until Wednesday. Barnes, understandably, is not ruling out anything. Not even a Texas run to a Big 12 tournament title and NCAA berth similar to what Connecticut achieved as the No. 9 seed in the 2011 Big East tournament.

Those Huskies, who finished 9-9 in league play, went on to win a national championship by winning 11 consecutive postseason games. Their story inspires Barnes and his troops.

"I can go back and tell you teams that finished sixth in their league and won the national championship," Barnes said after a recent game. "I can tell you a team, Connecticut, that barely made the tournament and won the [2011] national championship. That's why you play the whole year. I don't think you ever lose your team [mentally]. I expect them to get better."

With Kabongo in the mix, they should. But the lingering question persists: Is it too little, too late, to salvage this season?

The answer to that question begins to unravel Wednesday.

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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