For forty minutes on Monday night, the young, beleaguered Texas Longhorns finally looked like a team. Role players made key contributions, stars stepped up to make huge buckets, and the squad that had so often folded under pressure actually responded to adversity with poise and composure. The Longhorns turned back the Bears and their comeback bid at every opportunity, holding on for a 79-70 win in the final home game of the season.
The loss was especially damaging to Baylor, which entered the game as one of the “First Four Out” in Joe Lunardi’s latest Bracket Math update. It was the fifth defeat in the last six games for the Bears, and the eighth loss in the team’s last 11 contests. After also squandering an opportunity for a résumé-building win against Kansas State two days ago, Baylor now must put all of its eggs in the “upset Kansas” basket on Saturday. Even with a victory there, the Bears still would likely need a solid win over the Big 12’s No. 3 seed in the conference tournament next Thursday to truly feel comfortable.
As damaging as the loss was for Baylor, it meant very little in the grand scheme of things for Texas. The Longhorns now have a better chance to claim the No. 7 seed in the league tournament, but will still need assistance from Oklahoma and Iowa State, who both play West Virginia over the next four days. Outside of helping the Longhorns perhaps earn a marginally better draw for a possible four-wins-in-four days miracle run to the NCAAs, the victory had no tangible big-picture implications.
Still, there was so much to be excited about after watching the Longhorns earn a tough win tonight. Myck Kabongo bounced back quickly from his rough game in Stillwater, scoring 19 points while also leading the team with six boards and eight assists. Sheldon McClellan also turned in a big performance, scoring 23 points just two days after seeing the court for only seven minutes in the Saturday loss to Oklahoma State.
Coming off the bench, Cameron Ridley showed heart and hustle, never more apparent than in a huge play late in the game where he was falling out of bounds and tapped a loose rebound to the corner, where Ioannis Papapetrou knocked down the triple to stifle a Baylor rally. That big shot was one of many clutch plays by Papi, who was aggressive with the bounce and steady behind the arc en route to a highly-efficient 18 points on 7-of-13 shooting. Even Prince Ibeh made key contributions, coming up with two blocks and three important boards.
The Longhorns established their new season high for offensive efficiency, scoring 1.241 points per possession. It was the third time in the team’s last five games that the offense cracked the 1.2 mark, and it was a vast improvement over the even 1.0 points per possession that they scored against Baylor in Waco on January 5th.
Texas also made a huge turnaround on the glass, where the team limited the Bears to reclaiming just 30.6% of their offensive rebounding chances. In the earlier loss to Baylor, Texas gave up 39.1% of those opportunities. The Longhorns also kept the Bears from getting to the line, slashing their defensive free-throw rate from an astronomical 70.3% in the loss to just 38.6% in Monday’s win.
But even with the big plays and solid performances up and down the lineup, Texas’ win over Baylor still left behind a feeling of sadness. Since the return of Kabongo, the Longhorns have pulled off wins over Oklahoma, Iowa State, and Baylor, teams ranked fourth through sixth in the league. Although it’s an incredibly small sample size, those results and the jolt Kabongo has provided the offense make it seem like these Horns could have easily been in the middle of the Big 12 standings had he played all year.
With that in mind, it’s not a stretch to imagine that the full-strength Horns could have won one of the games against West Virginia, if not both. The road loss at Oklahoma was close enough that you can’t help but wonder if that outcome would have changed, too. Heck, the Longhorns forced Kansas into enough second-half miscues that the Jayhawks were on the ropes in Austin, even without Kabongo. Take a step further back, into the non-conference slate, and you can easily picture Texas hanging on against UCLA and hopefully avoiding the detestable loss to Chaminade.
If you hypothesize that Kabongo’s presence flips a few of these games to the win column, you can’t magically create an amazing season, but you do start to add up enough victories to be able to imagine Texas as a bubble team. It seems that every year, the teams filling the bottom of the bracket have résumés that are even more odious than the ones in the previous year. This season has been no exception, with Ole Miss was still only five slots out of Lunardi’s bracket after losing at home to a 7-20 Mississippi State team — the very same Mississippi State team that lost at home to Vanderbilt by 41 points just a week earlier.
There’s no way to know what impact Kabongo would have actually had on the games earlier in the season. Some of the close losses could very well have remained losses even with his leadership. Even with those wins, Texas’ horribly weak non-conference SOS might have kept it out of the NCAA field. The Longhorns’ inability to put together road and neutral-site wins against quality competition might have also left them on the wrong side of the bubble. Unfortunately, the sad fact of the matter is that the NCAA didn’t ever give this team or its fans a chance to find out.
ESPN’s Jay Bilas was the most outspoken critic of the NCAA’s decision to suspend Kabongo, a ban that was reduced to 23 games after initially being set for the full season. But even prior to this particular decision, numerous analysts have been ripping the agency’s enforcement arm for the last few years. Recent scandals surrounding the Shabazz Muhammad and Miami investigations have put more egg on the face of the NCAA, which prodded the league into investigating itself in the miraculous time span of two weeks.
Should Kabongo have been forthcoming with UT compliance officials from the start? Absolutely. But as Bilas and others have reminded us, these 18- to 22-year old kids are thrown into frightening situations where they are questioned without any counsel. These are kids who are playing for no money, only a college education and dreams of making it as a professional athlete. Asking them to handle the stress of a huge institution scrutinizing their possible transgressions is tough enough without also trying to use them as examples to future scallywags when they try to massage the truth in an effort to save face.
As Texas beat writer Mike Finger pointed out this weekend, the Longhorns’ string of 14 consecutive NCAA appearances will likely end because of a $475 plane ride. Kabongo, a kid who was worried about jeopardizing future in which he could make millions, was scared enough to lie about a measly 475 dollars because he might have done something deemed illegal in the NCAA’s arcane rulebook.
It is no secret in the sports world that the NCAA model is a system that is broken in so many different places, it is impossible to even know where to start. There are the issues with enforcement, the gulf between the haves and have-nots, the constant shifting of realignment’s tectonic plates, the debate on pay-for-play…the list never ends. Kabongo’s case is not unique, his problem is far from the biggest one facing college sports, and Texas is certainly not a persecuted victim. But at some point, all of the off-the-court problems, scandals, and distractions take us away from enjoying the game that we all love, the game that brings us all together for five fabulous months every year. When investigations and sanctions earn as many headlines as the contests themselves, some of the magic of college hoops is stripped away.
These are the debates and issues that dominated my thoughts as I watched my 250th consecutive Texas basketball game on Monday. On a night that should have felt like some sort of grand closure to my seven-year journey, a night I should have been swept up in the drama of a back-and-forth game, all I could focus on was how sad it was that none of the effort Texas was putting forth would mean anything. As hard as the Longhorns played and as resilient as they were for forty minutes tonight, nothing that happened between the lines would actually matter. A season that could have been filled with suspense and bubble-sweating and résumé-dissecting and Championship Week pressure was simply over before it even began. Because a college kid made one mistake and compounded it with another, 13 other guys were simply playing for fun from November to March.
There is still the slim chance that Texas could get hot in Kansas City and play its way right in to the NCAAs. The Longhorns had opportunities to prove their worth before Kabongo’s return, and they still have one more week to do the improbable. But after seeing what the Longhorns were capable of with their full roster, it’s a shame Texas fans didn’t get to experience the highs and lows of living on the bubble in February and March. In a thrilling year of college basketball that loudly and undeniably refuted the New York Times’ declaration that the regular season was irrelevant, the Longhorns and their fans had to suffer through a season that never truly mattered.