Postcard from Texas (Cont.)
So it will be interesting to see how Brown and Kabongo work together. The rest of Barnes' incoming class includes three other players who were ranked in the top 100 of their class by Rivals.com, but none of those guys strike me as one-and-done. (Then again, neither did Cory Joseph.) Barnes and his staff have assembled another top-flight group for next season, so if they can keep Brown and the freshmen in Austin another year, the Longhorns will be a championship contender in 2012-13.
In the meantime, don't expect Barnes to permit a funereal atmosphere. The Man in Black has a big heart and he has never been one to enshroud himself with gloom. "This is what's fun," he told me after practice. "Teaching. Coaching. Working with young guys. If I had to come in every day and do the same thing, I would have quit a long time ago." Waving a hand toward the court, Barnes smiled and added, "I'm telling you, I could do this all night."
Heart and soul: Brown. Despite my misgivings about Brown's leadership, there is no question he is this team's tone setter. Brown has shown he can be an explosive scorer in big games; last season he went for 20 points against UConn, 23 at Kansas and 23 in the NCAA tourney loss to Arizona. Kabongo will have the ball in his hands more, but much of the Longhorns' offense will run through Brown, whom Barnes called a "brilliant" player. "He's in the best shape he's ever been in," Barnes said. "He's the only guy who has proved himself when the light goes on. We've got one guy."
Most improved: Clint Chapman, 6-10 senior forward. With only three returning players, there weren't a lot of candidates for this category. This time last year, Chapman was so far behind that he took a redshirt in what was supposed to be his senior season. Clearly he will have more opportunity to play this year, and while Chapman will never be the toughest dude in the gym, he does have a nice skill set for his size. If Chapman can give Texas 10 to 12 quality minutes up front -- so Barnes doesn't have to wear out his freshmen -- that will be a huge plus.
X factor: Jaylen Bond, 6-7 freshman forward. Recruiting is like golf: Often times, it's better to be lucky than good. In this case, Barnes is extremely lucky to be coaching a player he barely saw in high school. Bond originally signed with Pittsburgh but asked out of his letter after Jamie Dixon signed 6-9 McDonald's All-American Khem Birch. Barnes's new assistant, Rob Lanier, had seen Bond play while Lanier was working at Florida, so they added the kid to the roster at Texas this fall. From a purely physical standpoint, Bond is the most ready among the freshmen to compete in the Big 12. He's rugged and sturdy, and he appears to like contact. He's not as explosive as Tristan Thompson, but Barnes said Bond is a much better offensive player than Thompson was at the same stage. For what Texas does and needs, Bond is an excellent piece.
Glue guy: Alexis Wangmene, 6-7 senior forward. Wangmene provides two things Texas lacks: experience and strength. On the other hand, he doesn't have much by way of offensive skills and he has shown a penchant for fouling. In a best-case scenario, Wangmene's minutes will decline as the season wears on and the freshmen get their sea legs. For however long it takes for the young guys to mature, Wangmene will be called upon to hold down the fort inside.
Lost in the shuffle: Sterling Gibbs, 6-1 freshman guard. With only nine scholarship players, Texas doesn't have much of a shuffle, but Gibbs did not strike me as an immediate impact player. He's not particularly big or athletic, and he didn't knock down many outside shots. With Brown and Kabongo warranting 30 to 35 minutes per game, and with freshman guards Julien Lewis and Sheldon McClellan looking more polished, it will be tough for Gibbs, the younger brother of Pitt guard Ashton Gibbs, to crack the rotation.
It's great that Barnes has set a high bar -- it's what makes him so good -- but I would caution Texas fans to match those high aspirations with low expectations. Texas should feel it can win any game it plays, but it's asking too much for such a thin, young roster to mount a run at a Big 12 championship, much less an national one. I think there's enough talent here to get to the NCAA tournament. Anything beyond that would be pure, orange-colored gravy.