Few victories this season will be more bittersweet than Texas' 85-67 rout of No. 23 North Carolina on Wednesday night.
On the one hand, the Longhorns emerged from a season-long skid with a signature victory that proves they can succeed without standout point guard Myck Kabongo. On the other hand, they learned immediately following the game that they'll have to get accustomed to playing that way.
The NCAA will suspend Kabongo for the rest of the season because the sophomore gave inaccurate information to NCAA investigators when he was interviewed, according to a report from my Yahoo! Sports colleagues Pat Forde and Adrian Wojnarowski. The investigation centered on whether Kabongo received impermissible benefits from agent Rich Paul.
Texas coach Rick Barnes hinted that the Longhorns will appeal the suspension after Wednesday's game, telling reporters, "There’s a process that every athlete goes through, and that process is not done." Unless the NCAA shows unexpected leniency and reduces the season-long suspension, however, the Longhorns will have to attempt to salvage this season with their leader watching from the bench.
Until the North Carolina game, there were virtually no signs Texas was capable of that.
A disastrous opening six weeks of the season began with the humiliation of getting blown out by Division II Chaminade in the opening round of the Maui Invitational. It continued with a loss to struggling USC in Maui and a turnover-laden 41-point performance in a loss to Georgetown. And it culminated with squandering a late lead against UCLA inside a near-empty Reliant Stadium in Houston.
Some of the reasons Texas has struggled aren't related to Kabongo's absence: The young big men expected to replace the production of Clint Chapman in the paint have done a serviceable job defensively and on the glass but have struggled to provide much low-post scoring.
Other problems the Longhorns have experienced are directly related to not having Kabongo: With freshman Jevan Felix running the offense and no other point guards on the roster, Texas is 249th in the nation in assists per game (11.7) and commits an ugly 17.4 turnovers per game, by far the worst in the Big 12.
What changed against North Carolina was Texas did a better job taking care of the ball, only turning it over a more respectable 13 times. They also continued to defend well, pushed the ball in transition and got 15 points from 6-foot-7 forward Jonathan Holmes to help take some of the scoring pressure off the backcourt.
Whether the progress was more about Texas improving or North Carolina's lackluster defense will be the lingering question until the Longhorns visit Michigan State on Saturday.
Texas hadn't shown anything in recent weeks to suggest it was capable of keeping Rick Barnes' streak of never missing the NCAA tournament alive. But with the sorry state of the Big 12 behind Kansas these days and the success of the Longhorns Wednesday night, there should be at least a glimmer of hope in Austin — even without Kabongo.
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