Myck Kabongo of the Texas Longhorns jumps to pass the ball in front of David Wear at LA Sports Arena on December 3, 2011.
Texas is a hard team to get a handle on. This isn't the team that destroyed the star-crossed Tar Heel team of 2010 and then squeaked by last year's squad in Greensboro. In fact, outside of J'Covan Brown and Alexis Wangmeme, there's little you'll recognize about this team at all. Six freshmen get significant placing time, and three start. And the youth shows; this is a group that has feasted on the middling teams they've played, but lost their two biggest games, to Oregon State and N.C. State.
But to discuss Rick Barnes' squad, you have to start with Brown. The 6'1" shooting guard had 21 points against the Heels in 2010 and 10 last year, all off the bench. Now with the exodus of most of his teammates, he's the primary scoring threat. He takes almost a third of the shots when he's on the floor, and he's almost always on the court. He's averaging 19.3 points a game, splitting his shots equally between threes and twos. Ensuring he has a bad game is the first step to getting the Longhorns out of their rhythm. Went the pressure is turned up, you don't want the ball in the hands of their most experienced shooter.
For the second year in a row, Texas starts a freshman point guard, having lost Cory Joseph to the NBA after only one season. He's replaced by Myck Kabongo, a player both Duke and Carolina recruited. He's adapted well, with an assist rate that would impress anyone not horribly spoiled by Kendall Marshall, but turning the ball over one out of every four trips down the court. He's a decent shooter, but only when forced, and his perimeter shooting has been pretty lackluster. His backup, freshman Sterling Gibbs, is even more turnover prone however, so expect to see a lot of Kabongo.
The third member of the backcourt is either Julien Lewis, who typically starts, or Sheldon McClellan, who gets more playing time. Both are freshmen. McClellan is by far the greater offensive threat, with excellent shooting and an incredible talent for holding on to the ball; he rarely turns it over. Lewis is a little rougher but quicker to shoot. He's also more likely to take a three-point shot than any of his teammates.
Texas is a small team, as evidenced by the fact two 6'7" guys start in the frontcourt. Jonathan Holmes is the freshman, a power forward who occasionally drifts out for a three. He's also the most foul-prone member of the team, so Tyler Zeller and John Henson shouldn't have much trouble baiting him into stupid defensive moves. Alexis Wangmeme is the bigger threat, a role player for his first three seasons in Austin. You might recall him abusing the much taller UNC big men on the boards in last year's game, when not plagued by fouls. Expect also to see a lot of Clint Chapmen, the tallest guy on the team and an impressive shot blocker, if rather invisible on offense.
Carolina has to win the interior battle in this game, and do so definitively. Last year's Longhorn tam was also undersized, but still held their own in the paint, and thus got the upset. Texas is going to try to run with UNC to negate their size, which plays into the type of game the Heels like, but they can't come out sluggishly like they have in the past few games. This a young team, but one that doesn't know it's not supposed to win these. Carolina can easily slip up.
One bright point about last year's game. It was probably the first time Kendall Marshall was given time to impress against real competition. In fifteen minutes he had seven points and three assists; a month and half later he was running the point full-time. Strickland too had a great game; if Texas hasn't improved their perimeter defense, the Heels should be able to walk all over this team. This is the game that supposedly distracted them from Appalachian State and Nicholls State; i's time to see what they can do with their full attention.