AUSTIN, Texas -- After putting his young team through a grueling, three-hour practice, Texas coach Rick Barnes sat in a chair next to mine and watched a few players hoist extra shots. Barnes is funny and good-natured when he's not coaching. (When I asked him over lunch earlier in the day if he considers himself a "young" 57, he replied, "Oh, yeah. You think I'm pretty, don't you?") But during practice he can be tough, exacting, ornery and flat-out mean.
So I mentioned to Barnes that I thought it fitting that he was dressed in black from head to toe, including his socks and shoes. Barnes shrugged it off by saying he had gotten those shoes because he was having problems with his feet, and that he just happened to grab that black long-sleeved shirt, and that the black shorts were actually his yoga pants. Finally, he flashed me his familiar, Dr. Evil grin and said, "You know what Johnny Cash used to say when someone told him he was dressed like he was going to a funeral? 'Maybe I am.'"
It was a felicitous analogy given how many experts (cough, cough) are burying the Longhorns before they have played their first game. This is a proud program, but it is clearly in rebuilding mode. The Longhorns lost six of their top eight scorers -- and their entire starting five -- from the team that went 28-8 and lost by one point to Arizona in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Three of those starters (junior Jordan Hamilton and freshmen Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph) were underclassmen who entered the NBA Draft. That has left Barnes with just nine scholarship players, six of whom are freshmen, and only one of whom (junior guard J'Covan Brown) is a proven commodity.
Still, don't expect the Man in Black to deliver a premature eulogy. When I told Barnes that after watching his team practice I figured Texas would win some games they shouldn't this season but also lose some games they shouldn't, he shook his head sharply. "We're not gonna lose games we shouldn't," he said. "I'm telling you, you can't let 'em think that way. We're never going to lower the bar here. I promise you we want to win the national championship."
Suffice to say, the Longhorns are a longshot to win the NCAA title. On the other hand, their backcourt tandem of Brown and 6-foot-1 freshman point guard Myck Kabongo will be as good as there is in the Big 12. Brown was a de facto sixth starter last season, having averaged more minutes than point guard Dogus Balbay and finishing as the team's fourth-leading scorer. While Brown only competed for part of the practice that I watched because of a tender ankle, I can tell you from the work he did put in that his shot looks better than ever. He gets it off quickly and makes almost everything. There's no doubt he's headed for a big-time year.
Kabongo, on the other hand, will be a work in progress, but his potential is obvious. A native of Toronto who played for two of the top American prep programs in St. Benedict's in New Jersey and Findlay Prep in Nevada, Kabongo is a former McDonald's All-American who has come to Austin amid considerable hype. He is an absolute blur with the basketball, but Barnes thinks Kabongo needs to learn to slow down a little. "He's as fast as anyone we've ever had with the ball, but he needs to learn not to always play at full throttle," Barnes said.
So there's no question Brown and Kabongo have talent. The bigger concern with those two is chemistry. Brown willingly admits that during his first two years in Austin, he frequently rubbed people the wrong way with his attitude and body language. "When I was a freshman, everyone kept saying, what's wrong with you? My answer was always, 'I don't know,'" he said. Texas strength coach Todd Wright told me that he has thrown Brown out of the weight room a few times "because he'd come in here and not look like he wants to work." Wright now says Brown has undergone "one of the largest transformations of any young man I've ever coached," but Brown still doesn't sound like he's ready to embrace the notion that this is "his" team. When I asked if he was ready to assume the role of leader, Brown replied, "Yes, but I still have to have help." During practice, he hardly made a peep.
Kabongo, meanwhile, had no problem pronouncing himself the Longhorns' alpha male. He was deferential to Brown, whom he described as "everyone's big brother," but he also added, "I'm not hesitant at all [to assert leadership]. I'm always willing to talk. That's a point guard's job."
If you read that quote, you might think Kabongo is cocky and obnoxious, but the opposite is true. The kid oozes charisma. "He's a real charming cat -- and it's genuine," said assistant coach Rob Lanier. Kabongo has a firm handshake, makes great eye contact, offers an easy smile, and he lights up a room with his good cheer. On the practice court he was a nonstop chatterbox, even when he wasn't in a drill. At one point, when Barnes chastised some players for failing to communicate, Kabongo shouted from the sidelines, "That's why you guys gotta talk to each other! Talk!"
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."
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.