By name, it’s a rematch. In reality, it’s a brand-new challenge.
When No. 13 Kansas State faces Texas on Saturday at the Erwin Center, things will be much different than they were a month ago when the Wildcats pummeled the Longhorns 83-57 at Bramlage Coliseum.
The biggest difference: Myck Kabongo.
The sophomore Texas point guard missed that blowout while serving a 23-game suspension for violating NCAA rules, and the Longhorns were unable to live up to preseason expectations without him. Instead of contending for a 15th straight trip to the NCAA Tournament and fighting for a top-half finish in the Big 12, they are suffering through their worst season under longtime coach Rick Barnes.
At 12-14, the only thing that could get them back to the NCAA Tournament is a Big 12 Tournament championship. It’s a long shot, but there is at least a glimmer of hope within the Texas program that such a run is possible, especially if they start building momentum now.
“Everybody struggles at some point in time. Kansas struggled a week ago. Kentucky has struggled. That is just part of it,” Barnes said earlier this week. “We can’t worry about what has happened in the past. We can only worry about what is in front of us … It’s never over until it’s over.”
With Kabongo back, spirits have improved. After all, he was the main reason optimism surrounded the team in preseason practices.
“Texas was a great fastbreak team before Kabongo,” K-State guard Shane Southwell said. “That is always their best offense. Kabongo only boosts that. He likes to get out and get into the fastbreak. He’s he a great point guard, he’s their leader. Any team is going to be better with him on the court.”
Kabongo was one of the best young players in the country his first year on campus, averaging 9.6 points and 5.2 assists while helping the Longhorns win 20 games. He has also made a positive impact as a sophomore. Texas has won two of three since Kabongo’s return, though the 73-47 lossat Kansas was a real clunker.
Still, the Wildcats are expecting a more difficult challenge this time around.
“They are a lot stronger, because Kabongo pushes the ball and he gets to spots where he can help his teammates,” senior guard Rodney McGruder said. “He sucks you in so he can kick the ball out and hit the open man. It’s a different game, but you have to go in with the same mindset, which is confidence going in and being ready to compete. You know the things that Kabongo is good at, you just have to keep him uncomfortable.”
Perhaps the biggest change in Texas is that it now has two players capable of distributing the ball. Freshman Javan Felix showed flashes of brilliance before Kabongo re-joined the team, averaging 7.8 points and five assists.
Now that he is in the same backcourt as Kabongo, the Longhorns are deeper and more versatile. A good example came in Kabongo’s first game back against Iowa State. He fouled out late, but a more rested Felix was able to take charge in overtime and help Texas win.
“It is going to be a harder game, because they have two really good point guards,” Southwell said. “In the Big 12, that is hard to find. Felix is good. I don’t want anyone to think he was just the understudy until Kabongo came back. We are going to have to use the way we played and the energy we used last game if we want to win on the road.”
K-State was motivated in the first game. The Wildcats were coming off back-to-back losses and badly needed something to get them back in the mix for a Big 12 championship.
Motivation won’t be a concern in the rematch, with K-State tied with Kansas atop the standings. But Kabongo makes it a different challenge.
“It’s a huge game for us just to stay in the race,” K-State coach Bruce Weber said. “It’s a winnable game, but it’s not an easy game. You’re going to have to go win it. That is what I just told them. That has got to be their mindset. Fight and scrape and find a way to win.”
The game is on Texas’ network because it was not chosen by ESPN as a national broadcast or by the Big 12 Network as a regional broadcast last summer. All TV revenue from the game will go to Texas.
In the past, football games shown on the Longhorn Network have also been carried by a TV platform of the visiting team’s choosing, but that does not occur in basketball. Texas Tech and TCU also played on the Longhorn Network when they visited Texas earlier this season.