- Jason King
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Texas coach Rick Barnes knew he'd landed one of the fastest recruits in the country when he signed Canadian point guard Myck Kabongo in the fall of 2010.
Occasionally, though, Kabongo seems almost too fast.
Multiple times this season, the 6-foot-1 freshman has sprinted up the court with the basketball and realized that none of his teammates were there with him. Instead of pulling back and waiting for them to catch up, Kabongo often tried to make things happen all by himself, which usually resulted in an ill-advised shot or a turnover.
"I needed to learn how to slow down and run my team," said Kabongo, chuckling during a phone interview with ESPN.com Tuesday night. "They need me to play great for us to be in games. I understand that now."
Texas has won seven straight games -- all by double digits -- since a pair of early-season losses to Oregon State and North Carolina State. Kabongo is one of the main reasons. The Toronto native is averaging 12.8 points and 6.7 assists in his last six contests, which includes a season-high 18-point effort in Saturday's win over Temple.
Tonight Kabongo will face the toughest test of his career thus far when the Longhorns face No. 6 North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Texas has defeated the Tar Heels the last two seasons, but with a rotation that includes five freshmen and just three experienced players, Kabongo knows he'll have to be at his best if Texas has any hopes of a victory.
"I could try to tell you it's just another game, and it is," Kabongo said. "But at the same time, I'm excited for the opportunity for our team and our guys. It's a chance for us to get better. North Carolina has an NBA front court. It's a great chance for our freshmen to play against guys that are good so we can keep getting better and keep improving.
"I think my guys are ready for it."
That Kabongo refers his teammates as "my guys" says everything you need to know about the freshman's confidence. Junior J'Covan Brown is the Longhorns' top scorer, and Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman are seniors. Still, even when he struggled early, Kabongo said he always viewed this as "his" team. That type of mind set has been missing in the Longhorns' backcourt the past few seasons, which may be one of the reasons Texas hasn't advanced past the second round of the NCAA tournament since 2008.
Kabongo is hopeful that will change this season. Texas lost big leads against Oregon State and North Carolina State in a pair of setbacks at the Legends Classic in New Jersey in mid-November. Frustrating as the losses were, Kabongo said they will benefit a young Texas team in the long run.
The Longhorns lost forward Tristan Thompson and guards Cory Joseph and Jordan Hamilton to the NBA draft, and under-appreciated forward Gary Johnson graduated.
"We're finishing games now," he said. "We know now that teams aren't going to quit playing at this level. In high school, if a team is down by 14 in the fourth quarter, they may just give up. But at this level teams are going to continue to push and push and push."
And when that happens, Kabongo must keep his poise. Barnes certainly wants Kabongo to use his speed to push the ball and beat opposing defenses down the court. But he said Kabongo needs to do a better job of "picking his spots."
Carelessness is a trait almost every freshman point must overcome before becoming a high-level player.
"At first, I was just so excited to be out there playing, that I was trying to make a lot of plays that weren't there," Kabongo said. "I was running the floor and no one was running with me. I have to pace myself so that my teammates are running with me when I'm running. I was pushing the fast break when it wasn't there.As the game slows down, I'm starting to realize when I can go and when I can't."
Statisticians track Kabongo's turnovers during games -- but Barnes began doing it in practice just so Kabongo could see how much his miscues were affecting the team.
"That one possession where you don't execute could come back to haunt you at the end of the game," Kabongo said. "I understand I can't make a lot of poor decisions for us to win."
Especially against the Tar Heels.
30dJeff Goodman and Jeff Borzello
30dJeff Goodman and Jeff Borzello