UNC will be key test for young Longhorns

AUSTIN, Texas -- Rick Barnes sees potential.

Five freshmen, each with a unique talent; a junior guard in J'Covan Brown who is a proven scorer and is becoming a more adept passer every game; and a big man, Clint Chapman, who after three years of watching is now snatching his opportunity ... and rebounds.

“We've shown a lot of things that we can do,” the Texas coach said. “I keep thinking that we have got so much room to improve, it's amazing.”

There is room to improve and then there is the gulf of experience that appears to separate Texas from its next opponent, North Carolina. The No. 6 Tar Heels return much of the team that made the Elite Eight last season before being knocked out by Kentucky.

Texas starts three freshmen, and it could be a long and frustrating learning experience for Barnes' team inside the Dean Dome Wednesday night. But the key is, Texas is learning. Truth be told, this game is not make-or-break for the Longhorns. It's a nonconference test that fits perfectly into the schedule.

Barnes built this schedule with youth in mind, knowing he would have to allow his young players to grow into games such as this one at North Carolina and, later, the Big 12 schedule. Had it not been for a huge second-half collapse against North Carolina State and an overtime loss to Oregon State -- both games away from the Frank Erwin Center -- Texas would be exactly where Barnes wanted it.

As it is, there are indications that the Longhorns are maturing at a rapid rate and getting better play out of certain players who, at this point, were not supposed to be difference-makers. Take Jaylen Bond, for instance.

The freshman had been in a support role for the first couple weeks of the season. He averages just 15 minutes a game. But he is fourth on the team in rebounding and first in rebounds per minute played, and both numbers are rising. Just in the past two games, Bond, a 6-foot-7 forward, has pulled down 20 rebounds.

“What he has done on the boards is exactly what he did when we started preseason practice,” Barnes said. “The last two games he is really starting to do some good things we need from him.”

Bond said that is just part of the maturation process.

“As I get more confident in my offense and defense, I am able to help my team win,” he said.

His offense, more than his rebounding, has been the most surprising aspect of his game in the last two contests.

Bond scored 18 against Nicholls State. It was a season high. In the next game, against Temple, Bond put up 12 points. Many of those were high-percentage putbacks.

Bond said he has always had the ability to read the ball out of shooter's hands and correctly slice for the rebound. That ability should help him as he goes up against the 7-foot Tyler Zeller and 6-foot-11 John Henson when banging the boards at North Carolina.

What could help Texas as a team is the knowledge that while the players in Longhorns uniforms have changed throughout the years, their program does hold a four-game winning streak over the Tar Heels.

“We have beaten them twice in the last couple of years, so I know they are going to come into this game having something to prove,” point guard Myck Kabongo said. “We have something to prove, too.”

What the Longhorns have to prove is that the potential Barnes sees is real.