AUSTIN – More than two dozen NBA scouts and executives gathered inside the Erwin Center on Tuesday night to watch Texas and Michigan battle. The main attraction, besides various “Star Wars” characters wandering around on a promotional night dedicated to the ubiquitous franchise: 6-foot-11 freshman Mo Bamba.
Widely regarded as a top-five pick in the 2018 draft, the Harlemite has been the Longhorns’ main source of intrigue all season. And with sophomore guard Andrew Jones (fractured wrist) out through at least Christmas, all eyes were focused squarely on Bamba.
Those next-level decision makers likely left scratching their heads after an underwhelming, occasionally listless performance by the Longhorns (6-3) in a 59-52 loss to Michigan (9-3).
Bamba certainly had moments worthy of a future lottery pick. A soaring alley-oop finish early in the second half. Four blocked shots and a handful of others altered. He grabbed 10 rebounds and picked up only one foul.
But Bamba also struggled to establish position in the post and, despite the block total, wasn’t in typical form early on as a game-changing defensive presence. On several occasions, Wolverines guards challenged and went under, around or through Bamba and his 7-9 wingspan. He finished with 10 points on 4-of-10 shooting.
Eight games into his college career, it’s clear Bamba is still adapting and adjusting to this level’s amplified physicality. And it speaks to his potential that a double-double is considered an “off night.”
“In the high school game, you’re not playing against 6-10, 200-and-whatever pound guys,” Bamba said. “But that’s one thing that we have the liberty of practicing against. We’ve got to go up against D.O. and James (Banks) and Jericho (Sims) every day in practice. So, when it becomes game time it becomes a little bit easier. But I’ve got to keep an aggressive mindset and keep attacking.”
UT mostly adhered to the same maddening script as its star. A few competent stretches – notably an 11-2 run early in the second half to cut Michigan’s lead to three – were invariably followed by prolonged, frustrating periods of cold-shooting and too much dribbling.
With its leading scorer sidelined, UT was forced to rely more than ever on the rest of its stable of guards. Aside from Kerwin Roach (11 points, six rebounds), the results were not encouraging.
Point guard Matt Coleman scored five points on six shots and dished two assists. Eric Davis, starting in Jones’ place, missed all five of his shots and finished with one point. Eric Young added five points and Jase Febres was yanked in the first half after playing just two minutes.
“I didn’t like the look on his face,” Shaka said of Febres, a 6-5 freshman from Houston. “I need him to be more aggressive. With that being said, he’s a guy, that we need to play more.
“Jase, Jacob, Eric, those guys are guys that are going to be able to come in and contribute for our team. And they can. But whatever it is that we plan to go out and do, they’ve got to grit their teeth and say, ‘OK, this is what we’re going to go do.’ And if they’re not effective doing it the first time, they can’t get away from doing it the next time.”
Still, thanks to a stingy second-half defensive performance and another standout showing by junior forward Dylan Osetkowski (17 points), UT nearly rallied back from a 14-point deficit with eight minutes remaining.
But those same mistakes – untimely turnovers, a stagnating offense, defensive lapses – reared their collective head and doomed the Longhorns to a loss.
Texas missed eight of its first nine shots and finished shooting 35.3 percent from the field and 25 percent on 3-pointers. Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman led Michigan with 17 points and 10 rebounds, and Charles Matthews added 12 points and eight boards. As a team, Michigan out-rebounded Texas, 40-31, and finished with two more points in the paint.
“We knew we would have to step up on the offensive end with ‘Drew out,” Osetkowski said. “As a collective unit, we’ve got to be a whole lot better than that. It’s tough to win a game scoring 52. It’s doable with a defensive team like we have, but I think collectively we’ve just got to be a lot better.”
All those scouts who traveled to Austin would probably agree.