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Golden: Kai Jones in the NCAA Tournament starting lineup is an upgrade for Texas

Horns open against Abilene Christian

  • Texas plays ACU at 8:50 p.m. Saturday
  • The Horns have won five straight games, including the Big 12 Tournament

Bigger will be better for Texas.

When Shaka Smart benched athletic freshman Greg Brown after the first game of the Big 12 Tournament for the taller and just as athletic Kai Jones, a 6-foot-11 strider who once spent more time on the track than in the gym, the Longhorns found their happy place.

There should be no turning back now.

Jones is the best option moving forward. At this point of their young careers, he's a better player than Brown. He's more mentally tuned in on how to help his team get wins and is more capable of consistently making shots.

The sophomore is on the rise at the right time of the season. He runs like a gazelle, provides a bottomless reservoir of energy and more often than not of late, makes the right decision when a play breaks down.

Texas' Kai Jones is expected to replace freshman Greg Brown in the starting lineup of Saturday's NCAA Tournament opener against Abilene Christian. It would be only his third start this season.

Brown will be a really good pro one day, but he’s better suited coming off the bench as an energy source. He has all-world athleticism, but the game hasn’t slowed down for him in the way that he should be playing in front of Jones. Watching from the bench at the start might benefit him more before he takes the court.

There is no doubt his teammates respect his work ethic and his desire to do great things for the team, but he just hasn’t been able to get out of his own way over the last half of the season, from the careless turnovers to the back-to-back mental flubs — a missed between-the-legs dunk against TCU in the regular-season finale followed by a temper tantrum on the bench in the Big 12 tourney opener against Texas Tech, which played a large role in him sitting the pines the rest of the way and losing his starting job.

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Jones, on the other hand, played with great desperation in the second half against Tech, Smart said. That, along with Brown’s struggles, led to Jones' start in the championship game against Oklahoma State, where he raced out to 11 points in the first six minutes.

Smart said that when he called for a sub to give Jones a rest, the forward said he was fine and didn’t want to come out. He finished off the biggest night of his career with a dunk in the final seconds off a feed from Jericho Sims to cap the first Big 12 Tournament title in school history.

He's a huge part of Texas' five-game winning streak, from his ability to make things happen on both ends to his positive energy on the bench.

“I’m so glad we were able to finish off that way,” Jones told reporters after the title game. “It feels like a dream, to be honest with you. It doesn’t feel real.”

Texas forward Greg Brown, left, and teammate Kai Jones battle for the rebound against Oklahoma forward Victor Iwuakor during their game in Austin in January. Jones stepped into the starting lineup during Texas' Big 12 Tournament championship run.

Jones for Brown wasn’t exactly a Wally Pip moment, but Jones has to be starting if the Horns are to maximize one of the deepest rotations in the tournament. They’re simply bigger and better when he’s on the court.

If Jones does start on Saturday against Abilene Christian, it will be his third start of the season. In those first two — wins over UT-Rio Grande Valley and the Big 12 title game against Oklahoma State — he scored 28 points on 11-of-14 shooting with 28 rebounds in only 41 minutes of action.

He has had a few problems with turnovers at times when he's tried to do too much, but he is efficient in other areas like field goal percentage, where his 57.2% accuracy is second only to Jericho Sims on the roster. He’s also second on the team behind Courtney Ramey in 3-point shooting percentage (39.6) among players who have appeared in 20 games or more.

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If anything, Jones’ reliability gives Smart more flexibility in his rotations with his ability to play multiple positions and guard them as well.

“We believed coming into the season that we had six starters,” Smart said. “It’s just the way those guys practiced and (played) in the preseason. We’ve believed that all year long. I think when (Jones) plays with that incredible spirit and energy, he’s going to be one of the best guys on the court.”

Abilene Christian’s offense goes through 7-foot center Kolton Kohl —  who can get his points in the paint but is also adept at stepping out and shooting a midrange jumper — and 6-8 forward Joe Pleasant, who also has a nice inside-out game. Jones will be able to guard both, giving Smart other options in the lineup and possibly helping keep Sims out of foul trouble, a critical factor in this team's success.

Neither Kohl nor Pleasant is a terror on the boards — they average a combined 10.2 rebounds per game — but they are big enough to cause problems, plus they will bring some tournament experience to the proceedings after playing 13 minutes each in a 79-44 first-round tourney loss to Kentucky in 2019.

The Horns can make some noise in this year's tournament, not only because of their talented guards but also because they have length on the defensive end with Jones, the 6-10 Sims and the 6-9 Brown. You can definitely expect Smart to play those three together when he wants to ramp up the interior pressure on defense or when one of the guards hits a dry spell or finds himself in foul trouble.

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Like Smart has said, Brown’s best days will come when he’s earning an NBA paycheck, but he can still be an asset if his mental game can somehow catch up to his physical gifts. For the moment, Jones gives Texas more in a team sense than Brown, who is still searching for his basketball balance.

It all adds up to bigger being better.