Historically speaking, the Texas Basketball season doesn't officially begin until the football team concludes its regular season at the end of November. And then came Rick Barnes. If you've been paying attention, the 2007 Runnin' Horns season gets started in earnest in less than two weeks vs. the Fightin' Roadrunners of Texas San Antonio. But considering the departure of the most exciting player in Texas basketball history, it's going to be tough for the average Horn hoops fan to get as excited about this season as he or she was about last year's squad. Metaphorically speaking, last year was like enjoying a wild night of partying with Jessica Alba only to find a note in the morning that reads, "Had a great time, hope we can still be friends." At the risk of overextending the metaphor, the fact we partied with Jessica increases the likelihood that we can hook up with her hot friends. And if this year's recruiting is any indication, we have. But I digress.
Better to have loved and lost?
To be sure Kevin Durant's predictable jump to the NBA will leave a huge void in this year's Longhorn club, but I'm here to tell you, this group will be exciting not only this year but especially in the future. It will be a struggle at first, but as soon as established players take on more responsibility and the newcomers find and accept their roles, we'll be in for one heckuva ride.
The Ones, Lead Guard, Point Guard, etc....
DJ Augustine returns as one of the top 5 point guards in the nation. His ability to create shots for other players, knock down the open 3, and finish in the lane despite his size give him the unique skillset of a lead guard instead of the classic drive and distribute point guard. And thank God for it. This team will need more Jameer Nelson and less Chris Corciani out of the position with the departure of Durant.
Backup PG? DJ was set to be spelled by freshman newcomer Dogus Balbay, a 6'1" slashing three star prospect who would much rather get to the rim than shoot from the perimeter to score. Unfortunately, a knee injury appears to have derailed the chances of Barnes having a bonafide backup point guard to run the show. It's a position that will once again be filled by stop-gap options AJ Abrams or Justin Mason. Can the "shoot first ask questions later" two guard and/or a defensive minded tweener distribute and handle enough to provide legitimate rest for Augustin? We'll see...
Tournament contender if...
Augustin takes to his role as a first option and leader of the team. He doesn't necessarily need to score every night, but he'll need to identify games when scoring is a priority or distributing is key. Regardless of the game and situation, the offense will flow through him and he'll have to dictate tempo for the Horns to be successful.
Bubble Team Blues if...
Barnes can't find a legitimate option to spell Augustin. It was evident that DJ hit a wall last year, and it's critical that the coaching staff find a player and/or personnel set to preserve some of Augustin's energy. If one single player like Mason or Abrams can't protect the basketball and distribute for 5 minutes a half, smaller lineups and 3 guard personnel might be needed to share the load.
There's no Rodney Monroe's ice to Corchiani's fire on this team. DJ will have to score the ball for the Horns to be successful.
The Two's, Shooting Guards, Off Guards, etc.
AJ Abrams returns his 15 ppg. and 42% 3 point shooting to a Longhorn squad that will need every bit of his scoring this year. However, instead of a gunslinger's 7-20, give us an efficient 6-13 with a couple of bombs coming within the confines of the offense. We know you feel it, partner, you always feel it. AJ needs to forget the one pass catch and shoot heat check and enter the post or reverse the basketball every now and then. His shot selection is not only the key for the Horns to be more efficient in replacing Durant's production, but it's vital in keeping a young frontcourt involved at all times.
Justin Mason. I'll list Justin here as he'll be called upon to provide backcourt size and ballhandling reponsibility in 3 guard personnel or when Augustin or Abrams aren't on the floor. With Balbay's injury, Mason might be the most important player not named DJ Augustin. He'll need to guard scorers, rebound when Texas goes 3 guards, and shoot the ball well enough to provide Texas that much needed 3rd scoring option elite teams possess. That's asking a bunch.
Tournament contender if...Abrams is more guard than gunslinger. With great passers like James and Augustin on the floor, it's imperative that players aren't "settling" for average looks early in the shot clock. If you're Barnes you hate to put any kind of constraints on your best shooter, but Abrams needs to know that you can get the open 22 footer at just about any point in the possession, especially when you consider Augustin's ability to create.
Bubble team blues if...Justin Mason regresses into an offensive liability. Mason will have to provide perimeter scoring after Durant's departure. Mason's ability to hit open looks will keep teams from zoning or playing junk defenses designed to limit Augustin's production.
The Threes, Small Forwards, Wing, Shooting Forwards, etc...
I'll put Damion James here although I'll consider him a perimeter-minded 4 until I see more from him. He's quick enough to get to the rim against bigger defenders, but unless he's improved his range and ball handling considerably from last year, he's not what I would call a true wing player. His passing ability is terrific, though, especially when he's entering the low post from the high post or wing. James' skills certainly give Barnes some options in sets designed to run the offense through someone other than Augustin, thus taking some pressure off of the point guard. If James can hit the open 15 footer consistently, look out. I'm from Missouri on his range outside of that.
Justin Mason. Once again. He'll be more of third guard in certain matchup situations, but he'll need to rebound from this spot, more than likely out of a zone. His ability to play here gives Barnes the flexibility to move James to the 4 if he's forced to do so.
Tournament contender if...James develops into a legit perimeter shooter. Not only would it dissuade teams from zoning Texas it opens up all kinds of possibilities on set plays, especially given James' passing prowess.
Bubble team blues...If James is a 4 man posing as a 3 it'll put tremendous pressure on an injury depleted Texas backcourt that could result in DJ Augustin wearing down and/or AJ Abrams forcing shots.
The Fours, Big Forwards, Power Forwards, etc...
Gary Johnson. From day one Gary should be a fan favorite because of his tenacity and passion for the game. His ability to rebound and defend will be a much needed shot in the arm for a Texas program considered to be more of a finesse team in recent years. Johnson's potential to impact a game without needing the basketball will fit in well with a group that already has 3 legit scorers in its starting lineup. Gary can get his points on second chance put backs and trash buckets, but he's also good enough around the basket to be a legitimate scoring option instead of a source of help-side defense.
Alex Wangmene. This big, strong aircraft carrier of a power forward should provide much needed defense and rebounding depth backing up Johnson as events dictate. He's athletic and long enough (sorry Jay Bilas) to get second chance points around the bucket but still not polished enough at this point in his career to be a bonafide interior scoring option. He'll be called on to defend, rebound, and shotblock. I expect to see him on the floor with other interior scoring threats like Atchley and James, and doubt you'll see him on the floor with Johnson as a 4/5 tandem.
Tournament contender if...Johnson lives up to his billing as being a warrior and rebounding/defensive force on the interior. If James can take on more of a perimeter role then Johnson's skills will be a perfect compliment.
Bubble team blues if... Johnson loses minutes to James because Damion can't be a force outside of the paint. Simply put, James needs to be more dynamic for Johnson to be the impact player everyone expects.
The Fives, Centers, Posts, Big Men...
Junior Connor Atchley comes into his junior year needing to take the proverbial next step. Again, the theme is replacing Kevin Durant's scoring, and outside of Damion James, Connor packs the biggest potential scoring punch on the interior for this Longhorn club. Atchley's shooting skills have been highly touted the past 3 years, but haven't quite translated into real game production. His ability to defend and rebound are more than adequate, especially if he's providing a legit scoring threat from the perimeter and not Manut Bol novelty range. If Connor can be a difference maker shooting the basketball, Barnes can keep non-scoring lunch-pale guys like Johnson or Wangmene on the floor with James, even if Damion isn't shooting consistently. If Connor can't find the range, Barnes may be forced to go to a more athletic interior that relies on offensive rebounding to score.
Dexter Pittman. It remains to be seen if the big guy can play extended minutes to really be a difference maker on the interior. In certain game matchup situations, Pittman can be a nice low-post presence given his size and surprisingly soft touch around the basket. Again, conditioning is the key for Dexter and the major determining factor in him being more than just a spot player.
Could Pittman be a difference maker?
Tournament contender if...Connor Atchley is a consistent threat from beyond the arc. His shooting could mean the difference between the Horns fielding a mediocre perimeter attack and having a dynamic "one in, four out" shooting machine. It is not beyond the realm of possibility for the Horns to be able to put four shooters and Gary Johnson on the floor at any given time, and not give up much on the glass or defensively. That's huge.
Bubble team blues if...Atchley disappears from game to game like he did last year. If Barnes is forced to decrease Atchley's minutes in exchange for more interior oriented players like Wangmene and Pittman, it puts that much more pressure on James to be a perimeter force.
This will be a fun team to watch as long as Longhorn fans can be patient. It will be exciting rooting for kids like Wangmene, Chapman, and Johnson to grow into their roles, and hoping established players like Augustin, Atchley, Mason, and James take on expanded responsibilities after the departure of Durant. The good news is that this team will be appreciably better come March than it is in December, with a trend line much steeper than last year's bunch.
This team can also be a much more flexible squad than last year's group if the established players can start to realize their potential. Players like James, Atchley, Augustin, and Johnson have unique skill-sets that should allow Barnes the flexibility to attack teams a number of ways based on matchups. If potential is realized, he can employ four shooters without giving up much defense and rebounding, or he can field a bang and board group that can guard when the matchup dictates. Ofcourse, all of this will be determined by that old coach killer "potential". Either way, it should be a fun year.
Here's to a great season.