It's that time again. The weather is changing, leaves are turning, and I'm only running my A/C during the day. Yep, it's almost basketball season, and the 2008 Texas hoops squad is already mixing it up with some of the country's elite programs with a scrimmage vs. Davidson earlier this week and an upcoming unofficial tussle with Gonzaga this weekend. Hopefully the coaches are getting some answers to the questions we'll be discussing in this article.
After a pleasantly surprising 2007 season that ended with an Elite 8 loss to an NBA developmental team, this version of Texas roundball will have to figure out how to answer the bell after losing a superstar to the NBA. While the situation may be similar, the void that Kevin Durant created is entirely different than the void DJ Augustin leaves. I would even argue that DJ Augustin's void will be more difficult to fill, but I'd also say the 2008 Texas team has more material and options to fill it with than last year's group. The problem with the material is that it's raw, inexperienced, and in some instances playing out of position. But we'll get to that. On to the players.
Todd Wright is damn good with any material.
The Ones, Lead Guards, Point Guard by committee, etc....
Justin Mason. Early on, this team will go as Justin Mason goes. Until Dogus Balbay or Varez Ward grow up enough, the lead guard duties will be handed over to the third year starter, jack of all trades, hybrid guard. Unfortunately, Justin will find the ball handling duties much more difficult than his experience with the rock last year. During last year's campaign, ball handling was a bit easier. With Augustin and Abrams on the floor, Justin would draw the opposition's third best perimeter defender which was usually a slower wing forward. Mason's ability to penetrate also benefitted from perimeter oriented personnel that could draw four's and fives away from the bucket with Atchley and James roaming the arc. Well Yesterday's Gone, Yesterday's Gone. JM better be legit with the rock this year. And word on the street is that his ballhandling is much improved. The good news is that we heard the same perimeter improvement whispers about Damion James last year and those prognostications ended up being true.
Backup PG? I don't know. It may be Dogus Balbay it may be Varez Ward. Balbay is most suited to play the 1, but it sounds like either his skills have been exagerrated or Varez Ward and Justin Mason are just War Daddies defensively because they've given him fits in practice. I'm guessing it's a little bit of both. Perhaps it's health as well.
They also say AJ Abrams is a candidate here, but I'm not buying. AJ has been as big as he is all his life. It's not like he just discovered he was 5'11". He's had plenty of time to become a competent ball handler and it hasn't happened. I doubt the light comes on in one summer. Which leads us to Varez Ward. He's an intriguing athlete that will get all up in your shit defensively like a Freddie Williams or Ivan Wagner. With his raw skills however, you need a dynamic 2, 3, and 4 on the floor to pick up the offensive slack. I'm talking a 2 and a 3 that can handle and shoot it, and a 4 that's a competent enough shooter that makes it punitive for zones. Texas, luckily, has that.
Conference Championship contender if...
Balbay can become the bonafide point guard he was touted to be. Keeping Mason off the ball where he's able to stuff stat sheets and terrorize defensively is ideal for this team. Dogus taking the reins also means Texas would have another good passer on the floor to exploit mismatches the Horns should enjoy on the low block. It would also help if Ward was a capable backup to spell the Turk.
Bubble Team Blues if...
Barnes can't find a legitimate option to run the show. If it's point guard by committee and Texas has to resort to hodge podge of Mason, Balbay, and Ward, not only will the perimeter game suffer, but the bludgeoning affect that Texas' bigs can have on opposing squads will suffer as well. A lack of reliable point guard play will also undermine Texas' ability on the defensive end by giving up easy baskets off turnovers. Texas should be able to really guard people with this bunch, and unsteady guard play leading to runouts mitigates that advantage.
An intriguing option Barnes has if he can't find his PG in a timely fashion will be deploying Mason and Abrams in the backcourt and having Damion James be his point forward. It would be a win/win for the program and the player. James should draw weaker perimeter defenders and also showcase his ball handling skills for the League.
Mase needs better ball handling. Yesterday's gone.
The Two's, Shooting Guards, Off Guards, etc.
AJ Abrams. returns his sharp shooting and newfound shot selection patience to the Texas attack after testing the NBA waters. AJ had a couple heat check type stinkers last year, but for the most part the senior guard was good about finding shots in rhythm and within the confines of the offense. I'm anxious to see if the rumors about his newfound handles are true, but as I typed before, I'm skeptical. It's not like he's been playing with his back to the basket for the last 10 years and the light just came on this summer. Speaking of size, it's still a monumental problem for AJ, especially on the defensive end. He'll also find the going much tougher now that DJ Augustin has taken his long range shooting and penetration threat to the NBA. AJ won't get near as many help and recover looks as he got last year. Pray he can stay patient.
Varez Ward. If Texas can get the PG thing solved, Varez could be a valuable stopper against scoring 2's and small 3's. His athleticism and toughness are said to be off the charts. Offensively he's limited, so you better have some shooters on the floor, or plan on running people out of their zone.
Conference Champ if...Abrams is more guard than gunslinger. Just like last year. He'll need to be more dynamic offensively with penetration and passing. Otherwise, give me Mason at the two, and bring in AJ for deep heat off the bench.
Bubble team blues if...this position stays specialized in just shooting the rock. Without a bonafide point guard, the two will have to penetrate, pass, and help out getting the Horns into their stuff offensively.
The Threes, Small Forwards, Wing, Shooting Forwards, etc...
Damion James. He's it. He's the fulcrum. The catalyst. The glue. Insert your favorite sports cliche here. He has to be the do it all hero for this team to go where it wants to go. I want to see him handle and shoot it against mismatched forwards. Triple threat, shot fake, one dribble and rock the rim. Against smaller forwards, he needs to be the athletic glass cleaner on the boards. Keep him out of the paint and let him distribute to our talented bigs when he draws too much attention. He's got to be dynamic and with an all around game. He's in a contract year so I expect he will be.
Gary Johnson. I'd love to see him use his 15 foot-in game in the high post matched up with Chapman and Pittman on the low block. With James roaming the baseline, backside help wouldn't be feasible and downright non-existent. I'm hoping Gary has worked on entering the basketball from the high post. His midrange game and quickness make him an ideal elbow player. Defensively, he'll be a versatile stopper on big wings, and then flip the court and expose them in the high post.
Huck, which one's Damion?
Conference Champ if...James moves one more rung up the ladder and becomes a super star in the mold of KD or DJ.
Bubble team blues...If James hasn't found a legit handle and stays a hybrid 3/4. He needs to pick up DJ's slack.
Connor Atchley. This versatile 6'10" F/C has the unique skillset in that he's a hellacious interior defender but still has the shooting touch to pull interior defenders away from the basket offensively. This isn't a novelty 3 point shooting big man like Brad Lohaus. Connor is actually one of the best defensive big men in the college game. It's like having a true dual threat QB. And Atchley, believe it or not, will be this team's best deterrent against zone. His ability to shoot it allows Texas to play Balbay or Ward and keep 3 legit deep threats on the floor. Outside of James, he's probably the most indispensable player the Horns have.
Alexis Wangmene. Another big that gives the Horns some options off the bench for matchups defensively. Alexis also showed some offensive flashes in the tournament, showing nice touch around the rim. With athletic ability that's off the charts, sky's the limit for him. Alexis will be invaluable guarding athletic big forwards like Blake Griffin.
Dexter Pittman. If you're familiar with last year's write ups, you know I've been pimpin' Big Dex's superstar potential. Watching Kendrick Perkins develop over the last year leaves no doubt in my mind that Dex can be dominant at not only this level of basketball, but at the pro game as well. He's got superior size to Kendrick, better feet, and softer hands. If Dex can continue to mold his body, he'll be a better player than Kendrick. Point blank. In fact, I'll call my shot. Pittman will be first team all conference if he averages over 20 minutes per game this year.
Clint Chapman. He's probably the team's best pure low block player in terms of total package. Clint has size, athletic ability, feet, and skill around the basket. He combines a variety of low post moves with a decent mid range game, and is certainly the most dynamic offensive player Texas has in the paint. If he's gotten stronger, and you know he has with Todd Wright, he's going to be stud. People underrate his ability to run the floor, and I think you'll see him in the game when Texas decides to try to beat teams down the floor.
Conference Champ if...Connor Atchley continues to be a consistent threat from beyond the arc. If Pittman turns his 2007 flashes of dominance into night in and night out consistency. And if Chapman and Wangmene continue to improve.
Look for Barnes to mix and match Pittman, Chapman, and Wangmene's 5 to Atchley's and Johnson's 4. Pittman is the hammer. Chapman/Wangmene the quickness mismatches.
Bubble team blues if...If Texas' inability to handle pressure causes Barnes to use more 3 guard to compensate, which means sliding James to the 4 and Atchley to the 5. The 3 headed monster of Chapman, Pittman, and Wangmene need minutes to do what they do in order for this team to be its most effective.
This will be a fun team to watch as long as Longhorn fans can be patient for the development of the guard situation.
Much like last year this team can be a flexible one, with disparate lineups based on matchups. We could see athletes galore with a Mason, Ward, James, Johnson, Wangmene/Chapman lineup, that can get out and pressure teams defensively in an effort to outrun zones ala Vegas in the early 90's. Or we might see a methodical half court hammer personnel group of Mason, Abrams, James, Atchley, and Pittman with a 4 out 1 in look, to spread out defenses and pound down low. The key is finding someone, if even a committee, to run the show. Like last year...it'll be fun.
Here's to a great season.