Monday, October 20, 2008

No. 10 Texas: 2008-2009 Team Preview

2007-2008 Team Record: 31-7, 13-3 Big XII (t-1st)

Key Losses: DJ Augustin (19.2 ppg, 5.7 apg)

Key Returnees: AJ Abrams (16.5 ppg, 3.2 3's), Damion James (13.2 ppg, 10.5 rpg), Connor Atchley (9.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 2.1 bpg)

Newcomers: J'Covan Brown, Varez Ward

Texas returns all but one player from the team that won 31 games and shared the Big XII regular season crown. It just so happens that one player was DJ Augustin, who was probably the best point guard in the country last year. Texas will have a huge hole to fill at the one, especially if freshman J'Covan Brown is ineligible all year (right now, he is academically ineligible to even get into UT, but there is still a chance he could enroll in the spring semester).

So the question is, who will run the point for Texas? The obvious answer is AJ Abrams, the undersized (generously listed at 5'11", 161 lb) shooting guard who ran a little bit of point his freshman season before Augustin arrived. That would be great for Abrams' pro potential, especially if he can prove he is able to handle the spot, but it would not be good for the Longhorns' team. He is a great shooter and the leading returning scorer in the Big XII, and losing his spot-up ability and scoring from the wing would be a huge blow to this team.

Another option would be to slide Justin Mason into the point guard role. He is primarily known as a gritty defender and a good rebounder for a guard, but he was second on the team last year in assists with 3.0 ppg (and by a wide margin, although a lot of that had to do with the fact the ball was in Augustin's hands so much). This would allow Texas to go with a very big line-up. Right now, however, it looks like the best option is going to be Turkish point guard Dogus Balbay, who is coming off of knee surgery and will be suspended for the first game of the season (he played in a few games in a pro league in Turkey). Balbay (6'0") is known for his athleticism, quickness, and ability to breakdown a defender down off the dribble, and has a reputation as a guy willing to throw his body around in the paint (be it for rebounds or slashing hard to the rim). The Longhorn's also added late signee Varez Ward. Ward is a prep-schooler from the Patterson School (NC) that is a very good defender and a solid shooter.

Texas doesn't have as many questions about their front line, which will be headlined by Damion James. James is one of those guys with average to above-average skills, but succeeds because of superior athleticism and the simple fact he will out-hustle you. He is a good shooter when he is able to set his feet and square up to the rim, even out to the three point line, but not if he is forced to move (although that improved greatly from his freshman to sophomore year - 9% 3's to 41% 3's). He is not great at creating his own shot, but is tremendous at cutting to the basket or flying in for offensive rebounds and finishing at the rim thanks to his length and athleticism (Draft Express has James listed as fifth in the country for rebounds per 40 minutes). I expect big things out of James this year. Joining James up front is 6'10 senior Connor Atchley (doesn't it feel like he has been there forever?). Atchley's game has developed a lot since he joined Texas. He is a knockdown shooter with NBA range, and is very effective a spotting up off of a pick-and-pop (although a lot of that may have had to do with who he was picking for). Beyond that, his offensive game is very limited, although he is a good athlete and a surprisingly good finisher at the rim. He is also a good defender (bulked up enough to battle in the post, mobile enough to guard face up big men), leading Texas with 2.1 bpg. The front line is pretty deep as well, boasting three guys (junior Dexter Pittman and sophomores Gary Johnson and Alexis Wangmene) that can provide solid minutes. Pittman has great hands, a soft touch, and good feet, but needs to get in shape (listed at 298 lb). Gary Johnson has a great motor and a solid 15 foot jump shot, and Alexis Wangmene is a long, athletic and at the very least five more fouls to give.

Outlook: The core of this Texas team is very talented - Abrams, Mason, James, and Atchley are as good as anyone. But, like last year's team, depth will be the issue, especially at guard as Mason, Abrams, and Augustin were really the only three guys that played (each averaged over 33 mpg, and Texas blew a lot of teams out). With Augustin gone, the Horn's will really need Balbay and Ward to step in and be able to provide quality minutes. I also question how well a team that has played the last two years with the likes of Kevin Durant and DJ Augustin will be able to operate offensively without a go-to player. I mean, the offense the last two seasons has been "give the ball to KD and clear out" or "give the ball to DJ, give him a pick, and cut". How will the players respond? Personally, I think they will be fine as I believe James and Abrams are both primed for big years. Texas will be in for a dogfight with Oklahoma and Baylor (and maybe Kansas) for the Big XII crown.

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