2008-09 Texas Basketball Preview: #2
Overall Rank: #2
Conference Rank: #1 Big 12
2007-08: 31-7, 13-3, 1st
2007-08 postseason: NCAA
No team in the Big 12 returns as much talent as Texas. But it is the talent that is not returning that has Longhorn fans worried. Point guard D.J. Augustin split for the NBA and that leaves some questions in the backcourt. However, as long as Coach Rick Barnes can find a serviceable replacement at the point, the Longhorns have a ton of other players ready to step up and play a much bigger role this year.
Augustin was not just a point guard. He led the team with 19.2 points per game, hit the outside shot with consistency and was never afraid to drive the lane. On many teams his point production would not be replaceable, but that is not the case with Texas. What this team needs to worry about is replacing his leadership. Little used J.D. Lewis and Ian Mooney are the only other departures.
Matt Hill and Dogus Balbay were out with injuries last year and are expected to play some quality minutes this time around. Hill, a 6-10 forward, has struggled with a foot injury since his freshman campaign. However, during that freshman year in 2006-2007, Hill showed plenty of potential and is a solid rebounder and defender. Balbay could play a much more important role on this team. He is really the only true point guard on the roster and he would have been Augustin’s backup last year if it were not for a knee injury that kept his on the sidelines. That experience would have been huge, but instead Balbay has absolutely no collegiate playing time. What Balbay does have is international experience. He had a great tournament for Turkey over the summer at the U-20 European Championships. If he is ready to go, Texas will have the true point guard they are looking for. The lone incoming freshman on the roster is Varez Ward. Ward is a tough player who could see minutes on the wing this year due to his defensive tenacity.
Who to Watch:
While Balbay adjusts to life in the Big 12, the point guard duties will fall to returning starters on the wing, A.J. Abrams and Justin Mason. Neither are true point guards, but at least they are experienced. Abrams does not lack the quickness to run the point. Last year Abrams averaged 16.5 points and hit over three three-pointers per contest. Whether he is running the show or not, Abrams will be the team’s go-to-scorer. Mason was the do-it-all player on the wing last year. The 6-2 guard averaged 7.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.1 steals. It is those 3.0 assists that make him an interesting prospect to take over the point guard duties. He may not look very natural doing it, but Mason can handle the ball and bring it up the floor in a hurry. Compared to Augustin, the trio of Balbay, Abrams and Mason will look like inexperienced and inept floor generals, but those three will handle the bulk of the minutes on the perimeter and have more than enough talent to turn the Texas backcourt into one of the best in the country.
The frontcourt will be one of the best in the nation as well. Abrams might be the star of the team, but Damion James will not be far behind. The 6-7 wing averaged 13.2 points as a sophomore. James will use his size to shoot over the opposition and he hit 41.3 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc. However, he is not just a shooter; James will get to the basket very effectively. If he could actually hit some free-throws his scoring output would be noticeable higher. But it is not his offense that makes James so good, or even his ability to block shots. James tallied 10.3 rebounds per game and is an absolute beast on the glass. Sophomore Gary Johnson could step into the starting lineup. He is a little undersized for a power forward, but the 6-6 sophomore is just waiting for the opportunity to become a major contributor to the team. After missing some time with a heart condition and being slowed with some other injuries, Johnson never hit his stride as a freshman. That will not happen again. The center spot belongs to Connor Atchley. He is not flashy, but the 6-10 big man is certainly productive. With Clint Chapman, Dexter Pittman and Alexis Wangmene, the Longhorns have a ton of options in the frontcourt.
Projected Post-season Tournament: NCAA
Projected Starting Five:
Justin Mason, Junior, Guard, 7.1 points per game
A.J. Abrams, Senior, Guard, 16.5 points per game
Damion James, Junior, Forward, 13.2 points per game
Gary Johnson, Sophomore, Forward, 5.6 points per game
Connor Atchley, Senior, Center, 9.5 points per game