Rick Barnes is happy. Thanks to the most depth he's had since his Final Four team in 2003, Barnes has got a bunch of players who will get their hands dirty, their noses bloody and set some cinder block screens. He's got guys who will look other team's best player and shrug. In short, he's got attitude and experience.
Not that he hasn't been happy the last few seasons. He loves having freaky scorers like Kevin Durant and fearless point guards like D.J. Augustin. But he just plain and simply loves having a nasty team that will bang, intimidate and overwhelm with defensive pressure and intensity.
"We've got a chance to be a really good defensive team," Barnes said Monday of a team ranked No. 7 by the Associated Press and No. 8 by the coaches. "If we need to this season, we'll be able to beat some teams up physically."
Anyone who knows Barnes knows he is never truly content until he walks onto the floor with some serious bad asses, willing to mix it up and make the other team sit in the locker room after a game wondering what hit them.
While Augustin has moved on, Barnes feels he's got all the toughness and leadership he needs to stifle one of the most daunting schedules in the country. That list includes games against six opponents in the regular season who are ranked in the Top 25:
No. 4 UCLA (Dec. 4 in Austin)
No. 7 Michigan State (Dec. 20 in Houston)
No. 14 Oklahoma (Jan. 12 in Norman, Feb. 21 in Austin)
No. 21 Wisconsin (Dec. 23 in Madison)
No. 23 Kansas (Feb. 7 in Lawrence)
No. 25 Villanova (Dec. 9 in New York City).
The Longhorns could also face No. 1 North Carolina and No. 9 Notre Dame during the EA Sports Maui Invitational (Nov. 24-26).
Texas opens the 2008-09 season with a home game against Stetson on Friday, Nov. 14. Tip is set for 7 p.m. at the Frank Erwin Center.
Gone is Augustin, the All-American and Bob Cousy Award winner as the nation's top point guard last season. Gone are his 19.2 points and 5.8 assists per game. More importantly, gone is Augustin's decision-making in the final four minutes of close games.
Augustin had become UT's equivalent to Mariano Rivera. Give him the ball late in a nail-biter and let him close it out. But Barnes feels good about the decision-making of Justin Mason and A.J. Abrams and backup point guard Dogus Balbay running the offense. (Balbay will miss the season opener as punishment from the NCAA for playing on a club team in Turkey with players who accepted money. Balbay said he was not paid.)
"A.J. and Mason are going to be just fine," said Barnes, who probably rips the rearview mirror out of his cars because he never looks back.
He likes the improved confidence of forward/center Connor Atchley and the progress of Damion James on the perimeter. And until sophomore forward Gary Johnson sprained an ankle two weeks ago, Johnson was practicing at a high level at power forward.
But the player who has captivated Barnes' attention in preseason workouts is the team's only freshman - guard Varez Ward. Barnes thinks Ward is the latest in the long line of junkyard dogs - in the tradition of Mason, Royal Ivey and Fredie Williams. Barnes always has a soft spot for the overachieving, fearless defender with unlimited toughness.
"I think we found one," Barnes said.
The best example came last Saturday in a scrimmage Texas had in Austin against Davidson College and star guard Stephen Curry, who averaged 25.9 points per game and helped Davidson reach the Elite Eight last season.
"Varez stood in there with Curry," Barnes said. "He didn't back down for a second. Varez has a chance to be really good."
Based on my conversation with Barnes and other members of the Texas basketball staff, here is how this year's team is shaping up heading into its second scrimmage Saturday in Denver against Gonzaga.
G A.J. Abrams, 5-11, 161, Sr. - Coaches couldn't be happier with Abrams' attitude. There was initial concern when he declared for the NBA Draft, saying he needed to play the point for his future at the next level. There has been no tension between Abrams and Barnes. In fact, Abrams is an extension of Barnes on the court because he knows all five positions and can get guys spaced correctly. Abrams, Mason, James and Atchley have also exuded great leadership. Barnes says Abrams has one of the highest basketball IQs he's ever coached.
G Justin Mason, 6-2, 194, Jr. - Barnes can't remember Mason ever having a bad day in practice. He just loves Mason's fearless attitude and swagger. Mason picked up a lot of confidence and momentum at the end of last season, running the point in critical games at the end of the Big 12 season to give Augustin a break. Mason was also the best at breaking down the defense and getting to the rim in the loss to Memphis in the Elite Eight. He loves the challenge. It will be hard for Barnes to get him off the floor.
G/F Damion James, 6-7, 222, Jr. - Coaches like what they're seeing from James, who has asked to be on the second-team defense in practices so he can get experience chasing players like Mason and Abrams through screens. James has spent hours working on his ball-handling, his outside shooting and driving to the basket. He still needs work on his decision-making on offense. But the coaches are pleased with his commitment to defending smaller players on the perimeter - a must under Barnes. James just needs to be balanced on his outside shots and not rush, and the coaches will give him the green light. He and Atchley finished with the highest 3-point shooting percentage on the team last season (.413). James proved moving to the perimeter last season won't keep him from hunting rebounds. He averaged 13.2 points and 10.3 rebounds and wants a double-double every game this season. Coaches feel like he's getting a better feel when playing a zone defense to get proper position for rebounds. Probably UT's next lottery pick.
C/F Connor Atchley, 6-10, 228, Sr. - Atchley is an example of Barnes' ability to spot talent and grow it. His own assistants doubted him on Atchley, whom Barnes spotted at an AAU event while scouting LaMarcus Aldridge. All Atchley did last season was lead the Big 12 in blocks in the same season Michael Beasley and Darrell Arthur were getting work done, earning Atchley the nickname "White Out" from the listeners of 1530 ESPN Austin. Atchley's confidence is the key and coaches say it's increased from last year. Atchley seemed to show up big in last season's biggest games (i.e. Tennessee, UCLA , Kansas and Kansas State) and disappeared at times in games against lesser opponents. If Atchley can play at maximum throttle all season, coaches see incredible things from him, and NBA scouts love his inside-outside versatility.
F Gary Johnson, 6-6, 233, So. - Barnes is quick to remind anyone who will listen that Johnson didn't get to work out before last season and then missed the first 13 games while doctors observed a heart condition before clearing him. So Barnes feels like Johnson has benefited a ton from a full summer of preseason work. There was talk about moving Johnson out to the perimeter some, but it may not happen this season. He did, however, learn a lot about what it will take to survive on the perimeter watching Damion James and Kevin Durant go at it during 6 a.m. workouts over the summer at Cooley Pavilion. In the meantime, Johnson is working on a go-to move and counter at the power forward position. Johnson, like Mason, played really well against Memphis in the NCAA Tournament and is looking to pick up where he left off with a physical, in-your-face presence inside.
G Dogus Balbay, 6-0, 176, So. - Barnes is quickly gaining confidence in Balbay's decision-making, but playing smart in practice is one thing. Barnes wants to see it against big boy competition. Balbay is athletic. He's got lift and can get to the rim. He's also not afraid to get physical at 6-0 and 180 pounds. The question about Balbay is his outside shooting, but he has been shooting it well in practice from the new 3-point line (20.9 feet) in college this season. Again, what will it look like in competition? Teammates say Balbay is the fastest player on the team with the ball.
G Varez Ward, 6-2, 190, Fr. - Guard J'Covan Brown from Port Arthur was supposed to be the only Texas freshman this season but then failed to qualify academically. Ward was committed to Cincinnati and then backed out, entertaining offers from Kansas State, Arkansas, Marquette, Florida State, Auburn and UTEP before deciding to go to Austin. Initially, Texas wasn't sure what it got in Ward, a long-armed defender who wasn't cleared by the NCAA Clearinghouse until August. So Ward missed all the summer work with the rest of the team. Barnes didn't have his hopes up, and then Ward began fall workouts and Barnes was impressed. Now, Barnes is saying he thinks Ward will definitely be in a steady rotation of the top eight players. Defense gets you on the floor for Barnes, and defense is what Ward does best. Offensively, still raw. But players say Ward is the fastest player on the team without the ball and is capable of overwhelming defensive pressure. Rodney Terry was point man on Ward's recruitment. And Ward isn't afraid of competition. Eight players from his team at the Patterson School (N.C.) got Division I scholarships, including small forward Nate Miles (who was recently expelled from UConn) and point guard Courtney Fortson (now at Arkansas).
C Dexter Pittman, 6-10, 298, Jr. - Pittman wants so badly to be a great player. He spent the summer at Pete Newell's big-man camp and thinks this is the season he proves to Barnes he can stay on the floor for long stretches without giving out. Barnes has given up on trying to get Pittman down to 265 or 275. Strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright convinced Barnes Pittman's body fat was the most important number - and that was down from 41 percent (when he weighed 388) to 13 percent. Barnes still wants to see Pittman run the floor and play defense on the other end because Barnes still plans to run at every opportunity. "Sometimes, Dexter just runs the floor and stands in the lane while his man is out setting a screen," Barnes said. "He doesn't even know where his man is." But if Pittman can show Barnes he can play defense, he is an imposing figure. Pittman played well against Stanford (and 7-foot twins Brook and Robin Lopez) in the NCAA Tournament and doesn't back down from a challenge.
C Matt Hill, 6-10, 241, So. - Barnes said Hill was drawing serious consideration as a starter prior to last season, but a recurring foot injury sidelined him for all of the 2007-08 campaign. Coaches love how smart Hill is and how he always seems to be in the right place at the right time and isn't afraid to mix it up physically. He has to show a year's worth of rust can be knocked off quickly because there's a lot of depth in the frontcourt now.
C/F Clint Chapman, 6-10, 235, So. - Oh how Chapman has teased the coaches with signs that he's going to be a brilliant frontcourt player. What Barnes is trying to get out of Chapman is the same effort Chapman showed against Kevin Love and UCLA last season when Chapman is playing a team like Stetson. Chapman has shown he might be willing to cruise through practice and then turn it on in games, but that's not how Barnes operates. So coaches want Chapman to give them maximum effort all the time, which is always the hardest thing to get out of a young player. But they love his upside.
F Alexis Wangmene, 6-7, 241, So. - Wangmene had tragedy strike his family when his mother, Germaine Mang-Ikri, died suddenly in Wangmene's native Cameroon last month. Wangmene, who has since returned to Austin from the memorial service, was incredibly close to his mother. Coaches are prepared for Wangmene to need some time to get refocused on basketball. Wangmene showed flashes last season of being a menacing defensive presence in the post with his 7-foot-plus wing span. Coaches want him to continue to focus on defense and rebounding while getting more confidence scoring on put-backs and garbage baskets.
G Harrison Smith, 6-2, 213, Jr. - Smith has hung in there and could one day end up being a Craig Winder-type, providing a sudden burst off the bench if for any reason the depth at guard gets thin. But otherwise it will probably be tough for Smith to find time on the court with Abrams, Mason, Balbay and Ward eating up most of the guard minutes.
FINAL ANALYSIS: Texas will continue to run at every opportunity. Mason, Abrams and Balbay will all get it and go. But Barnes has a lot of options in the half court. After watching Memphis and Kansas play the kind of defense they did last season, Barnes is hoping his team can reach that level this season. Oklahoma and Kansas are seen as Texas' toughest competition in the Big 12, and UT has the depth to match up with those teams all over the floor. Barnes really likes the chemistry and leadership of this team.
With a slew of mega-talented freshmen on the way in 2009 (Jordan Hamilton, Avery Bradley and Shawn Williams) and 2010 (Tristan Thompson and Daniel Bejarano), Barnes appears to have a team capable of making a Final Four run this season and possibly the next two as well. Of course, all Barnes wants to talk about right now - surprise, surprise - is finding a way to get better every day in practice.
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