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March 9, 2007
Freshman class key to success for Texas
AUSTIN, Texas – Kevin Durant is the biggest reason why Texas has the most productive freshman class in the nation.
But he's not the only reason.
Texas is about to earn its ninth consecutive NCAA Tournament invitation. That is significant this season because the Longhorns regularly start four freshmen and a sophomore. Freshmen have accounted for 73.5 percent of the Longhorns' points, 71.6 percent of their rebounds and 79.2 percent of their assists.
It would be easy to dismiss all that freshman production as a mere result of having one of the best first-year players in the game. It also would be inaccurate.
Even if you don't include Durant, Texas' remaining freshmen have provided 69 percent of the Longhorns' assists and more than 40 percent of their points and rebounds.
The other six freshmen on the Longhorns' roster – D.J. Augustin, Damion James, Justin Mason, Matt Hill, Dexter Pittman and Harrison Smith – quietly have gone about their business without griping about playing in Durant's considerable shadow.
"I knew from Day One, since he was the No. 2 (recruit) in the nation, that he'd get all the attention," Mason said. "I don't care for all that attention. I'm glad it's all going to him."
Durant also has gotten plenty of attention from opposing defenses, which allowed the Longhorns' other freshman starters make a smooth transition to the college game.
• Augustin ranks fourth in the nation with 6.8 assists per game. In his last 23 games, the Big 12 assist leader has averaged 16.7 points while shooting 50.7 percent from 3-point range.
• James ranks second on the team in rebounding and has stepped up his offense lately. He has averaged 11.3 points and has shot 68 percent over his last eight games.
• Mason has emerged as a quality defender who also can provide the occasional outside shot. He ranks second on the team in assists and fourth in scoring and rebounding.
"(Durant's) a terrific talent," Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie said. "But they have other guys who make it very difficult for you. They've got a lot of great players and do a great job of putting themselves in position to be successful."
They put themselves in that position long before the start of the season.
These freshmen arrived on campus last summer and soon discovered they shared similar laid-back personalities. They worked out together, played pickup games together and shared meals together.
"It's something that just happened," Mason said. "If there was a person left taking a test, we'd wait for him (before eating). We would have wanted them to wait for us. It's just a natural thing. We didn't want to leave anyone behind."
Their friendship didn't pay immediate dividends on the floor.
Durant was an instant success who helped Texas win 13 of its first 16 games, but the Longhorns hit a lull when conference play began. The Longhorns have allowed at least 100 points three times this year – a 111-105 overtime loss to Tennessee, a 105-103 triple-overtime setback to Oklahoma State and a 100-82 loss to Texas A&M.
"It took some time," James said. "We love each other like brothers, but it took time to build chemistry on the court."
The turning point of the season may have come after that loss to Texas A&M. The Longhorns looked at film of that game and knew they needed to increase their intensity on defense.
Texas has gone 6-1 since that Texas A&M game. The Longhorns allowed just 59.6 points per game in its next five contests, though they have since given up at least 90 points to each of their last two foes.
"After watching the film of that game, we looked at all our mistakes," Augustin said. "We could have won that game, but we missed free throws, turned the ball over, took bad shots. After that game, we started focusing more on defense. That's how we've been winning."
Augustin deserves much of the credit for his team's renewed focus.
While Durant is undoubtedly the Longhorns' best player, Augustin has emerged as the team's emotional leader.
He often offers teammates various bits of advice after film sessions while displaying wisdom and poise beyond his years. He earned that maturity the hard way.
Hurricane Katrina forced Augustin's family to move from New Orleans to the Houston area in the fall of 2005. He spent his final year of high school getting accustomed to a new set of classmates and teammates.
"Basketball helped me with everything,'' Augustin said. "It's like my medicine.''
Augustin's resolute focus on the court and in the film room doesn't seem to coexist with his reputation as one of the team's best jokers, but he has managed to balance the two sides of his personality.
"Once the ball goes up (in a game) or once I start practice, I know the joking has to stop," Augustin said. "It's about business."
Augustin accepted his leadership position just as the other freshmen have adapted to their individual assignments.
James is the quality rebounder who can provide an occasional spark on offense. Mason is the jack-of-all-trades who can do a little bit of everything. Hill and Pittman provide frontcourt depth – though Hill recently missed 11 games with a foot injury – while Smith gives the Longhorns an extra shooter off the bench.
They all have accepted their roles without complaint.
"Chemistry comes from respect for your teammates," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "That's where it starts. They like each other a lot. I'll be quite honest with you, there are no outside factors messing with this team.''
Even the speculation about whether Durant would leave school for the NBA hasn't altered the Longhorns' focus. Barnes attributes that in part to a discussion he had with Durant after the phenom's worst game of the season.
Durant had just shot 4-for-15 while scoring a season-low 12 points in a 76-69 loss to Villanova. He later expressed his frustrations about all the hype surrounding his future.
Barnes recalled the conversation. "When we sat down after the Villanova game he said, 'Coach, I don't want to do anymore interviews where we talk about the NBA, because it's not about that. I'm tired of it.' "
Durant has averaged 27.3 points and 12.1 rebounds per game since. The 6-foot-9 forward has ranked among the nation's top 10 scorers and rebounders while putting together the best freshman season of any player since Carmelo Anthony led Syracuse to the 2002-03 national title.
Can Durant and Co. achieve similar postseason glory? That's one of the toughest questions to answer as the NCAA Tournament approaches.
Texas enters Big 12 tournament play this week as one of the nation's hottest teams, but that doesn't necessarily mean much. Kansas had a freshman-laden team last year that entered the NCAA Tournament on a 15-1 roll and promptly lost to Bradley in the first round.
The Longhorns also have a tendency to make freshman mistakes in critical situations. They didn't cover Chris Lofton well enough late in that loss to Tennessee and failed to foul Acie Law IV while protecting a three-point lead in the final seconds of regulation of a double-overtime win over Texas A&M last week.
Then again, playing four overtime games already this season has given Texas plenty of experience at playing under pressure.
"We just look at the next game," Durant said. "We're trying not to look farther down the line and that type of stuff. We just want to get to the next game and win."
Durant's classmates plan to go as far as he can lead them.
And they don't really care if he gets all the attention along the way.
"He might be the best player in the country," James said of Durant. "He gets the job done. Me, D.J., Mase and all the rest of us are just backing him up."
They've done that as well as anyone could have expected.