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October 29, 2007

Durant's gone, but Texas has plenty of talent

Rivals.com has selected the top 25 storylines for the 2007-08 college basketball season and will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 8 storyline takes a look at Texas and how they are preparing to move on without Kevin Durant.

Dozens of teams are trying to replace superstars. But to say they are doing the same at Texas would be a major understatement.

Nobody had a better season in 2006-07 than former Longhorn Kevin Durant, who was taken with the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft. Nobody was even close. Durant was the only player to rank among the top 10 in scoring and rebounding, averaging 25.6 points and 11.3 boards a game. He was the runaway winner for every national player of the year award.

So, just how far will Texas slip without one of the greatest players to grace the college ranks in recent years? According to the national media, not much at all. The Longhorns were picked to finish second in the Big 12 coaches' preseason poll and are ranked No. 16 in the USA Today/ESPN coaches preseason poll.

That logic may seem puzzling, but there are several reasons to believe the Longhorns can match their win total (25) from last season.

The biggest reason stands just 6 feet tall. Sophomore point guard D.J. Augustin looks poised to emerge as a superstar in his own right. A dynamic playmaker, Augustin was voted the Big 12's Preseason Player of the Year after dishing out a Big 12-high 6.7 assists a game last season. Augustin also averaged 14.4 points a game.

Augustin will be joined by junior shooting guard A.J. Abrams to form one of the nation's elite backcourts. One of the top outside shooters in the nation, Abrams made a Big 12-record 120 3-pointers last season.

Two other sophomores were also full-time starters last season: multi-dimensional forward Damion James and guard Justin Mason. The 6-7 James, like many other Longhorns, spent most of his time on offense setting picks for Durant. But, the former five-star recruit has the skills and size to be a far bigger force on both ends of the floor. Coach Rick Barnes hopes to move James to the perimeter where, the forward can get the ball in his hands more and play the role of defensive stopper. Mason has become one of Barnes' favorite players because of his scrappy defense and savvy play.

The frontcourt looks far shakier, but there are a plethora of promising big men. Massive sophomore Dexter Pittman (6-10, 275) looks ready to be a steady contributor after shedding more than 50 pounds since last year. Senior Connor Atchley has the most experience. Freshmen power forwards Gary Johnson, Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman were all top-100 recruits. Johnson may be the key to developing an inside presence. The Houston product is a bruising force around the basket and a good rebounder. However, Johnson has been limited by a heart condition and has yet to be cleared to play in games.

With or without Durant and Johnson, the Longhorns have gotten deeper and their roster would rank among the most talented in any conference. Throw in a proven coach in Barnes, who has taken the Longhorns to four Sweet 16 appearances in the last six years, and it's easy to envision the Longhorns contending for the Big 12 title and emerging as a threat in the NCAA Tournament again.

More Rivals.com Countdown to Tipoff

Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at askwara@rivals.com.

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