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October 3, 2008
Who will play point guard? That question has been hovering over the Longhorns since D.J. Augustin made it clear he was staying in the NBA draft. The other four starters return, but losing Augustin (who was taken with the ninth pick) creates a giant void. The Longhorns' offense was built around Augustin, a consummate playmaker who could go on scoring tears and create easy shots for teammates. Last season he was a consensus All-American and earned the Bob Cousy Award given annually to the nation's top point guard.
Guard A.J. Abrams is one of the Big 12's best shooters.
Abrams is known best for his outside shooting, but as a freshman he was more of a distributor, averaging 3.0 assists. Mason would bring the ball up the court at times last season in an effort to get Augustin more shots.
Ultimately, the Longhorns need Abrams to focus on looking for his shot. Abrams was the team's second-leading scorer last season (16.5 ppg). With the loss of Augustin's 19.2 points per game, Texas can't afford Abrams' scoring average to dip. He doesn't have the size to shoot over most defenders, but he makes up for it with a quick release and moves well without the ball. He is shooting 40 percent from 3-point range for his career and has made 238 3-pointers over the past two seasons.
Mason doesn't get nearly enough credit for his widespread contributions. He almost always guards the opponent's top perimeter player and is one of the top rebounding guards in the Big 12. He also is savvy with the ball, posting a 2.3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio last season. He does need to improve his outside shooting and become a bigger part of the offense.
As far as depth, the Longhorns may turn to junior wing Harrison Smith, a former top-100 prospect who has played little. Freshman shooting guard Varez Ward, a three-star prospect, is another option. Coach Rick Barnes has said Ward may be the most athletic player on the team.
The Longhorns went from P.J. Tucker (2005-06 Big 12 player of the year) to Kevin Durant (2006-07 national player of the year) to Augustin. The next star to follow in those footsteps could be Damion James. He racked up 17 double-doubles last season on his way to becoming just one of six players in the nation to average a double-double. He scored in double-figures in 13 of his last 15 games.
The plan is to move James out to the perimeter more to take better advantage of his skills and create more matchup problems. James shoots the ball well from the outside – he hit 41.3 percent (38-of-92) of his 3-point attempts last season – and has the athleticism and size to guard multiple positions. The Longhorns will be featuring James more in their offense, and just how much he can deliver is pivotal.
The Longhorns boast an ultra-deep collection of big men, led by fifth-year senior Connor Atchley. He went from a role player to someone opponents had to make part of their scouting report. He stretched defenses with his 3-point range and also led the Big 12 with 2.1 blocks per game.
Sophomore power forward Gary Johnson could move into the starting lineup, and undoubtedly will see his playing time increase. Having him healthy will add a new dimension. Johnson, a former four-star prospect, missed the first 13 games last season with a heart condition and was slowed by other injuries. A ferocious rebounder who can do plenty of damage around the basket, he should team with James and Atchley to make the Longhorns dominant on the glass.
Four other post players give the Longhorns the size to wear down opponents on the inside. Junior Dexter Pittman and sophomores Clint Chapman, Matt Hill and Alexis Wangmene may be part of the rotation. The coaching staff is expecting a breakout year from the massive Pittman (6-10/298), who attended the famous Pete Newell Big Man Camp over the summer.
Hill took a medical redshirt last season. Chapman and Wangmene played in some big games last season and gained valuable experience.
You don't see a lot of set plays from the Longhorns. They prefer a more pro-like approach, often isolating two players on one side of the court and having one set a ball screen. Look for a lot of that from Mason or Abrams and James. Running Abrams off numerous screens will be another staple.
Barnes employed a variety of zones – often using a 2-3 and a matchup zone – quite frequently last season and far more than in previous seasons. It was done partially to hide the Longhorns' lack of height in the backcourt. Barnes would prefer to move back to a traditional man-to-man, but if it's not effective in non-conference play, the Longhorns could use quite a bit of zone again.
Shoes to Fill
Augustin. Augustin, a lottery pick, generated much of the Longhorns' offense. His leadership also will be missed. When Durant exited, Augustin became much more vocal and the rest of the team fed off his energy. Someone must take over that role.
Must Step Up
James. To come anywhere close to matching last season's success, the Longhorns need James to become a go-to scorer. He needs to average around 17-20 points per game and continue to be a major force on the glass.
Balbay. Meet the Longhorns' point guard of the future. At the U-20 European Championships this past summer, Balbay led the Turkish team in assists, was second in steals, third in rebounding and fourth in scoring. The faster he develops, the faster the Longhorns can take full advantage of all of their resources.
Andrew Skwara is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.