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October 23, 2008

Texas ready to replace another star

OKLAHOMA CITY Texas says it has been here before.

D.J. Augustin isn't the first and won't be the last Longhorns player to leave early for the NBA draft.

The Longhorns lost star freshman Kevin Durant to the draft after the 2006-07 season. After 2005-06, sophomores LaMarcus Aldridge and Daniel Gibson and junior P.J. Tucker bolted to the NBA.

Augustin, the ninth pick in the NBA draft, is the only starter gone from a team that won 31 games and reached the Elite Eight last season. Two of his former teammates, A.J. Abrams and Damion James, are preseason All-Big 12.

"He was a big part of our team last year, but we're bringing everyone back except for him. That goes a long way," Abrams said. "We have the tools, the guys coming back. We've been around long enough. We know what to expect."

With Augustin, Texas was a game away from the Final Four. The bulk of the roster returns, but Augustin was the unquestioned leader on the court. Without Augustin, who led the Big 12 in assists in his two seasons, Texas is without a dynamic point guard who was the catalyst for the offense. Such pieces aren't easily replaced.

All Rick Barnes has to do is look to College Station.

Texas A&M went 10-6 and 13-3 in the Big 12 in the final two seasons with point guard Acie Law IV. The Aggies returned most of the roster other than Law last season, but they struggled to an 8-8 finish in the Big 12 without their MVP.

"I go back and watch film and I don't know how we won 25 games," Aggies coach Mark Turgeon said. "We had trouble making a pass. We figured it out as the season went on. We did it by committee."

Texas and Texas A&M are hardly mirror images the Aggies also changed coaches, from Billy Gillispie to Turgeon but the Aggies learned how much one playmaker can mean.

Unlike A&M, Texas has some true point guards remaining.

"Our program is at the point where, because we have lost guys, I think their attitude is, 'OK, it's just the way it is and we're going to take what we have,' " Barnes said. "We don't talk about replacing guys."

Early in practice, Texas has used three players to run the point: Abrams, Dogus Balbay and Justin Mason.

Abrams was recruited as a point guard but blossomed at off-guard. He is the Longhorns' leading returning scorer, and Barnes has praised his vision and basketball IQ.

"I really don't have a problem with (playing point)," Abrams said. "I feel it's my natural position."

Much seems to be riding on Balbay, who played all but his senior year of high school in Turkey. Balbay, though, has no college experience after missing nearly all of last season after surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. He also is looking to improve offensively.

"'Doge' is as fast as any player we've had at Texas maybe since T.J. Ford," Barnes said. "When he comes in a game, he's really fast."

Lauded as Texas' "glue guy," Mason played point at times even with Augustin on the floor and often guarded opponents' top perimeter players.

"We just take what we have and we're going to make it work here," Barnes said. "I don't have any problems at all or any concerns at all with how we will be at the point position."

David Fox is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dfox@rivals.com.

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