Men's basketball officially tips off tonight at 8:30 pm at the Erwin Center with a first round matchup with Alcorn State. The Horns are one of four teams hosting first and second round games in the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic. The other three host schools are Michigan State, Maryland, and St. John's.
I know nothing about Alcorn State. So, I won't even try to offer any interesting tidbits. Instead, I'll over some brief strengths, weaknesses, and unknowns for this year's team.
Guard Play Both backcourt starters, sophomore AJ Abrams and freshman DJ Augustin, have been impressive in their two pre-season scrimmages. Abrams is shooting the ball better than anyone else on the team. Augustin has already adjusted to the speed of the college game. Most importantly, both players are taking care of the ball. Turnovers can easily become a problem with young guards. So far, so good.
Kevin Durant I don't think enough good things can be said or written about Durant. He is by far the best freshman I have ever seen at Texas. As the season progresses, I predict most fans will be saying he is the best player they have ever seen at Texas. He is already an accomplished offensive force. He can get his own shot at any time. Durant can use his size inside, pull up for a mid-range jumper, or nail the three. His ball handling skills and defense are already decent but will improve throughout the season.
Rick Barnes Many of been down on Barnes at various points over the last eight years. Even my pessimism has reared its ugly head over a stagnant offensive possession or two. But you can't argue with his record. Texas has been to the NCAA tournament in every season since he arrived. We have been to the Sweet 16 in four of the last five years and rode the incredible skills of TJ Ford to the Final Four in 2003. Barnes has transformed Texas into a recruiting player and a respected program across the country.
Frontcourt Depth The Horns enter the season with thirteen scholarship players including former walk-on Ian Mooney. Of those, only four are true frontcourt players: Connor Atchley, Damion James, Matt Hill, and Dexter Pittman. Atchley is a hard worker but doesn't possess the natural skills comparable to those of our guards. Pittman is still a work in progress even after dropping over 60 pounds. He will likely be available only for limited minutes due to stamina issues and foul trouble. Matt Hill may turn out to be a diamond in the rough. He was thought of as mid-major talent until blossoming during his senior year in Nebraska. Hill has already shown good rebounding skills and an ability to run the floor. However, he doesn't have great athleticism and looks a half step slow at times on defense. The only truly gifted frontcourt player is James. He is really a small forward who will be asked to play near the basket and become a rebounding expert.
Rebounding As mentioned above, depth and foul trouble could be an issue at forward and center. Consequently, rebounding looks to be a weakness as well. Over the last few seasons, Texas has made a living on the boards. Last year we were among the national leaders in rebounding margin. We will really feel the losses of Lamarcus Aldridge, PJ Tucker, and Brad Buckman in our rebounding totals. Durant, Jay Mason, and the other Texas guards will be asked to assist on the boards.
Cohesiveness Of the top seven players on last year's team, only Abrams returns. The only other player to even see meaningful action last season was Atchley. Joining those two are seven freshmen. At this point, it appears none of the freshman will red-shirt. These guys have only been playing together since the summer. How quickly will they learn to play together? Will there be any team chemistry issues? How will high school stars adjust to ten minutes or less of playing time? Will Durant try to do too much alone?
Team Leadership Judging from the two scrimmages, AJ Abrams and Kevin Durant will be the team leaders: AJ because of his `experience' and Durant because of his undeniable talent. How quickly will Abrams be able to transition from bench and role player to overall team leader? How well will Durant be able to lead given this is his first and likely only college season?
There is no denying this will be a fun team to watch. Barnes has never coached a younger or more talented team. He has always been an excellent defensive coach. This year he is blessed with numerous offensively talented players. If this group is able to combine Barnes' defensive teachings with their own offensive skill set while also learning to play together, the 2006-2007 Horns will be as good as anyone in the country.
This is going to be a bumpy learning process though. I won't be surprised to see them drop a few non-conference games that they probably should win. Come Big 12 time, this team will be ready.
I predict a 22-8 regular season and a 12-4 Big 12 record (2nd place behind Kansas). Durant will be first team All Big 12 and Abrams will be third team All Big 12. Texas will be a #3 seed in the NCAA tournament. They will make another Elite Eight appearance but finish one step shy of the Final Four.
First Game: Alcorn St. 8:30 PM CST (ESPNU)