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Men's Basketball Preview: Backcourt

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Of course it's still football season, but the basketball team opens their season tonight 7 PM at the Erwin Center with a scrimmage against Rick Barnes' alma mater Lenoir-Rhyne.

All five starters are gone from last year's squad. Missing will be 83% of total minutes, 86% of total scoring, and 90% of total rebounds. With seven freshman and just two contributing players returning, some argue it is time to lower expectations and rebuild. Those people are wrong.

Texas has become one of the top basketball schools in the country. The best programs don't rebuild; they reload. That is exactly what Rick Barnes is counting on. In a summer Q&A with TexasSports.com, Coach Barnes said, "We're young and we'll have some growing pains, but we won't make any excuses. We'll take what we have and mold them into the best team we can be." "Our whole deal will be that by the end of the year, we should be able to compete with anybody."

This year's freshman class is the best ever at Texas led by the best recruit ever to choose the Longhorns, Kevin Durant. If this team makes noise in March, Durant will be the one carrying the load.

We will break down our preview of the 2006-2007 men's basketball team into two posts: backcourt and frontcourt.

Backcourt
Point Guard
Here is where we find the most experience Longhorn and one of only four returning players, AJ Abrams (5'10" 155). Last year, AJ played in all 37 games averaging 6.4 ppg in 21 minutes from the bench. He will likely start this season at point guard. Abrams took care of the ball better than any other guard last season posting a 2.6-1 assist to turnover ratio. AJ was also the best and most consistent shooter on the team. His quick release allows him to overcome his lack of height.

Coach Barnes will be looking to AJ for much more this season. As likely the only non-freshman starter, floor leadership, controlling turnovers, and distributing the basketball will all be extremely important. The Horns will play with a smaller lineup and at a more up tempo pace this season than last. AJ will definitely have finishers running the floor with him this season. I expect him to shine at both the point and occasionally at the shooting guard spot.

When Abrams moves to the shooting guard spot, it will be because freshman DJ Augustin (5'11" 175) will step in at the point. Augustin is one of three McDonald's All Americans in this freshman class. He is originally from New Orleans but finished his high school career in Sugar Land after evacuating before Hurricane Katrina. While in Louisiana, DJ led his Brother Martin high school team to back to back state titles as a sophomore and junior. As a senior in Texas, he was a 5A first team selection.

Augustin is a true point guard. He excels by penetrating and dishing to teammates. He can distribute easily with either hand, and his interior passing may be his best attribute. When not passing, DJ can finish in the lane or hit the open jumper including the three pointer. At this point, he is a much better shooter off the catch than off the dribble. With some development, a Durant and Augustin high pick and roll could be an unstoppable play.

By all accounts, DJ is a special player. He has a great feel for the game and is incredibly unselfish. To play valuable minutes for Barnes, he must improve his defense. In an effort to improve his quickness on both ends, he has dropped 15 lbs since arriving in Austin. If DJ reaches his potential at Texas, he could the special floor leader we have been missing since TJ Ford left for the NBA.  

Shooting Guard
Texas actually has two returning shooting guards, JD Lewis (6'1" 180) and Craig Winder (6'2" 190). Lewis, now a junior, played in 25 games averaging two points per contest last season. He can knock down the open three but due to a lack of lateral quickness is a defensive liability. I don't expect his minutes to grow this season. Winder is the only senior on the team. Craig played in 22 games last season while averaging just a single point per game. The coaches thought he would become a defensive specialist but those capabilities never developed. His minutes are not likely to increase either.

So, if our returning upperclassmen aren't going to see the floor, then it must be time for two more freshman. Justin (Jay) Mason (6'2" 185) should see action at the shooting guards spot and could possibly start. Mason is a strong defender who can use his long arms and athleticism to pressure the basketball. Remember Royal Ivey? He can score off the dribble and has increased his range as a jump shooter but still is more comfortable penetrating than shooting threes. With other more capable scorers on the floor, Mason will likely be asked to play solid defense on the other team's best player and pound the glass from his guard spot to make up for our lack of size up front.

If Mason doesn't win the shooting guard spot, it could go to Harrison Smith (6'2" 185). Smith is another freshman from the same high school that Daniel Gibson attended. Harrison is a physically strong and athletic guard and a true scorer. He possesses a consistent ability to get into the lane and finish with high percentage shots. Harrison is an above average rebounder at the guard position who can also play solid defense. His ball handling and passing will need to improve.

Wing / Small Forward
BON is pleased to introduce 19 year old freshman phenom Kevin Durant (6'9" 225). Durant will be the best player ever to play at Texas. He was the #2 ranked player in the country last year. He was co-MVP of both the McDonald's All American Game and the Jordan All American Classic. If not for the new NBA rule forbidding high school seniors from declaring for the draft, Durant would have almost certainly skipped college.

Durant has it all. He can score from almost anywhere. He has NBA range with his jump shot. Against smaller guards, he can play with his back to basket in the low post or simply shoot over the top. Against taller forwards, he can put the ball on the floor and get to the rim. His ball handling skills are good enough to play guard. He also uses his 7'5" wing span to block or alter shots on defensive. There is room for improvement though. Kevin still needs to get stronger and learn to play better on the ball defense. He will also be asked to rebound on both ends of the floor.

KD has all the potential in the world. He has a realistic chance at 1st team All Big 12 and national freshman of the year honors. The development of our near all freshman backcourt will be one of the keys to this year's success. If we are going to play up tempo (ala Phoenix Suns) basketball, our point guard play will have to be excellent. Decision making and limiting turnovers will be crucial to this team's success. This year's guards will also be asked to rebound, especially on the defensive end, more so than last year's team.

Next up: the Texas frontcourt.

--AW--