The 2007-08 Texas Longhorns men’s basketball team will begin practice tomorrow. Coach Barnes welcomes four new freshman and returns four starters from last year’s team that went 25-10 overall and 12-4 in the Big 12 and was bounced in the second round of the NCAA tournament by USC.
Coach Barnes took questions from the media this afternoon. I was able to hear most of the press conference.
DJ Augustin has already been picked as pre-season Big 12 Player of the Year, and today, Coach Barnes dubbed Augustin the unquestioned leader of the team. You always want your point guard to be a strong leader but as a freshman and while playing alongside Kevin Durant, Augustin was less vocal than Barnes would have liked last season. Barnes doesn’t believe that will be the case during DJ’s sophomore campaign. Barnes credited TJ Ford’s work with DJ over the summer as the instrument of change. Augustin has also "reshaped his body" and is in great shape. Barnes admitted that Augustin got tired at the end of last season because of his high number of minutes and his extra weight. If Barnes is right, Augustin won’t tire this season, regardless of his minutes.
Barnes reported that the freshman point guard, Dogus Balbay, has been suffering through a knee injury and won’t be starting practice with the team this week. Much like the football injury reports, neither Barnes nor the University released much information. When healthy, Balbay will receive playing time as the backup point guard this season.
AJ Abrams is back for his junior season. AJ’s presence in the starting backcourt for this year’s team will be much discussed on this site in the weeks ahead. While Abrams is a deadly, yet streaky, outside shooter, he is limited defensively and as a rebounding guard. The thought of starting two guards who are both under 6’ is a troubling one for me.
Damion James is one of the first question marks for the Horns this season. Will James be able to fill some of the scoring and rebounding voids left by Durant? James showed flashes of brilliance early in his freshman campaign but struggled some during conference play as he faced bigger and more athletic opponents. His current set of skills are more in line with a power forward, but in the college game, his height really dictates a move out to the wing. Last year, James was played mostly out of position. With Durant in the game, Damion played primarily on the baseline and struggled offensively. An improved jump shot, tighter ball handling skills, and Durant’s jump to the NBA should allow James to thrive from the wing position as the season progresses. Don’t be surprised, though, to see James start this season as a power forward and not move to the wing until the freshman big men get comfortable.
Justin Mason is another returning contributor and another player who Barnes says has worked diligently in the off-season to get his body in better shape. Mason has reportedly lost 15-20 lbs since the end of last season and is showing increased athleticism and explosiveness. Texas will again look to Mason to be a lock down defender against the other team’s best perimeter player, ala Royal Ivey, who Mason worked out with all summer. Depending on the health and production of a couple of other players, Mason will either be a starting two guard, a staring third guard, or the first player off the bench this season.
Junior Connor Atchley enters his fourth year in the program and is still trying to define himself as a player. Atchley produces both solid and headshaking moments within games and often times within moments. His consistency and physicality must improve to keep the Horns among the Big 12’s best. Barnes said this afternoon that Atchley was "better than he thinks he is" and that one of the coaches’ biggest challenges is getting Connor to understand that. It didn’t sound like Barnes has given up on Atchley and he shouldn’t. Atchley has the skills to be a real contributor this season and next.
Gary Johnson has been cleared to practice with the team and will be doing all the drills alongside his teammates. However, Johnson has not been cleared to play in games and Coach Barnes refused to speculate on when or if that would occur. Barnes observed that Johnson was one of the hardest working high school players he has ever seen. When asked how much better the Horns would be with Johnson, Barnes responded, "A lot." That is probably an understatement. His availability is another big question mark heading into this season. With Johnson, this team adds toughness, size, an inside scoring presence, and is probably at top 15-20 team. Without Johnson, the Horns are much smaller, as James probably stays in the staring lineup as a power forward until one of the two freshman posts or Dexter Pittman emerges, without a true post scorer, and are probably closer to a top 25-30 team. Trust me, if he’s cleared to play, Gary Johnson will be a lot of Horns’ fans favorite player by March.
Dexter Pittman is the second Longhorns already bitten by the injury bug. Big Dex has suffered a foot injury and will also not begin practicing with the Horns. Lovable Dexter worked his ass off, literally, last season in the weight room and in practice but was mostly an observer during games. Pittman lost at least 70 and maybe as many as 90 pounds from June 2006 to March 2007. His new body along with his soft hands and softer touch could lead to a breakout year for Pittman this season. He is still an immovable load on the low blocks and could be a real low post scoring threat.
I didn’t hear any questions or comments regarding freshmen Clint Chapman and Alexis Wangmene. Chapman is a skilled high-post scorer from Oregon who will likely need a year and frequent trips to the weight room before he is ready to contribute much. Wangmene will be as raw as James Thomas was when he first arrived on campus but with more upside. How quickly these two guys adjust to the speed and physical play of big time college basketball will be something to watch this season.
I also didn’t hear anything regarding JD Lewis, Matt Hill, or Harrison Smith. Lewis is the lone scholarship senior who is a hard worker and streaky shooter but who is also limited athletically. Hill didn’t have the most productive freshman campaign and will be fighting to stay ahead of the freshman big men for playing time. Smith is a more intriguing player. Harrison was a dynamic scorer in high school and does possess the necessary athleticism to contribute. However, he never appeared to be comfortable in his limited playing time, and, although improved, it will be difficult for him to earn minutes over Balbay, Mason, or Abrams.
Again, I wasn’t able to hear all of Coach Barnes’s comments, so, if I missed something let me know.