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Morning Coffee Rolls With The Praise

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Maybe we are a basketball school. Sticking with yesterday's theme of getting ahead of ourselves, ESPN.com's Andy Katz throws DJ Augustin's name into the national Player of the Year discussion ($):

Nearly a month into the season the national player of the year leader might just be Texas sophomore guard D.J. Augustin, who's made key plays in two of the best wins of the season to date over Tennessee in Newark, N.J., and then at UCLA. "I told you this summer, I'm not putting that pressure on him and he doesn't care, just like Kevin Durant, it's the furthest thing from his mind," said Texas coach Rick Barnes. "[D.J.] is all about winning. He's so unselfish. He's become such a great leader."

Rick handled the question the right way, of course, but that won't keep the rest of us from discussing it. For a bit of trivia fun - were Augustin to win the Naismith Award, he would join TJ Ford and Kevin Durant to give the Longhorns three national Player of the Year winners since 2003. Only Duke (7) and UCLA (3) have won as many since the award's inception in 1969, and the Bruins haven't had a winner since Marques Johnson in 1977. In any case, it should be noted that Rick Barnes has done a remarkable job transforming Texas from an afterthought in college hoops to one of the nation's strongest programs.

I'm not done with the praise yet. Thanks to you-know-who at ESPN.com's "Page 2," Rick Barnes took a ton of heat last season for not advancing deeper into the NCAA Tournament. By the time Texas was eliminated, those who don't follow Texas basketball closely were characterizing Rick Barnes as a guy who'd done a nice job assembling talent but had no real clue how to direct it.

We begged his critics to take a more nuanced look at Rick's work, to little avail, but we also conceded (as AW and I always have) Rick's weaknesses. What we didn't appreciate was the unwillingness of his critics to recognize his strengths.

But so far this year, Rick's showed real development as a coach. The win over UCLA was not a case of Rick putting a good team out on the court, letting TJ Ford run the show, and getting out of the way. It was not a case of a team standing around and feeding the ball to a superstar like Durant. No, there was real coaching throughout that game, without which Texas loses. Three quick examples:

  1. After back-to-back UCLA buckets in the second half put the Bruins up four, Rick called a timeout, told DJ Augustin that Darren Collison was defending him with his hands down, and instructed him to raise up for the three as soon as he brought the ball down. Augustin buried it and pulled Texas within one.
  1. After UCLA scored again to regain a three-point lead, Barnes used another set play with Augustin and Atchley that saw Texas' big man roll to the top of the key for an uncontested, game-tying three pointer.
  1. Throughout the game, Rick did an excellent job of neutralizing the Bruins' size and defensive advantage by spreading the floor to the extreme, allowing Augustin and Mason to use their quickness to break down UCLA's perimeter defense. The spacing on offense was by design, and it was exactly what Texas needed to do.

On top of all that, this year's Texas team is playing much better defense than last year's group. We've always known Rick could coach defense, but the work he and Todd Wright did this offseason is already noticeable. You have to grade Rick with an A+ through the early going.

Don't take my word for it. The Statesman has a nice feature on the coaching job Rick's done so far, including high praise both from Fran Fraschilla and a scout for an NBA Eastern Conference team. The article notes that Barnes' terrific start has come even as Texas has opened the season with a roster far thinner than the coach had hoped. Injuries to Dogus Balbay, Gary Johnson, and Matt Hill have made Texas' accomplishments all the more impressive.

Who's your Draddy? Congratulations to Dallas Griffin for winning the Draddy Trophy, better known as the "academic Heisman." Griffin wasn't the best center the Longhorns have fielded during the Mack Brown era, but he's the kind of Longhorn that's helped give the program a good name. After an offseason of bad news and questionable character stories, it's nice to be able to applaud some kids on the other side of the spectrum.

More later today; I'm late for an appointment.

--PB--