Barnes expects improved defense and rebounding of Men's Basketball team in 2007-08
As he prepared for the 2006-07 season, Men's Basketball coach Rick Barnes joked that he might be wise to plan a "meet-and-greet," since the Longhorns' mentor had no returning starters from the previous year. He also had the fewest number of scholarship players ever that preceding spring.
As he prepared for the 2007-08 season, Barnes was pleased to welcome back four of his five starters.
But about that one player who did not return.
Enter -- or in this case -- exit Kevin Durant, arguably the greatest basketball player ever to perform at Texas, although he was in Austin only for his freshman year. Durant, who was the second player taken (by Seattle) in last summer's NBA Draft, rewrote the Big 12 Conference, as well as the UT, record books in his lone season of wearing burnt orange.
To better appreciate what the Consensus National Player of the Year did for the Longhorns -- who were 25-10, advancing to the second round of the NCAA Tournament before losing to Southern Cal and winding up ranked 11th nationally -- understand that Durant accounted for:
Thus, when Barnes, who is beginning his tenth season at UT, was asked how he would replace Durant, he offered a wry smile.
"You don't," he said.
But Barnes and his 2007-08 outfit are going to show up when the season opens on Nov. 12 against the University of Texas-San Antonio in the Erwin Center.
As Barnes, who is one of seven active coaches to lead two different schools to top five rankings in the Associated Press poll, spoke the day before practice began in mid-October, he didn't hesitate to address the elephant that was in the room but not on the team, a.k.a. Durant.
"No way you single-handedly try to replace Kevin," the coach began. "It was easy to rely on Kevin. Every night you could count on double-doubles from him and he simply could do so many different things on the court.
"We'll be a totally different team this year and I think we should be better in some areas than we were last year."
Barnes specifically said he felt the Horns would be better on defense, which he believes is the staple of a successful team.
"We have a totally different make up in that we're a bigger team," he said. "I'm hoping we'll get back to being a more physical team. Along with defending better, we should rebound better. On offense, we should be a more balanced team and this year we can comfortably go beyond seven players in the rotation."
A rotation that may be stronger pending the status of freshman Gary Johnson, a 6-7 power forward who averaged 26 points and 13 rebounds per game at Aldine High School a year ago.
Johnson, who was diagnosed with a heart condition during a physical exam when he arrived in Austin last June, was cleared by doctors to practice with the team, but his status for the season is not known at this time.
"He's looked good in workouts," Barnes said. "He has been doing what everyone else is doing. He certainly has not disappointed us at all. He was one of the hardest-working players I ever have seen in high school."
Now the leader among the four returning starters, not surprisingly, is point guard D.J. Augustin, who is one of 50 players on the preseason list for the Wooden Award.
An Academic All-America candidate this year and a honorable mention All-America for his play last season, the 6-0 backcourt man was No. 3 in scoring (14.4 points per game) and led the team in assists with 6.7 per game. That ranked Augustin fourth nationally. His 233 assists were just shy of half the Longhorns' total assists in 2006-07.
"I think I am stronger, faster and smarter than I was last year," said Augustin, who spent his summer vacation working with Phoenix Suns point man Steve Nash and former UT lead guard T.J. Ford.
Barnes already has noticed a difference.
"D.J. is more of a leader," he said. "He had the best postseason tourney last spring and I'll tell you that I wouldn't trade him for any other point guard in the country."
A.J. Abrams, who has played in all 72 games in his first two years at UT and set a school-record for three-pointers made (120), Damion James and Justin Mason round out the starting quartet that returns this year.
Barnes said that Mason, who trimmed down during the summer, perhaps made more progress during the off-season than anyone and the 6-7 James moves from the post to small forward, the position he played in high school.
The Longhorns coach expects returnees Connor Atchley, Matt Hill and J.D. Lewis to contribute, along with 6-10 sophomore center Dexter Pittman. His teammates chose him for the Lowe's Home Improvement Most Improved Player award last year.
Freshmen Alexis Wangemene (6-7, 241 from Cameroon via Blair Academy in New Jersey) and Clint Chapman (6-10, 245 from Canby, Ore.) will have the opportunity to contribute this year. Dogus Balbay underwent knee surgery on Oct. 30 after suffering an injury to his right knee during a pick-up game on Oct. 4, and he will be out indefinitely. Balbay, a 6-0, 175 guard, is from Turkey via Brewster Academy in New Hampshire.
On now being the dean of the Big 12 Conference coaches in his tenth year with the Longhorns, Barnes is his typically understated self.
"As I always have said," he notes, with a laugh, "proud peacock today, feather duster tomorrow."