Posted March 1st, 2009 by Mike
Filed under: Basketball, Feature

Harrison Smith had career night, but it came due to massive struggles from Justin Mason and Varez Ward

Harrison Smith had a career night, but it came due to massive struggles from Justin Mason & Varez Ward.

Stop if you’ve heard it before, the Texas basketball team is struggling. The Longhorns followed their huge home victory up with a close and ugly win over [tag]Texas Tech[/tag] and then a loss in Stillwater to [tag]Oklahoma State[/tag].

In both games Texas was sloppy on the offensive end. Texas’ main problem is their personnel combinations. The whole season hinged on [tag]Justin Mason[/tag] and/or [tag]AJ Abrams[/tag] being able to play the point consistently. Both were given chances and both failed.

That inability forced another point guard into the starting lineup. And that is Rick Barnes’ dilemma, do you move [tag]Damion James[/tag] to the four and play the small guards and a big like last year’s team or do you bring Mason, your best perimeter defender, off the bench to keep James at the three with two big men.

The answer so far has been James to the four. The decision has brought mixed results, but I don’t think Barnes likes the decision. All offseason Barnes stressed getting bigger in the back court. Playing Mason at the three makes Texas one of the smallest perimeter teams in the country.

But what choice does he have?

[tag]Gary Johnson[/tag] is hurt. [tag]Alexis Wangmene[/tag] is hurt. [tag]Connor Atchley[/tag] has been sacked. [tag]Dexter Pittman[/tag] can’t play over 20 minutes per game. And I’m not sure [tag]Matt Hill[/tag] still can play without his hair. Barnes has put more faith in [tag]Clint Chapman[/tag] as of late, but the sophomore is nothing more than a role player with some offensive upside at this point.

The fact is the Longhorns hands, or hooves, are tied. This is last year’s team without a superstar point guard who can shoot from the outside. For all intents and purposes that is like saying the Bulls were the same team when MJ was trying to hit curveballs in the minor leagues.

Barnes’ team has two conference games left ([tag]Kansas[/tag] and [tag]Baylor[/tag]) before the conference tournament. As long as Texas splits those games and wins their opening round tournament game they’ll get into March Madness.

Luckily Texas won some early games against big name opponents and Blake Griffin can’t handle contact or NIT would have been what this team had for supper.

There aren’t any great teams in college basketball. North Carolina, Connecticut, Duke, [tag]Oklahoma[/tag], and everyone else have shown the ability to drop a game they should win. That fact gives Texas hope if they can hang in there and get to the tournament. The Longhorns could be a bracket buster this year.

Maybe not.

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Posted February 23rd, 2009 by Mike
Filed under: Basketball, Feature

What a difference a week makes? Last week at this time the fans on the 40 Acres were left scratching their heads wondering out loud if their Texas Longhorns were really going to end up in the NIT.

One week later on the back of [tag]AJ Abrams[/tag] scoring ability and the inability of player of the year candidate Blake Griffin to take a hit the Longhorns are right back in the thick of things after a win over [tag]Oklahoma[/tag]. The team now holds wins over Oklahoma, [tag]UCLA[/tag], [tag]Villanova[/tag], and [tag]Wisconsin[/tag]. Out of their eight losses only the [tag]Arkansas[/tag] and [tag]Kansas State[/tag] losses can be considered bad.

The style of play Texas uses makes every game a dog fight. The style is a double edged sword. Every game being close makes teams vulnerable to lesser teams who are hot down the stretch of a ball game, i.e. Kansas State. The style also keeps a team in a game they probably shouldn’t be in, i.e. Oklahoma.

Texas’ back yard mentality stifled the Sooners in the first half while Griffin dealt with foul trouble and a glass chin. The Longhorns made a run to push out the lead, but anyone who has watched this team play all season knew Oklahoma would make a run. In fact, the Sooners made two double digit to zero runs in the second half as the Longhorns struggled to score when Abrams was being guarded and forwards [tag]Damion James[/tag] and [tag]Gary Johnson[/tag] struggled with their mid-range game.

Texas has been prone to long dry spells offensively all year because of inconsistent point guard play. The major bright spot, besides the win itself, on Saturday night has to be the emergence of [tag]Dogus Balbay[/tag] as the true starting point guard.

The move makes this team the same as last year’s with the trade at the one guard Balbay for [tag]DJ Augustin[/tag]. While the trade is nowhere near even, it does allow [tag]Justin Mason[/tag] to stay on the floor and concentrate on defense and clean ups instead of running the show and more importantly it puts James back at power forward where he can slash to the bucket and be a monster on offensive rebounds.

Balbay has the ability to penetrate the lane and either finish with his underrated athleticism or find a shooter in the corner. Abrams can shoot from anywhere at any time, but the other Texas shooters like James, Mason and [tag]Connor Atchley[/tag] enjoy success when they catch and shoot. The ease in which their shot came off of drive and kick plays has been missing all season. When Abrams was the point guard the offensive relied on isolation and pick and rolls, when Mason was the point guard he had the ability to get to the bucket but only to get himself points, but now that Balbay is the man at the point the whole Texas offense has opened up.

Another positive that came from beating the Sooners was the play of [tag]Dexter Pittman[/tag]. The big guy dominated the paint even when Griffin was still healthy and fresh. He also made the key rebound and bucket of the game following an Abrams miss with less than 15 seconds left in the second half.

Saying Atchley is struggling on par with our economy. And just like the guys in Washington it looks like head coach [tag]Rick Barnes[/tag] is at a loss on what to do. Barnes has started him, brought him off the bench, played him inside, and even tried playing him at the small forward for stretches. Atchley played decent against Oklahoma but he is not the threat he once was. There was a time some were calling him the best pro prospect on the roster this year. Not anymore.

Pittman received the start because of the matchup with Griffin, but after his strong play with Griffin out of the game don’t be surprised to see Atchley coming off the bench for the rest of the season. If Pittman does get the start it will mean Atchley would be the second big man to come off the bench after Gary Johnson. Right now Johnson and Pittman do more for this team, and while I’m sure it is hard for Barnes to sit a senior who has given so much for the program Barnes still has to do what is best for the program. At this time that may be taking away significant minutes from Atchley.

While the win has many guaranteeing a tournament berth for the Longhorns, Texas still has work left to do. They have three winnable games against [tag]Texas Tech[/tag], [tag]Oklahoma State[/tag], and [tag]Baylor[/tag] before finishing up in [tag]Kansas[/tag] against the Jayhawks before the Big 12 Tournament.

If Texas can go three of four in that time they’d finish at 10-6 in conference. That gets Texas in no matter what happens in the tournament because believe it or not the nation respects the Longhorn basketball program more than the fans and students do.

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Posted February 17th, 2009 by Mike
Filed under: Basketball, Feature

For the first time in the [tag]Rick Barnes[/tag] era the University of Texas basketball team is in real danger of not making the NCAA tournament. This could be the most any of the major three programs (football, basketball, baseball) has struggled in the regular season since their respective coaches arrived on the Forty Acres.

Rick Barnes is an amazing coach, but sometimes the players just aren’t there. For the 2009 UT basketball team that player is [tag]DJ Augustin[/tag]. Last year Augustin was recognized as the best point guard in the nation. He decided to leave after his sophomore year for the NBA, a move that has worked out for everybody but the Longhorns.

Texas has been spoiled in the backcourt in recent memory. The stellar play started with [tag]TJ Ford[/tag], next came [tag]Daniel Gibson[/tag], and then Augustin. Right now they’re stuck with Justin Mason who can’t score, [tag]AJ Abrams[/tag] who can’t dribble or pass, and [tag]Dogus Balbay[/tag] who can’t shoot and struggles with consistency.

Every key member from last year’s Elite 8 team returned besides Augustin. Last year at this time Texas was playing for a number one seed and the talk around town was of national championships. This year the Longhorns are coming off four losses in their last six games, none to a top 10 team, and the talk is centered around if the team will even get to be a part of March Madness.

There is still talk of national championships on campus, but the sport is football.

Texas went through something similar following their Final Four berth when the then sophomore Ford decided to skip his last two years of college for the NBA. Barnes had his whole team coming back then too, but the group led by Brandon Mouton, Royal Ivey, and James Thomas at least made it to the tourney. On the message boards, at the water cooler, and on the couch most fans are looking for someone to blame. Has Barnes forgotten how to coach? Did the players regress that much? Who kidnapped [tag]Connor Atchley[/tag]?

The answers aren’t that simple. Or maybe they are. We’ve all heard the expression, “It isn’t the X’s and O’s it’s the Jane’s and the Joe’s.” The 2009 version of Texas basketball has proved the old saying to be right.

The Longhorn offense is set up for a player to dominate the ball and create for teammates who are coming off screens. Texas has the players to come off the screens but they don’t have the guy to get them the ball at the right time in the right spot. On top of that Barnes likes to have a guard who can shoot and score off the dribble. Texas has guards who can shoot and they have guards who can score off the dribble, but they don’t have any who can do both. This allows defenses to play a box and one, trailing Abrams, and making other people beat them.

So far Texas hasn’t done it enough. It is hard to imagine this same team beating UCLA and Villanova, but they did. And that fact leaves some hope, but with [tag]Kansas[/tag] and [tag]Oklahoma[/tag] still on the schedule it looks like a .500 finish may be in sight. With the Big 12 in a perceived down year, that just won’t cut it.

It is looking more and more likely that the Longhorn fate will be decided in the Big 12 tournament. And this year it has nothing to do with seeding. It will have to do with the bubble. A word Texas hasn’t had to worry about in a decade.

The good news is the cavalry is coming. Texas has a top three recruiting class coming in and they all can score. Just another reason to wish for next fall to get here.

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Posted February 6th, 2009 by Mike
Filed under: Basketball, Feature

Varez Ward and the entire Texas team struggled against Missouri

Varez Ward and the entire Texas team struggled against Missouri (TexasSports.com)

Texas had not lost at home since February of 2007; they’ve now lost twice at the Frank Erwin Center in the last seven days. [tag]Kansas State[/tag] came in and won in overtime thanks to Denis Clemente’s 44 points. Then on Wednesday [tag]Missouri[/tag] came in and outlasted the Longhorns to capture sole possession of third place in the conference.

Texas had won three straight since dropping a game in [tag]Oklahoma[/tag]. But even with those wins it was obvious something was missing on this team. Against OU, Tech, and [tag]Baylor[/tag] Texas failed to score over 30 points in the first half. Against Kansas State it got even worse as the Longhorns scored only 22 points in the first 20 minutes of the ball game.

Rick Barnes’ team just can’t get it all together at the same time. One game [tag]Damion James[/tag] will go off, next game [tag]AJ Abrams[/tag] can’t miss, and in another [tag]Dexter Pittman[/tag] looks like an unstoppable force in the paint. A week ago it looked like [tag]Dogus Balbay[/tag] was finally going to be the answer at point guard, flash forward to the Missouri loss and Balbay only registered two minutes of play.

Basketball is all about confidence, and right now as a team Texas has none. Early in the season the Longhorn defense put fear in opponents, especially on the ball. Now it looks like Texas is lost. They let a marginal player in Clemente take over a game, and then on the key play of the Missouri game Texas’ best on ball defender, [tag]Justin Mason[/tag], allowed a Missouri guard to get all the way to the paint for a game winning bucket with 5.5 seconds left on the clock. No big guy came over to help on the play.

Everybody knows Barnes is a great coach, so it is hard to understand the lapses in mental judgment by this team. There is no doubting their effort, this team plays hard, but at times the fundamental flaws on this team are just mind boggling. If it isn’t poor rotation of defense it is a bad block out on the defensive boards, if it isn’t a horrid fast break attempt it is the lack of passes on the offensive end.

This season has shown how important a point guard is in college basketball. Texas doesn’t have a player, like in past seasons, that can sense when the team needs a bucket and has the ability to go get it. Texas went scoreless for the last 5:01 of the first half against Missouri, erasing what was a 12 point lead at one time, because nobody on the offensive side can create for themselves or other people. James has become a one on one player, [tag]Gary Johnson[/tag] wants to be a jump shooter, [tag]Connor Atchley[/tag] looks lost, and Abrams is only effective when he running off screens.

Fortunately it will take a mega meltdown to miss out on the tournament. With wins over [tag]UCLA[/tag], [tag]Villanova[/tag], and [tag]Wisconsin[/tag] it is a safe bet that Texas will get in there. Especially considering it is a down year in the Big 12. Unfortunately it doesn’t look like there are any answers to what ails this ball team. Something about them doesn’t seem right, and I’m not sure even Rick Barnes knows what is going on.

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Texas guard AJ Abrams shot the ball well on the way to 19 points

Texas guard AJ Abrams shot the ball well against Baylor on the way to 19 points

Texas won two games in four days against in state conference foes Texas A&M and [tag]Baylor[/tag]. Combine those wins with one against [tag]Texas Tech[/tag] earlier in conference play and the Longhorn domination of the state of Texas has continued in a season most are considering a down year.

For all the conceived shortcomings of the 2009 version of Longhorn basketball has, Rick Barnes’ team is 4-1 in the Big 12 with the only loss coming to soon to be number one ranked Oklahoma on the road. They are also ranked in the top 15 with no real bad losses on their resume. They do however have wins over [tag]UCLA[/tag], [tag]Villanova[/tag], and [tag]Wisconsin[/tag].

Texas has accomplished this by outworking their opponents on the defensive side of the court. No team in the Big 12, and maybe the country, can pressure the ball on the perimeter as well as Texas. A lot has been made about the progression of [tag]Damion James[/tag] as a perimeter player, but few take into account what it has done for the Texas defense. With James at 3 it allows another big guy to work the paint. Instead of having say [tag]Justin Mason[/tag] at 3, which you would if James still played 4 because [tag]Dogus Balbay[/tag] would come in to play point guard, now you have a 6’7″ guy getting hands in the face of a good outside shooter. Basically the move adds five inches to the Longhorn lineup.

Banes’ team is also aided by being full of tough guys, mentally and physically. None of them shy away from physical play or melt under pressure. [tag]AJ Abrams[/tag] is a cold blooded assassin; the little guy wants the ball when the game is on the line. Everything that needed to be proven about Abrams toughness should have been laid to rest in the last few minutes of the [tag]Notre Dame[/tag] game. Texas lost the game, but Abrams singlehandedly would not let Texas give up. He made shot after shot, and came an inch or two away from draining a half court shot to steal the win.

Justin Mason may not be a great offensive point guard but the guy is a junk yard dog. He is relentless on defense and takes pride in guarding the opponent’s number one perimeter scorer. Mason is also a great rebounder and is considered by most on the team as the on and off court leader.

James, [tag]Gary Johnson[/tag], and [tag]Dexter Pittman[/tag] give Texas size, strength, and physicality to the Longhorn middle. A Rick Barnes front line is not going to be soft, and these guys are no exception.

With all that said, this year’s team is not as talented as some of the year’s past. Texas ranks last in the Big 12 in three-point shooting in part because the team doesn’t have a point guard to set up Abrams, [tag]Connor Atchley[/tag], and James up for easy shots and in part because Texas simply lacks more than one legit perimeter shooter. The only player on the roster opposing teams don’t want shooting threes is Abrams. If James is shooting threes he is not driving to the bucket or collecting rebounds. If Mason is shooting threes he is not playing within his game. If Atchley is shooting threes, at least this year, it is not a good thing. If Balbay is shooting a three the shot clock is about to go off.

With no one to stretch the floor teams can basically play a box and one, leaving one man on Abrams at all times, turning the basketball game into four on four. And without a dominating point guard Texas is left to taking off rhythm jump shots in half court offense.

Point guard has been the bugaboo position for Texas all year. It is clear Mason isn’t the answer, and it is also clear Barnes feels Abrams is limited when playing the role. Enter Dogus Balbay. The Turkish national player earned more minutes than Mason in the game against Baylor. It is clear that Texas’ half court offense is at its best with Balbay at the point. The problem is you have to sit Mason or Abrams. Or do you? Don’t be surprised to see Texas go back to a small lineup when offense is needed. A lineup of Abrams, Mason, Balbay, James, and Johnson would be Texas’ best on the offensive side of the ball.

The problem is that takes away the defensive size discussed earlier. And there lies the crux for this Texas team. The Longhorns have the players to excel offensively and to excel defensively. The problem is that there isn’t a combination of five guys that allows them to do both at the same time.

The conventional wisdom is that the defensive priority will win out. Barnes stresses defense and will not likely sacrifice pressure for points. Texas will continue to rely on defense to create points and scrap out wins as they come. And the wins will come, but it will be interesting to see how they come during tournament time.

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Posted January 18th, 2009 by Mike
Filed under: Basketball, Feature

Texas bounced back from their road loss in Norman with a win in Lubbock over [tag]Texas Tech[/tag] on Saturday. The Longhorns did it with defense, which continues to be the strength of this team. Texas pressures the ball as well as any team in the country. When they cause turnovers or force bad shots, Texas has been able to create quick paced offense on the other end. However, the Achilles heel of this team continues to be half court offense.

Tech had been known as an offensive team this year. The Red Raiders had scored over 150 points in one game earlier in the year. But Texas held them to under 50 in a game that showed even if Texas is “underachieving”; the separation between them and the middle of the pack teams in the Big 12 is still there.

[tag]Justin Mason[/tag] and [tag]AJ Abrams[/tag] had good games after struggling for the last few weeks. Mason got back to what he does best, defense and rebounding. The junior guard is not going to wow anybody with his point guard ability and I think at this time in the season it is time to stop forcing a square peg into a round hole and just let him do what he does best. Mason may be the best rebounding guard Texas has had in recent memory. The responsibility for the point guard is to get back after miss shots to prevent easy fast break buckets for the opponent. This took away one of the best offensive rebounders for Texas, so they’ve made the adjustment to get Abrams back unless he shoots from the corner.

To help with the half court offense [tag]Dogus Balbay[/tag] is getting more and more time. Balbay is the best penetrator on the team. And with players like Abrams, [tag]Damion James[/tag], and [tag]Connor Atchley[/tag] having a guard who can drive and kick is invaluable. All three of their offenses have struggled this year because there is no player on the roster that has made their job easier.

The style Texas excels in is not going to allow for many blowouts. Even with the 20 point margin at the end of the Tech game, the Red Raiders kept it close for a while. Barnes’ squad is going to have to fight tooth and nail for everything they get, and because of that the Longhorns are going to lose a few to teams they shouldn’t. It will also make them a very dangerous and unpredictable team in March which in college basketball is all that really matters.

The question going forward is will the Texas defense be enough against the best teams in the country. The answer so far has been, sometimes. If another team’s offense is clicking like Notre Dame’s and Oklahoma’s, the Longhorns are going to struggle to create enough points to stay in it unless Abrams is on fire. If the Texas pressure gets to their opponent like UCLA and Michigan State, Texas is going to be right in it until the end.

Rick Barnes’ teams tend to get better and better as the year goes on. For the first time in years a Texas team appears to be treading water. History suggests the team will snap out of it and make a serious run in March, but at this point I’m not sure anybody knows what the answer is. The simple fact is the answer may not exist and will be up the Texas players to make something happen when the tournament starts. If this was football the season would be over for all intents and purposes. But in basketball Texas still has as much of chance as anybody. Yes, even Oklahoma.

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Gary Johnson has become one of the team's most consistent scorers.

Sophomore forward Gary Johnson has become one of the team's most consistent scorers.

The Texas Longhorns scraped by a game [tag]Iowa State[/tag] ball club to win their conference opener 75-67. The game came sandwiched between a loss to Arkansas and a looming Big Monday showdown in Norman against the top-ten ranked Oklahoma Sooners. All of Texas’ losses have come away from the Erwin Center.

The Longhorns continue to struggle from the perimeter. Teams are proving that [tag]AJ Abrams[/tag] can be taken out of Texas’ half court offense and the guys around him do not have the skill set to consistently knock down three-pointers. Texas ranks last in the Big 12 in three-point shots made.

It is likely that Abrams and the other Horns will regain confidence in their outside shot. As conference play begins guys like [tag]Damion James[/tag], [tag]Conner Atchley[/tag], and [tag]Justin Mason[/tag] will get better as they play familiar foes. The problem that appears to not have an answer on the roster is at point guard. Abrams doesn’t have the ability to play there against high level opponents and Mason for all his strengths is not getting it done. Bench players like [tag]Dogus Balbay[/tag] and [tag]Varez Ward[/tag] are not consistent enough yet to be counted on. Balbay has an even worse jump shot than Mason and Ward doesn’t play the defense Barnes expects for an on ball defender.

The disadvantage of not having an explosive point guard has been evident in the late part of Texas’ losses. All three losses were determined in the last minute of the game, and all but maybe [tag]Notre Dame[/tag] could have been won with better offensive execution. The Longhorns can’t get easy shots. They can’t get them for themselves and they can’t get them for their teammates. With all the good things this team does it won’t mean much come March if the point guard doesn’t become a factor for this team.

The saving grace for this team and the one thing that makes them dangerous come tournament time is their ability to match up and play on ball defense like no other team in the country. Damion James playing at the three has not paid off completely on the offensive end, but it has vastly improved the total team defense for this team. Last year Mason was guarding small forwards, he now guards the point guard. The length James adds to the lineup at the three position helps with tip balls, help defense, and rebounding on both ends. Texas does a great job with help defense for the most part. The negative that comes out of that is they occasionally find themselves out of rebounding position. Texas allows too many put backs.

Over the last few games [tag]Gary Johnson[/tag] has emerged as a weapon. The sophomore is sliding into the role James abandoned when he moved to the wing and he is quickly becoming a major factor on offense. Lately, Johnson has been the go to guy and the most consistent player on the offensive side. He rebounds with ferocity and hustles at all times. Barnes will rely on him more and more because of the emergence of his mid-range jump shot. Johnson has a high release which allows him to get it off every time without the threat of a rejection. He will have to be huge on offense and defense against Blake Griffen for Texas to have any chance against Oklahoma.

Another player that needs to step up in the middle is [tag]Dexter Pittman[/tag]. The big man is a mismatch for everybody on the court. The work he has done in the weight room cannot be understated, but he has to avoid the cheap fouls that prevent him from finding out how many minutes he can play. When he is on the court he opens up the outside, shots that will eventually begin to fall. The Longhorn outside shots are not going to come from drive and kicks, they will come from the post. The more attention that has to be paid to Pittman, Johnson, and James the more space Abrams will have.

No doubt this is a down year for Texas. And by that I mean their ceiling isn’t as high as teams of the past. But it says a ton about the program, coaches, and players that a down year fields a conference championship contender, a top-ten ranking, and a good shot at going to another Sweet 16. We just watched a football team overachieve for a full year, maybe the basketball team will do the same.

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AJ Abrams will need to more than score this year.

AJ Abrams will need to more than score this year.

Texas enters the upcoming basketball season ranked in the top ten and poised to make another successful tournament run. Rick Barnes wants his team to be tough and physical, winning games on the defensive end. This team may represent that more than any team he has had in Austin. The Longhorns come into the season with nine out of their ten man rotation from last year. The team only lost one player, but it might have been the worst possible one to lose. Point guard [tag]DJ Augustin[/tag] now plays in the NBA and Texas will spend the early part of the year figuring out who will control the ball. [tag]AJ Abrams[/tag] wants to play more point, but the team plays better when he plays off the ball and [tag]Justin Mason[/tag] runs the point. The addition of Turkish slasher [tag]Dogus Balbay[/tag] may provide the answer when it is all said and done.

Here is a breakdown of what to expect from the starters. We’ll look at the bench players in an upcoming feature.

Point Guard

[tag]AJ Abrams[/tag] – Abrams has already become the most prolific three point shooter in school history. In the off season the former McNeil star tested the NBA waters and what he found was that his only chance to make a living in the league is to become a point guard. Abrams is too small to play the two in the NBA, but he fits perfectly into the role at the college level. After thinking about making the jump, Abrams decided to return for his senior year. [tag]Rick Barnes[/tag] has allowed AJ to play more point in the off season, but it is a position that AJ failed to play well at even in high school. It is likely that Texas will rely on a point guard by committee until someone steps up in the role. Expect Abrams to play the point more early in the season than he will as it gets into February and March because Texas will need him to do what is best for this team and not what will give him the best chance to get drafted.

Shooting Guard

[tag]Justin Mason[/tag] – Mason is the classic Rick Barnes guy. He is more junk yard dog than basketball player. Mason is by far Texas’ best perimeter and may end up being the guy that handles the majority of the point guard duty. He isn’t going to “wow” anybody with his ball skills, but he is a solid player that plays his hardest on every possession he is on the court. Mason fits perfectly into the style of play this team is going to have to adopt to be successful. Texas is going to have to dominate on the defensive end, rebound, and fight for points on offense. There is no doubt that the talent level at the lead guard position will take a hit with the loss of Augustin, but the steady play of Mason should provide the Longhorns enough ability to make a serious run at the Big 12 championship. Mason’s stat line isn’t going to blow anybody away, but he does so many things well he is going to be invaluable for this year’s team.

Small Forward

[tag]Damion James[/tag] – James made the transition from inside player to wing player last year and it could end up being the best thing that has happened to this team heading into this season. His freshman year was spent collecting rebounds and scoring put backs as [tag]Kevin Durant[/tag] dominated the ball. When Durant left, UT needed a big player on the wing. James made the transition with ease. He ended up being one of the only players in the country to average a double-double and enters the season on most people’s All-American watch list. James could up being the most important player on the roster. His play will be a huge determinate of where this team ends up. If he can continue to be a force on defense and the boards while keeping his three point percentage up Texas will be a nightmare match up for most teams. James has struggled creating offense off the dribble, but summer reports had him working tirelessly with Kevin Durant on just that, and if he puts it all together he will likely be a lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft.

Power Forward

[tag]Clint Chapman[/tag] – Heading into the season most thought [tag]Gary Johnson[/tag] would start at the four. Against Stetson Chapman got the start. Chapman isn’t a better player than Johnson so the thought must be that Chapman compliments the starters better and Barnes wants Johnson to be his sixth man off the bench. Chapman is going to give you hustle, rebounding, and the occasional bucket around the basket. Barnes is not going to draw up many plays for the sophomore from Oregon, but he does have the skills to score if given an opportunity. The Longhorns need length in the front court and Chapman may give them more of that than Johnson. I wouldn’t think he’d stay in the starting lineup for the whole season as Barnes may look to change who starts at the four depending on practice and game performance on a week by week basis. Texas has a lot of options at the position with Chapman, Johnson, and [tag]Alexis Wangmene[/tag].

Center

[tag]Connor Atchley[/tag] – Atchley was the biggest surprise on last year’s team. He provides match up nightmares because of his ability to step out and nail the outside jumper. Atchley also proved he could provide defensive help by leading the team in block shots. He isn’t the most physical player, but the roster has plenty of those. Atchley just needs to continue to do what he does best. He stretches the defense and has even worked on a sky hook. Barnes may trust Atchley more than any other player on the roster and with the loss of Augustin will look to the senior for on court leadership. Especially in the front court where there are talented, but young and inexperienced players behind him. Atchley is best suited to play at the four, and we may see a little of that if he is paired with [tag]Dexter Pittman[/tag] in the front court. Texas’ most dangerous lineup would be Abrams and Mason in the back court with James, Atchley, and Pittman playing in the middle.

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The Houston Chronicle looks at how Memphis and UT match up. They give Memphis the edge overall, but I think they’re off in saying Rose has the edge over Augustin.

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After playing well in hostile territory in the first two rounds, the Longhorns come home to Texas for the Sweet 16. On Friday the Horns will take on [tag]Stanford[/tag] in a 2 vs. 3 match-up in Houston. The Cardinal pose the biggest challenge in the tourney yet for Texas, particularly the giant Lopez twins down inside.

The 14 feet of Lopezes in the paint means the Longhorns need a big game defensively from the likes of [tag]Connor Atchley[/tag], [tag]Damion James[/tag], [tag]Gary Johnson[/tag], [tag]Alexis Wangmene[/tag], and big [tag]Dexter Pittman[/tag]. On the offensive end Texas needs another hot shooting night out of junior guard [tag]AJ Abrams[/tag], but open looks won’t come as easily as they did in the previous two games.

Watch the SI.com video preview of Stanford below:

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