March 23, 2009

Offense won't be a problem for UT hoops in 2009-10

With A.J. Abrams and Connor Atchley moving on and Dexter Pittman and Damion James now contemplating their futures, it's time to start looking to the 2009-10 season.

First on the list for the Longhorns is to find a point guard who will bring some stability to a team that sorely lacked it this season.

POINT GUARD - UT's new point guard may already be on campus. Jai Lucas is in class and working out with the team. Lucas needs to get stronger and play better defense or he won't be out on the floor when he becomes eligible in mid-December after transferring from Florida. But he's a natural point guard with smart decision making who is comfortable at the free throw line. It's tough when your starting point guard is the worst free-throw shooter on the team (Dogus Balbay was 18-of-40, 45 percent, from the foul line this season) and you have to take him out at the four-minute mark of close games. That's when your point guard is supposed to take over.

The players who may have the most to prove to keep their playing time are Balbay and Justin Mason. Both were instructed to attack Duke's extended defense by blowing by defenders and neither could manage it. Balbay showed glimpses of being able to handle the job - like in the first half against Kansas. And there were times when he showed he couldn't - like against Duke (four turnovers, zero assists).

Varez Ward emerged in the Big 12 Tournament as a guy who might be able to handle the pressure of the point. After getting benched for the Kansas and Colorado games after a series of poor decision-making, including jacking up 3s early in the shot clock when he was 2-of-21 from 3 this season, Ward got the message: Work the shot clock, make the opponent play defense and when at all possible, drive to the rim with that 6-2, 195-pound frame. Going 7-of-8 against Duke, including scoring eight straight points in UT's 13-3 run late in the game is a nice last impression. He's also one of the best on-the-ball defenders on the team.

If Ward or Lucas emerge as the guy, Balbay could be in real trouble as far as playing time. Balbay is Doug Gottleib without the assists. Gottleib, when he was at Oklahoma State, was always among the conference and national leaders in assists - even though he rarely shot and couldn't make free throws.

If Damion James returns, there is a chance incoming freshman Avery Bradley (6-3, 175) of Tacoma, Wash., could take over the point. He's strong and tough-minded, just like Rick Barnes wants his point guards and can certainly get his own shot whenever he wants it. He would be a scoring point guard. Bradley is fearless driving to the basket and can drill it from outside. There will be no teams sagging off him next season.

SHOOTING GUARD - If Jai Lucas or Varez Ward win the point, Bradley will probably start at shooting guard because he can defend well enough for Barnes to trust him immediately. If Bradley starts at the point, the shooting guard may be freshman Shawn Williams of Duncanville, who can absolutely fill it up from 3. Williams will need work defending the perimeter at the college level, but he has long arms and should be a matchup nightmare for opponents at 6-7 and 215 pounds.

The only existing competition for Bradley or Hamilton at the No. 2 guard is Mason and Harrison Smith. Mason seemed to lose confidence this season after being removed from the point guard position. The attacking mentality we saw in last year's postseason never materialized. Neither did his well-timed 3s from last season. Smith earned the respect of Barnes' down the stretch. But the bar will be high for Smith to compete with someone like Bradley, a big-time scorer, when you consider Smith hit just 3-of-20 3-pointers this season.

Smith and Mason could really struggle to find minutes next season.

SMALL FORWARD - Here's where things get interesting. In all candor, Texas coaches were probably expecting Damion James to move on after this season to the NBA. Their scholarship numbers would indicate that anyway. (Texas has signed three players and only two scholarships come free - Abrams and Atchley.) So if James decides to stay, there could be some heart-to-heart talks that need to go on with the end of the bench. But if James decides to stay, it would also mean some serious depth at small forward.

You're talking about James and perhaps the jewel of UT's freshman class in 6-7 Jordan Hamilton of Los Angeles both working at small forward. I think the odds for Damion to move on are better than 50-50 - although a source close to James said he will talk to Barnes later this week for guidance and hasn't made up his mind. Barnes said he thinks James will come back. If that happens, Williams probably moves into the role of sixth man. Williams is a shooter in need of a lot of work defensively. Think Brian Boddicker (who also went to Duncanville), a big who can shoot threes and needed serious work on his defense and rebounding. One thing is for sure, Hamilton knows his way to the basket. Now, he's got to learn to rebound like James, whose board work would be sorely missed.

POWER FORWARD - Texas will have some serious muscle to throw around down low, led by Gary Johnson. With Atchley struggling and Johnson missing some time with an ankle injury, Clint Chapman showed signs that he can be a contributor on both ends of the floor. Coaches want better decision-making from Chapman and a blue-collar work ethic. But he will definitely be in the rotation at power forward. Also working at the four will be Alexis Wangmene, who returns from a knee injury. Wangmene needs a lot of work on the offensive end, but he's a physical, shot-blocking intimidator on the defensive end.

CENTER - There's probably a better chance Pittman returns next season than James. Pittman really trusts strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright and might want one more year to show he can be a regular playing 22 to 30 minutes per game and work on his left and right hook. If Pittman returns, it will greatly impact how Texas attacks opponents offensively. Coaches know it would be foolish not to run things through Pittman, who showed down the stretch he can dominate inside. But the staff also wants to get back to running whenever possible with the athleticism of Lucas, Bradley, Hamilton and Williams - guys who can finish. (Texas had no one who could finish on a consistent basis this season.)

If Pittman leaves early, Chapman, Matt Hill or Wangmene will work the center position, and the team will really run.

FINAL ANALYSIS: No matter how you look at it, Texas will be a completely different team next season - even if James and Pittman return. The team will definitely run more than it did this season. It should finish at the rim a lot better. Bradley, Hamilton and Williams are all good free-throw shooters and will do what guards and small forwards are supposed to do - be aggressive and give the team confidence by setting a tone. This past season, everyone was waiting around for someone to make something happen. That won't be the case next season.

If James and Pittman return, Texas will also be one of the deepest teams Barnes has had. That's good and bad. Barnes is a little like Duke's Mike Krzyzewski in that he likes to settle on a rotation seven or eight deep and play the heck out of it. Having a rotation 10 deep will allow him to press and extend the defense and get after people. And with that length on the perimeter thanks to Hamilton (6-7) and Williams (6-7) and Bradley (6-3), Texas will suddenly be the team with the hulking guards who can play over the top of teams.

In my opinion, the five that will be on the floor at crunch time next season will be Jai Lucas or Varez Ward at the point, Avery Bradley at shooting guard, Jordan Hamilton at small forward, Gary Johnson at power forward and Dexter Pittman at center. (That's if Damion moves on. If he doesn't, Bradley may be at the point, so Hamilton and James can be on the perimeter together.) In that situation, Shawn Williams will be a serious sixth man coming off the bench because he can fill it up.

Balbay and Mason are in danger of becoming situational defenders if they can't develop some confidence in their offense (and Balbay improve his free-throw shooting) because Bradley can defend. Chapman, Wangmene and Hill will fill in at power forward and center. Harrison Smith will fill in where needed, which may not be much. Bold early prediction: Texas beats Kansas in Austin for the Big 12 regular-season title. The Longhorns will have to beat KU in Kansas City for the Big 12 Tournament - no easy task. But look for the Longhorns to be in the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.


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