It might seem odd to think that Texas will be better without Kevin Durant. The 15th-ranked Longhorns, however, believe that may be the case as they host Texas-San Antonio in their season opener on Monday.
Durant made his brief time on campus in Austin a memorable one, finishing fourth in the country with 25.8 points per game and earning national player of the year honors. The 6-foot-9 forward declared for the NBA draft after his freshman season and was the No. 2 selection by the Seattle SuperSonics.
“Guys like that don’t come along very often,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “I could talk forever about him and what he did. He’s the most improved player we’ve ever coached in a three-month period.”
Despite all the individual accolades Durant earned, Texas finished 25-10 and lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament to Southern California. That wasn’t good enough for a program seeking to return to the Final Four for the first time since 2003.
The Longhorns are looking forward to proving themselves without their leading scorer and best player from last season.
“Losing Kevin, I don’t think it will hurt us,” said guard A.J. Abrams, the Longhorns’ leading returning scorer at 15.5 points. “It will just make us change our game plan.”
One reason for Abrams’ optimism is Barnes’ decision to try to go back to the physical style the Longhorns were known for in years past after emphasizing Durant on the perimeter.
“We haven’t been a very good defensive team the last couple of years,” Barnes said. “And rebound-wise, I think the numbers say we’ve been OK, but we haven’t been what we needed to be. We have to put the emphasis on being a better team and rebounding team.”
In order to do that, top recruit Gary Johnson will have to become a factor for Texas. The 6-foot-7 power forward has been brought along slowly since being diagnosed with an unspecified heart condition last May and came off the bench for 13 points and six rebounds in an 87-56 exhibition win over Xavier of New Orleans on Nov. 2.
The Longhorns return their other four starters besides Durant, including point guard D.J. Augustin. The sophomore averaged 14.4 points and a Big 12-high 6.7 assists last season.
Texas-San Antonio (1-0) won its opener, 69-47 over Hardin-Simmons on Friday night. Freshman David Gibson scored 20 points to lead three Roadrunners in double figures.
The Roadrunners, who are coached by former Oklahoma State star Brooks Thompson, are 6-35 all-time against teams from the Big 12.
Texas has won five straight over Texas-San Antonio, including a 100-82 win on Dec. 29, 2004, in the last meeting. The Longhorns are 17-0 against Southland Conference foes under Barnes.