Texas overcame the loss of one of the best players in school history last season to advance as far in the NCAA tournament as it had in five years. One year later, it appears the Longhorns again have their work cut out for them.
Following the departure of D.J. Augustin for the NBA, the seventh-ranked Longhorns look to begin another successful rebuilding process as they open their season by hosting Stetson on Friday night.
Kevin Durant put together one of the best freshman seasons in NCAA history in 2006-07, averaging 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds, becoming the first freshman to win AP player of the year honors and leading the Longhorns to the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Durant left the team after one season and was the No. 2 overall pick in the NBA draft, a blow to the Longhorns’ hopes of contending again in 2007-08. Texas, though, rallied behind Augustin.
The Longhorns (31-7) set a school record for wins, matched eventual national champion Kansas for the Big 12 regular-season title, and advanced to the round of eight in the NCAA tournament before falling to runner-up Memphis.
This season’s team is in a familiar spot after losing Augustin. The 6-foot point guard led the Longhorns with 19.2 points and 5.8 assists per game before becoming the ninth overall pick in June’s draft.
Without Augustin, the Longhorns will lean more heavily on A.J. Abrams, their starting shooting guard last season who could man the point at times in 2008-09. Coach Rick Barnes, entering his 11th season with Texas, is confident the senior can handle the added workload.
“He’s worked really hard at trying to get guys involved,” said Barnes, Texas’ all-time winningest coach with 247 victories compared to 93 losses. “He’s a really good passer. He sees the floor. We’re teaching him and working with him on not getting away from what he does.
“We like the ball in his hands because he’s a playmaker. But he will throw the ball. If guys will get open and do what they’re supposed to, he’ll find them. He needs to talk more, which I think he will as time goes on.”
Abrams, who averaged 16.5 points last season, provided a sneak peek of what he can do as the focal point of an offense in the 2008 NCAA tournament. While Augustin struggled with his shot, Abrams led the Longhorns with 20.3 points per game and made 19 of his 38 3-point attempts. Only Davidson’s Stephen Curry made more shots from beyond the arc.
Barnes, though, doesn’t expect Abrams to continue Texas’ run of 10 straight NCAA tournament appearances by himself. He knows the team will need added contributions in the frontcourt from Connor Atchley and Damion James.
Atchley, a 6-foot-10 senior, shot 53.8 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from 3-point range last season, but attempted only 6.8 shots per game. He’ll likely see much more action this season.
“(Atchley) knows he’s important to us, but he’s got to give himself a lot more credit,” Barnes said. “He’s a guy that, when he’s open, I want him to shoot it. I don’t care if he’s missed four, five or six in a row, I want him to shoot the ball.”
James averaged 13.2 points and 10.3 rebounds as a sophomore last season, and should again anchor the Longhorns in the paint in 2008-09.
“When Damion is playing his best, he’s rebounding the ball, he’s really working hard at his defense out there,” Barnes said. “When he’s relaxed, he’s going to be everything he wants to be.”
Texas begins its latest retooling against a Stetson team that went 16-16 last season and lost in the opening round of the Atlantic Sun tournament. The Hatters are returning their top two scorers in Garfield Blair and A.J. Smith, a dynamic backcourt duo that combined to score 27.5 points per game in 2007-08.
Blair and Smith, however, face a tough first test in the Longhorns, who have won all three of their previous games against the Hatters. Texas won 96-83 in Austin the last time the teams met Feb. 25, 1991.