For the first time in six seasons, Texas will have seniors on its roster, but it’s the Longhorns’ newcomers that are generating the most anticipation.
With its mix of experience and arguably the best recruiting class in school history, third-ranked Texas is expected to contend for both the Big 12 and NCAA tournament titles as it starts the season Sunday against visiting UC Irvine in the CBE Classic.
After averaging 15.4 points and a team-best 9.2 rebounds in 2008-09, all-conference swingman Damion James worked out for NBA teams in the spring but decided to come back for his final season in Austin. Center Dexter Pittman and Big 12 all-defensive guard Justin Mason have also returned, giving Texas its first senior class since 2003-04.
What has boosted the Longhorns to one of their highest preseason rankings in school history, though, is a freshman class led by Avery Bradley.
Considered one of the nation’s top recruits, Bradley led Findlay (Nev.) Prep to 33-0 record and the mythical high school national championship. He also earned national player of the year honors while averaging 19.1 points on 54.1 percent shooting.
The highly touted guard, already a Naismith Trophy candidate, joins sophomore Varez Ward and fellow freshmen Jordan Hamilton, Shawn Williams and J’Covan Brown in a ultra-deep backcourt.
In mid-December, the Longhorns will add another guard, Florida transfer Jai Lucas, and Mason started every game during last season’s 23-12 finish.
Texas has reached the NCAA tournament in each of Rick Barnes’ 11 seasons at the school, falling in the second round last season to Duke. The Longhorns, however, haven’t reached the Final Four since 2003.
“The challenge will be how do we bring it all together,” Barnes said. “We’ve got guys who can play and we’ve got to get them out there.”
While his team is loaded with guards, Barnes will lean on the frontcourt duo of James and Pittman, who averaged 10.1 points and 5.5 rebounds last season despite playing only 16.6 minutes per game.
“We haven’t had a senior class in I don’t know how long,” Barnes said. “Those seniors know what it takes to be on the court, and they lead by example. As talented as some of these younger guys are, they are learning that it takes more than talent.”
The Longhorns have a difficult non-conference schedule, playing NCAA tournament champion North Carolina and fellow 2009 Final Four teams Connecticut and Michigan State. The Dec. 19 game against the Tar Heels will be played in the Cowboys new stadium in Dallas before an expected crowd of 75,000.
Texas also will play No. 1 Kansas in a highly anticipated Big 12 clash Feb. 8.
UC Irvine (1-0) opened its season Friday night with an 82-54 home victory over Division III La Verne. Four of the Anteaters’ starters scored in double figures, led by Michael Hunter’s 14 in 14 minutes.
Pavol Losonsky and Darren Moore added 12 apiece, and sophomore forward Eric Wise, a preseason All-Big West selection, had 10 points on 4 of 6 shooting in 21 minutes. Wise averaged a team-leading 14.0 points last season, while Hunter contributed 11.9 per game.
UC Irvine, picked to finish eighth in the nine-team conference, had 14 players see the floor in Friday’s win with all but two scoring.
This is the first meeting between the schools.