Texas hosts Texas State in the home opener but the road gets considerably tougher (not to mention picturesque) when the Horns travel to the Maui Invitational next Monday-Wednesday. The Horns open against giant-killer Chaminade on November 22 and could face No. 14 Louisville and No. 4 North Carolina by tourney's end.
The Horns sent the Tar Heels back to Tobacco Road, 78-75, last March to advance to a school-record third straight Sweet Sixteen appearance. And, lest we forget, Texas beat Kansas twice last season. But that was four seniors ago. So, why is coach Rick Barnes smiling?
In addition to those fab freshmen, Texas returns six players (including three starters) from last year's 25-8 squad that finished No. 10 in the ESPN/USA Today (coaches) poll. The roster features last season's Big 12 All-Freshman pick P.J. Tucker, who led his club in double-doubles (7) and rebounding (6.8 rpg).
Tucker was second in scoring (10.4 ppg) and is expected to shift this season from the power forward to small forward. Tucker was the first freshman in school history to post consecutive double-doubles to start his career. He was a four-time Big 12 Rookie of the Week pick last year, the most by a Longhorn freshman since the league's inception in 1996-97. His finger-roll at Providence marked the first buzzer-beating, game-winning shot by a Longhorn in 15 seasons.
"Defensively, P.J. can guard anybody on the court," Barnes said, "but with him playing more, the small forward wing position is going to allow us to have another rebounder out there."
Fifth-year senior C Jason Klotz started six games at center during post-season play, averaging a team-best 14 ppg while hitting 16-of-27 (59 percent) from the floor during the Big 12 Tourney.
If two exhibition games are an indicator, junior power forward Brad Buckman has overcome both a nasty sophomore slump as well as arthroscopic surgery to his right knee. In two pre-season contests, Buckman averaged a team-best 15.5 ppg and 6.5 rpg while nailing 23-of-26 FT (.885).
Senior shooting guard Kenny Taylor, the Baylor transfer who logged three starts last season, returns after hitting a team-high 59 treys (165 attempts). Senior shooting guard Sydmill Harris can be just as deadly from beyond the arch but has shown enough defensive and ball-handling deficiencies to keep him on the bench. Meanwhile, junior Kenton Paulino started 21 games at the point last year and has served notice (by his exhibition play) that he's not about to go quietly in the night by yielding his spot to some upstart freshman.
Speaking of upstart freshmen... some hoops pundits have gone so far as to compare Texas' diaper dandies with Michigan's 1991 recruiting class. The so-called Fab Five reached the Final Four twice, falling in the championship game each of their first two seasons.
Point guard Daniel Gibson, listed as the nation's No. 15 prospect overall last season by the TheInsidersHoops.com, is one of three McDonald's All-Americans in this year's freshman class. At 6-2, 190, Gibson is a very physical guard who ended his prep career as the leading scorer in Houston ISD history (3,102 points). The two-time Texas 4A first-team all-state selection averaged 25.5 ppg in leading Houston Jones to its first state championship since 1965. Renowned for his footwork, Gibson should run the floor like you know who. In fact, the biggest difference between Gibson and former Longhorn All-American T.J. Ford is that the freshman "can really shoot the ball. Everybody knows that," Barnes said. Both league coaches and sports media have forecast Gibson as the preseason Big 12 Freshman of the Year. In two exhibition games, Gibson averaged 14.5 ppg and 3.5 steals while hitting 10-of-15 FG (.667) and 7-of-9 from three-point range (.778).
McDonald's All-American freshman LaMarcus Aldridge bypassed the NBA Draft last June to play in Austin. Ranked No. 6 nationally, Aldridge is expected to be an inside force in Texas' frontcourt rotation with his 6-10 frame and a 7-1 wingspan. Many have compared Aldridge to former Syracuse All-American Carmelo Anthony not only for his immediate impact but also as someone who will opt for the Association after one season. During exhibition play, Aldridge has averaged 12 ppg and eight rpg while hitting 10-of-20 from the field.
The other freshman McDonald's All-American is 6-7 forward Mike Williams, who continues to await the NCAA's verdict regarding his eligibility. UT men's athletic officials remained tight-lipped this week regarding Williams' amateur status, but have said the university is cooperating with the NCAA to resolve as quickly as possible the eligibility issues that stem from Williams' high school career in Alabama. Williams' attorney is on record as stating that the NCAA is trying to determine if Williams' family received improper travel benefits three years ago from an AAU coach. UT officials are keeping Williams off the court as a precautionary move. The two-time 5A Alabama Player of the Year was TheInsidersHoops.com choice as the nation's No. 18 overall prospect. He averaged 26 points and 14 boards in leading his school to a Class 5A state championship as a junior. He upped his average to 28 points, 16 rebounds and seven blocks his senior year as his team reached the state semi-finals.
Freshman Dion Dowell will likely back Tucker at small forward. The 6-6, 195-pounder is versatile enough to challenge for playing time at the wing and savvy enough to compete with Taylor at shooting guard. Yet Dowell has so established himself as a defensive stopper that Barnes predicts he has the best chance to fill the Royal Ivey role this season than anyone wearing Burnt Orange.
Freshman center Connor Atchley is a lanky 6-9, 225-pounder whom Barnes said is the "most improved" player on his roster. Atchley has yet to play, though, as the staff considers a redshirt year for the Clear Lake product.
Barnes is not prone to hyperbole but has said that these guys are so good that it may be impossible to limit his rotation to just nine. When asked what his biggest concern was, given the fact that nearly half of his scholarship athletes are freshmen, Barnes thought for a moment and replied, "injuries."
Those who have followed Barnes' teams know that his offense is predicated upon tenacious defense, and where Barnes is consistently critical of squads is that he wants to see defensive improvement. Always. It comes as no surprise that Barnes' preliminary assessment of the 2004-05 Longhorns is, "We have got to be a better defensive team than we have been the past couple of years. These guys will tell you we have spent a lot of time with our man defense, and I think we will be better defensively because we are longer, more athletic."
Big 12 coaches and sports media predicted Texas to finish third in league play, behind senior-laden (and top-ranked) Kansas and defending conference champ Oklahoma State. Still, no one would be surprised to see youth served this season with Barnes' green-but-ridiculously talented bunch peaking at just the right time in a couple of months.
Key games on the Longhorn schedule include: December 18 at No. 2 Wake Forest, January 6 against No. 24 Memphis, January 29 at No. 1 Kansas, plus the home-and-away showdowns (Jan. 17, March 5) against No. 7 Oklahoma State.
For now, it is a Longhorn squad that combines seasoned upperclassmen with no finer infusion of freshmen talent. That's why Klotz, the old man on the block, is convinced that a second Final Four appearance in three seasons is not out of the question.
"We can get just as far as we have in the past with the guys we have added since last year and with the guys coming back," he said. "We have a great team. We can all play."