Hoops: These Horns Will Be Back

It says something about the elevated status of Texas basketball when all that stood between the program and its second Final Four appearance since 2003 was an OT loss Saturday to the Southeastern Conference champs.

Rick Barnes' bunch is a pre-season Top Five if all it loses are seniors Brad Buckman and Kenton Paulino, and probably a Top 10 even if F LaMarcus Aldridge takes his game to the NBA. The sophomore will now mull his NBA options, but the thought process includes the genuine advice he has received from, of all things, a prominent LSU supporter: former Tiger Shaquille O'Neal.

The counsel came two years ago during a lunch meeting when Aldridge was still a prep star in Dallas.

"He made the statement that you have time to develop in college whereas, when you go the NBA, you're on this timeline," Aldridge said. "If you don't meet that timeline, then you're out. That was the main thing he talked about, just have fun and take your time developing."

Personally, I've talked to several NBA scouts on hand to watch the Horns this past month and each -- almost to a man -- have said the same thing: Aldridge would benefit greatly from one more year in college, but you're still looking at a Lottery pick. Can a 20-year old defer that kind of do-re-mi? There's little question that Aldridge can, and would improve, with another season at Texas. But would it significantly increase his stock?

This past weekend in Atlanta magnified the type of Now-You-See-Him, Now-You-Don't season that Aldridge had following his first full year of college hoops. His 26-point performance against West Virginia was a career high; his four points against one of college basketball's three most physical frontcourts (along with Connecticut, Florida) was just one FG shy of a career-low set at Baylor last January. It was no small part of the reason why Texas suffered its poorest performance from the field (30.4 percent) Saturday.

"It's tough when your big guy can't score," Buckman said following the 70-60 loss, "but he tried his hardest."

No one has ever questioned Aldridge's work ethic and coachability. When his offense disappears, Aldridge compensates on the defensive end. Teammates say he is one of the nicest guys they've ever met (maybe too nice) while Barnes has bemoaned the fact that Aldridge is not more aggressive in demanding the ball. And when Aldridge stops moving away from the ball, the offense becomes stagnant. Add some M&M (Muscle and Meanness) to his game, develop a post-up move other than a baby-hook or a turnaround jumper, and Aldridge could be to Texas what Emeka Okafor was to Connecticut two seasons ago. Then again, it seems the more likely scenario is that Aldridge has played his last game at Texas while G Daniel Gibson returns for one more season.

One of the best moves Barnes made this past season was to move Gibson away from the point but, obviously, the sophomore struggled to find a consistent scorer's touch. There were too many instances in 2005-06 when the backcourt would dribble, and dribble, and dribble, and neither get penetration nor work the ball into the paint. Paulino may have been the slowest point guard we'll see at Texas for the remainder of the Rick Barnes era. Even so, Paulino battled through injuries during his tenure, was an over-achiever and a team player. He earned his scholarship long before that buzzer-beater against WVU. Gibson's 17 points against N.C. State is what turned that one into a 74-51 runaway. Offensively, he was virtually non-existent against Penn and WVU, but Texas does not force OT against LSU without Gibson draining half of his shots from outside the arc.

The high-profile Aldridge and Gibson almost overshadow Big 12 Player of the Year P.J. Tucker. The undersized forward with the oversized competitive streak, who led the Horns in scoring and rebounding this season, believes that whatever future he has in the NBA will be at shooting guard. Tucker will also mull his options but I'll be surprised if we don't see him return as one of those rare Player Of The Year caliber players who returns for his fourth year. Regardless, Tucker insists the immediate future at Texas looks mighty bright.

"We've got guys coming back. we've got coaches that do a great job recruiting and we've got a lot of good kids coming in," said Tucker. "We've got a great class next year. We're going to go back and work like we always do in the off-season. We're going to start working as soon as we get back, like we always do. We're just going to prepare for next year and just get ready."

Horn fans can get a glimpse of next year when a pair of Texas' most prizes signees -- F Kevin Durant and G D.J. Augustin team-up for the West squad at the McDonald's All-American High School Basketball Game Wednesday in San Diego. (The game will be broadcast live on ESPN, 5 p.m., Central.) The 6-9.5, 190-pound Durant is a five-star Longhorn commit from Rockville, Md., and is Scout.com's choice as the top prep star at his position nationally. He represents Barnes' most prized out-of-state recruit to date, boasting an exceptional shot off the dribble and deadly three-point range. Augustin (Fresno, Texas) is a 6-1, 170-pound floor general who you, frankly, would love to have had running the floor this past season.

But A.J. Abrams came into his own toward the end of his freshman season. For a while, he was the only reliable player off the Texas bench. Despite youthful mistakes (turnovers, plus the reputation for never meeting a shot that he didn't like), there were times when Abrams provided an offensive spark while elevating his defense considerably.

"A.J. has been a guy that has gotten better throughout the year," Barnes said, "He had some moments earlier in the year where he wasn't very good defensively. But in his feel for the game and his confidence, I don't think he's ever wavered."

Shooting guard J.D. Lewis should also figure more prominently in the scheme of things when he returns for his junior season. Off-guard Craig Winder needs work on the offensive end of the court if he's to fill his projected role as a defensive stopper.

Arguably, the most intriguing returnee is F Mike Williams, who finally showed some "presence" (as Barnes called it) in the Tournament. Horn fans have waited two years for the McDonald's All-American to flex his muscle but he never seemed comfortable with the ball in his hands. Things began to change when Barnes insisted that he more-or-less play within himself (offensively) while chasing down rebounds.

"He's not looking to go shoot, which I think has helped him," Barnes noted. "Roles change throughout the year. I think he was maybe trying to put too much on thinking he had to score to get into the game. And he doesn't have to do that."

C Connor Atchley (6-9) has three remaining years of eligibility. Coaches and players insist that no one works harder in practice that Atchley. In time, he'll be a more prominent sixth man (probably cut in the mold of Jason Klotz).

Add it up, and Texas has the nucleus (especially in the backcourt) to battle with Kansas for the Big 12 Conference title again and launch another deep run into next year's Tournament. With or without Aldridge, the infusion of talent is enough to make any Orangeblood giddy. Augustin will likely be an upgrade at the point, while Durant has the potential to be a sudden-impact player a la Carmelo Anthony. At the very least, Barnes has built the Longhorn program to where -- like its football counterpart -- he will reload rather than rebuild during the off-season.

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