Season Begins with Coaches vs. Cancer Classic

Thursday's tip-off marks the earliest start for Texas basketball in Rick Barnes' nine-year tenure. But there's no time to waste when you've got three freshmen and two sophomores in a lineup that returns no starters.

Besides, 8:30 p.m. (CST) season-opener against Alcorn State is for a good cause. It's part of the 16-team 2K Sports College Hoops Classic benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer. Chicago State and St. Bonaventure join Texas in the Austin Regional. Each Longhorn game will be televised on ESPNU. Michigan State, Maryland and St. John's are also regional hosts. The four regional pod winners will advance to the semifinal and championship round in New York City, slated for Nov. 16-17.

For Barnes, The Departed is not just the title of recent Martin Scorcese film but an apropos moniker for the 2006 hoops season since he is replacing all five starters from last year's Elite Eight team. Last season's starting lineup represented 86 percent of Texas' scoring and 90 percent of its rebounding. That's why the Hoops Classic allows Barnes a head start to tinker with his rotation.

"People have said it's going to take us a longer time to figure it out," Barnes noted. "I asked them, 'Why? Why do we have to have a timetable?' Let's figure it out ourselves as quickly as we can. There's going to be some things we'll have to learn through competition, but hopefully we can get a lot taken care of before we get into a game and learn things the tough way."

The starting lineup will include freshman G/F Kevin Durant and freshman guard D.J. Augustin, two first-team prep All-Americans. The consensus No. 2 prospect in the nation, Durant is the highest rated recruit ever to wear the Burnt Orange. If Durant and Augustin weren't on the team, the freshman that Horns fans would be talking about is G/F Damion James, a second-team Parade All-American and the Player of the Year for the state of Texas. James and Durant are swingmen but "they're really two-guards," Barnes said. "We're starting the game with four guards in terms of guys who can handle the ball. Both Damion and Kevin can bring the ball up and they can rebound it."

Sophomore Connor Atchley is expected to earn his first collegiate start Thursday after seeing action in 29 games as a RS-freshman. Rounding out the starting rotation is sophomore guard A.J. Abrams, whose on start in 2005 makes him Barnes' most experienced Longhorn. Abrams averaged a team-best 21.0 ppg during Texas' two exhibition wins.

Yet the most impressive debut has came from James.

"Damion was the best player on the floor (during exhibition games)," Barnes said. "He averaged a double-double. He did a lot of things for us defensively. He set a great tone for us. Damian is one of the most durable freshmen we've ever had here."

James came to Texas in a roundabout way, originally signing with Oklahoma. He was released from his letter after former Sooner coach Kelvin Sampson took the Indiana job and then slapped with NCAA sanctions for improper recruiting contacts (prior to James' signing).

"Damion loves the game and plays with a lot of passion," Barnes continued. "He wants to improve and wants to do whatever he has to do for him teammates to win. If we ask him to screen, he's going to screen. If we ask him to defend bigger guys, he's going to defend bigger guys. If we ask him to defend smaller payers, he's going to give us that. His unselfish attitude is what every coach dreams of."

For now, Barnes is preparing his youngsters for a potentially nightmarish non-conference slate with games against LSU, Tennessee, Gonzaga, Arkansas and Villanova. There's also the road game at No. 3 Kansas, the home-and-away with OU and Texas A&M is a Top 15 squad in both major wire service polls. Much of the legwork is actually accomplished sitting down, as Barnes wants his young charges to grasp the importance of everything from film-room study to the pre-game meal.

"Sometimes people look at 'toughness' as guys diving on the floor, which is certainly part of it, but toughness comes in a lot of different shapes. Do you do the things necessary to prepare yourself for the game? Do you take care of your body? Do you understand what it means to mentally prepare 90 minutes before a game? Do you know the importance of the pre-game warm-up? And have improved in those areas. During the first exhibition game, we acted like a young team and responded like a young team. We addressed it and we thought we were much better with it (Monday) night."

There is added emphases on film-room study with such a young team.

"We've shown the guys a lot of tape trying to show them the level of intensity they have to compete at when you're at this level. We've shown them teams that have played great post defense. We've shown them great rebounding teams."

It all begins with Thursday's tip at the Erwin Center. Players and coaches rarely state a preference of future opponents but, for Barnes, it's personal. Barnes wants St. Bonaventure. That's because he tried to recruit Bonnies head coach Anthony Solomon as a student-athlete when Barnes was head coach at George Mason (1987-88).

"I want to beat him because he turned me down," Barnes said. "I begged him to come to George Mason but we weren't good enough for him."

The winner of the Austin regional will face the champion of Michigan State regional at Madison Square Garden on November 16.

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