Hoops Preview: Depth and Experience

October in Austin: the first cold front, Lee Corso, kids begging for candy, 98,000 screaming fans begging for a touchdown and...basketball? Longhorn fans may be more concerned with goal lines than free throw lines for a while but it's never too early to look forward to March Madness.

Rick Barnes and the 2008-2009 Longhorn basketball team got the ball rolling with a Thursday afternoon press conference prior to the start of official team practice. The outlook? A team bigger, older and with more depth.

"I think that this team is the first time since the Final Four team that we have had depth," Barnes said. "It will be different in the fact that we are big up front. I expect this team to be one that can really rebound the ball. We have a lot of guys that have put points in the book."

Most schools have the unfortunate burden of being a football school or a basketball school. Luckily for Texas, big wins (ten straight NCAA tournament appearances) and big names (Aldridge, Ford and Durant ring a bell?) have given Longhorn fans something much more than a space-filler between football seasons.

Texas may have lost team-leading point guard D.J. Augustin to Charlotte, but it looks like a 'point guard by committee' is ready to step up and fill his shoes. The new guys are confident and old injuries have healed in the off-season.

"We have a great team. Our guards are excellent. We have great depth in the post game," said senior guard A.J. Abrams. "For us to win, we're going to have to get to the free throw line and pound the inside."

Across the board, Barnes is confident that Texas fans will see some very improved players.

"As a group, I don't know anyone that hasn't improved. Gary was able to have a full spring and summer and that has helped him a lot. Justin Mason has made great strides. Dexter Pittman) has continued to lose weight," Barnes said.

One reason for the amount and depth and experience on the team is the number of returning starters. Augustin was the only starter that won't be returning, with J.D. Lewis and Ian Mooney following him out.

"You don't replace (Augustin). You just go with the flow a little bit," said sophomore forward Gary Johnson. Johnson was sidelined with a previously-undiscovered heart condition last season and played in 22 games after being cleared in January. He says losing fifteen pounds in the off-season has made him lighter and more agile.

"I've gained a lot of confidence. I feel like I was a role player last year and this year I'll be able to bring a lot more to the table," he said.

Also returning to form (sans-'fro) is redshirt sophomore Matt Hill, who is back after missing last season with heel surgery. Point guard Dogus Balbay has recovered from a knee injury and will be ready to hit the court after sitting out for one game due to his participation on a Turkish pro team. Many of his teammates call Dogus the fastest one on the squad (but don't tell Justin Mason that).

"(Augustin) is a great leader on and off the court. I learned a lot and just have to do what he did last year." Balbay said.

It's a good thing the Horns have the talent and maturity because their schedule is certainly going to test it.

"My fear right now is the schedule we put together," said Barnes. "It's going to be brutal and we have to get through. We have a team this year where a lot is going to change from game to game based on what we see at practice."

After exhibition games against Stetson and Tulane, the Longhorns will fly to Hawai'i at the end of November for the EA Sports Maui invitational. Once again Texas will face UCLA and the normal rotation of Big 12 opponents throughout the season.

It may not be time for their 'death row' yet, but it's a good thing that Longhorn fans like a challenge.

"I'm looking forward to the season and y'all should be too," said junior swingman Damion James. James, along with Abrams, has been named to the preseason All-Big 12 team.

"You're going to be surprised when you see us play."

Your first opportunity will be at 7:00 p.m. November 14th when Texas takes on Stetson at the Frank Erwin Center.

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