Texas Hoops Preview: Backcourt of Strength

The Texas Longhorns 2008-09 season is just days away, with the season opener set for a 7 pm tip at the Frank Erwin Center against Stetson November 14. This year, Texas begins the season ranked #7 in the AP Poll and #8 in the USA Today/Coaches poll. The reason for the lofty rankings is the return of four starters, including guards A.J. Abrams and Justin Mason.

The Texas Longhorns have been here before, facing the task of replacing a first-team All-American point guard. In 2003-04, the Longhorn program lost Naismith and Wooden Award winner, T.J. Ford, to the NBA after advancing to the Final Four. That Texas team returned seven of the top eight players off of the Final Four team, and added P.J. Tucker and Kenny Taylor to form a deep team that featured 11 players that averaged more than 10 minutes played per game. The end result was a 25-8 season and an appearance in the Sweet 16.

Fast-forward to the 2008-09 season and the Longhorns again must replace an All-American point guard, this time D.J. Augustin. Like five years before, the Longhorns return the bulk of a team that advanced to the Elite Eight, including four starters. Add to the mix point guard Dogus Balbay and center Matt Hill returning from injury, along with newcomer guard Varez Ward, and the Longhorns have the look of a team that can make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

If Texas is to have the chance to add a third Big 12 title to the trophy case in four years and make another March Madness run, the backcourt play and newfound depth will be key.

Two players that have put numbers in the books and made big plays to win games return in A.J. Abrams and Justin Mason. While that pair is a solid backcourt in many areas, the addition of Balbay at point guard and the emergence of freshman Varez Ward suddenly gives the Horns the possibility of having four solid guards that can contribute on both ends of the floor. There is also the likelihood that Damion James will play much more on the wing than in last year's trial run.

A.J. Abrams

The sharpshooter has been a constant for the Longhorns since playing a key back-up point guard role as a freshman on an Elite Eight team. In that freshman season, Abrams' roles were that of a facilitator first and catch-and-shoot scorer second. He flourished in both roles, averaging 6.4 points and 3.0 assists in about 21-minutes per game.

The 5-10 guard, blessed with an ultra-quick release and a natural instinct for using screens and playing without the ball, moved off the ball as a sophomore. With Augustin coming into the program to run the point, Abrams became a featured scorer.

The Round Rock McNeil product took the opportunity and ran with it, scoring 15.5 points per game, good for second on the 2006-07 team, and knocking down 120 three-pointers at a 42.3% clip. While Abrams scored 543 points in 35 games, he struggled to finish inside of 12-feet, as he relied on a floater that seldom found the bottom of the net.

As he has done every season at Texas, Abrams improved in 2007-08. While he still knocked down 118 three-pointers and shot 38.2%, with increased defensive game plans to shadow the talented shooter, Abrams displayed an improved mid-range game and finished at a higher rate inside of 10-feet. The improved play inside the arc paid dividends as Abrams increased his scoring to 16.5 points per game.

Abrams also improved on the defensive end and became the perimeter defender Coach Barnes relied on to deny and pester the opponent's top wing scorer. Abrams recorded 59 steals with his improved on-the-ball defense and the occasional theft in the passing lanes. Now a senior and one of the most experienced players in college basketball, Abrams will again look to play a different role for the Top 10-ranked Longhorns. This year, Abrams will return to a playmaking role while also staying committed to being the talented player without the ball Texas fans are accustomed to seeing.

For Abrams to have success in the role of playmaker, the strong but smallish guard will have to use the random ball screen offense and his talents to pull the trigger with minimal space. Abrams, who has very impressive floor vision, must put the ball on the floor and get to spots to draw defenses –– not to score, but to get his teammates quality looks and put the rotating defense in a position of low-percentage success.

It's likely that if Abrams can show the ability under the gun to create his shot while also creating for others, he will get time running the team, if only in short stretches. Off the ball, Abrams will score running the baseline and coming off of walk-away screens, as he has the last two years.

Abrams enters the season with career numbers that measure up to top Texas guards of years past. The Austin-area product has scored 1,389 points and played 3,354 minutes in 109 games. He has career averages of 12.7 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 1.2 steals.

To date, Abrams has knocked down 41% from the field (467-1,139), 39.9% from the three-point line (284-711) and 87.2% from the free-throw line (171-196).

Justin Mason

Mason has been a model of consistency the last two seasons for the Longhorns. The 6-2 guard has been a top perimeter defender and an opportune scorer.

As a freshman, the Amarillo product was thrown into a starting role and averaged 7.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, and 1.8 assists per game in 29 minutes of action. He also showed a surprising ability to knock down long-range jumpers, converting 39.8% from the three-point line in limited opportunities.

Last year, the most reliable Longhorn game-in and game-out showed an improved ability off the bounce and played key minutes in a lead guard role. With Augustin drawing the best on-the-ball defender for the most part and Abrams being defended by the best off-the-ball defender, Mason sat in the desired spot of drawing an opponent's third-best perimeter defender.

Mason took full advantage of the opportunity early in the season against UCLA, making several key plays off the dribble in the first half. That success became a trend throughout the year against matchups in which Mason had a quickness advantage off the bounce.

His role also became that of running the team during times when the Longhorns moved Augustin off the ball. With Augustin and Abrams running around off the ball, Texas became a tough team to defend. Mason did a good job of getting the ball to the scorers, as well as penetrating in the lane to find cutting teammates for easy finishes.

Mason averaged 7.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.1 steals as a sophomore. Now a junior, Mason will likely play a similar role for the Longhorns in 2008-09. While offense is always talked about, the play of the junior on the ball defensively, and as an underrated rebounder, will be the keys to his success.

Dogus Balbay

Balbay reported to Texas in the summer of 2007 as a player expected to play a key role as Augustin's backup at the point guard position. A partially torn ACL suffered two weeks before the season ended the Longhorns' hopes of having an impressive four-guard rotation and the ability to play Augustin off the ball as much as they'd hoped.

Balbay, who was suspended by the NCAA 11 games for playing for a team on which players were paid, is now healthy and ready to make an impact on the program. With the last 10 games of the 2007-08 season counted toward his suspension, the 6-1 guard will have to sit out the season opener against Stetson before making his debut in a Longhorn uniform November 18.

When Balbay takes the court against Tulane, Longhorns fans will see an impressive guard that is blessed with elite-level quickness, speed, and leaping ability.

While Balbay has the ability to be difference maker in transition, it will be his ability to run the team in the half court that ultimately decides the type of season he will have for Texas.

The Turkish guard has always played the game at a fast pace, but will have to play in the half court at a slower pace and under control to be the difference maker he is capable of being. Along with playing under control in the half court and staying away from unforced turnovers, Balbay must show the ability to knock down mid-range jumpers as well as handle the intense ball pressure that he is not accustomed to dealing with.

Because Balbay is both fast and quick with the understanding of pick and roll basketball, he will be faced with defenses that will play under the ball screen.

On the defensive end, Balbay excels in the passing lanes with quick and timely reactions. On the ball, Balbay must slide his feet and play with his arms in a higher position to take away passing angles and not rely on jumping and recovering with his elite lateral quickness and both arms down looking for the steal.

Varez Ward

The freshman from Montgomery, Alabama has opened many an eye in the first month of practice. Powerfully built at 6-1, 190-pounds, Ward has already proven to be as good an athlete as there is in the Texas program. Using a blend of speed, lateral quickness, explosive leaping ability, strength in his hips to redirect and halt straight line drives, and a competitive fire, Ward has already proven he can handle the rigors of playing defense on the major college level.

The areas in which Ward was undervalued coming out of Patterson School in North Carolina were his ability and feel on the offensive end. Ward simply has the feel for the game. He understands spacing, post-entry passing angles, setting up teammates off the bounce, and the ability to make plays for others in transition while drawing defensive reaction to change-of-pace dribble moves. Throw in the ability to knock down a catch-and-shoot jumper and Ward has made serious push for playing time and will likely play 15-minutes or more per game.

Harrison Smith

Smith is entering his junior season at Texas a different player after two years of sparse playing time. He has dropped more than 15-pounds and is now a quicker, more active player. Also an improved catch-and-shoot option, the Houston Jones product will likely get the chance to show he can be depended on in the half court on offense.

The defensive end has kept Smith off the court for the most part in his first two seasons. If he is to work his way into the rotation, it will be due to an improved ability to defend both on and off the ball.

Smith has appeared in 20 games in two seasons, averaging 1.2 points and rebounds per game.

Damion James

Last, but not least when speaking of the Longhorns 2008-09 backcourt is junior forward Damion James. The Nacogdoches native has played the role of combo forward the last two years with the exception of a short stretch last year, but will get the chance to log major minutes on the wing this season.

Texas fans know what they are going to get from James for the most part. He is one of the top rebounders in college basketball, excels in transition, is a shot blocker on the perimeter and can knock down the 17-21-foot jumper in catch and shoot situations.

In order for James to take his game to the next level, his ability to defend penetration against guards and wings, the ability to put the ball on the floor and drive a smaller guard or wing, maintaining the rebounding prowess playing farther away from the basket and the ability to knock down free throws at a high clip will be the determining factors in the type of season James enjoys.

The last key mentioned, free throw shooting, is quite possibly the most important area James must improve this year. With the loss of Augustin, the Texas team returns many player that are sub-70 percent foul shooters with James coming off of a season in which he converted just 57 percent while attempting the most of any returning player by 64 attempts. Playing on the wing and playing up-tempo as Texas desires to do, the free throw chances will go up in 2008-09 for James as he will have more chances to make plays with the ball in his hands.

For the Longhorns to have the type of season they wish to achieve, the talented junior simply has to convert at a higher clip.

In addition to free throw shooting, James must feel comfortable working off of screens with the correct footwork, getting into his jump shot quicker and under control. James tends to not pivot correctly on the catch and leaves his body in a tough spot as going straight up and straight down become a challenge.

James enters the 2008-09 season with career averages of 10.5 points, 8.9 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.3 blocked shots and 0.6 steals per game in 73 contests. The projected NBA first round pick has connected on 292-620 (47.1%) from the field, 39-103 (37.9%) from three and 143-246 (58.1%) from the free throw line.

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