Texas Hoops Preview: Frontcourt must step up

The Texas Longhorns 2008-09 season is just two days away, with the season opener set for a 7 pm tip Friday night at the Frank Erwin Center against Stetson. 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 forward Connor Atchley.

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 that was largely due to the depth and ability to rotate interior players freely.

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 and host of frontcourt players that came off the bench. 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, improved play and depth on the interior is going to be key.

The Longhorns return five interior players off of last year's Elite Eight team, led by senior Connor Atchley. Joining Atchley are sophomore forward Gary Johnson, sophomore forward Clint Chapman, junior center Dexter Pittman, and sophomore forward Alexis Wangmene. In addition to the five returning players from last year, Texas will again have the services of sophomore center Matt Hill, who missed last year with foot and heel injuries that required surgery.

Connor Atchley

Atchley was arguably the most improved player in college basketball a year ago. As a sophomore, the 6-11 Clear Lake product averaged 3.9 points and 3.9 rebounds in a key reserve role. However, his season included stretches in which he appeared to lack the confidence and toughness needed to take the next step as a player.

Entering the 2008-09 season, Atchley was a player that had to make big gains from the prior season, and he did in spades. He began to show signs of vast improvement against New Mexico State in the semi-finals of the Legends Classic with a 15-point, three-block performance. Against Tennessee the following night, Atchley put together a career-best performance with 22 points and 11 rebounds in the Longhorns' blowout win that resulted in his being named to the all-tournament team.

More than sheer numbers in a box score, it became evident that Atchley was an integral part of the offense and defense for the Longhorns.

In the random ball screen offense that Texas leans on in the half court, Atchley's ability is key. His constant screening movement, understanding of how to shoot the ball to free up teammates, and knowing where his teammates will be makes Atchley a force on the offensive end without being a go-to scorer. In addition to being the key cog in the flow of the half court offense, Atchley stepped up several times and knock down big shots to win or tie games with UCLA being the most memorable.

In transition, the long-armed forward's ability to run the floor beating many a big man down the court showed up early often with an uncontested basket or two early in each game.

On the defensive end, Atchley is arguably the best team defender at Texas under coach Rick Barnes. He is seemingly always in position to help a teammate in need and force the opposing offense into making the extra pass. As well as playing in near perfect position, Atchley has developed into the top shot-blocker in the Big 12, averaging 2.1 swats per game last year.

This year, Texas fans can expect more of the same from Atchley with an improved mid-range game and an even more confident offensive player. The fifth-year senior also begins the season on the radar of NBA scouts as a player that could play his way into the first round of the draft with another season of continued offensive improvement on the perimeter.

Heading into Friday's opener, Atchley has career averages of 5.5 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.4 blocks. He has converted 210-426 (49.3%) field goals, 62-166 (37.4%) three-pointers and 83-135 (61.8%) from the free throw line.

Gary Johnson

There isn't another Texas player that is looking forward to the 2008-09 season more than sophomore forward Gary Johnson. The 6-6 forward missed the first 13 games of the season with an undisclosed heart condition before making his debut on January 2 against TCU in the starting line-up and produced five points and five rebounds. In his second game, it became evident the type of impact that Johnson could make, as he recorded 15 points and six rebounds in a convincing win over NCAA Tournament team, St. Mary's (Ca).

Johnson had the ups and downs expected with freshman, but put together an impressive eight-game stretch in February averaging 8.9 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. He proved to be an improved mid-range shooter during the stretch, knocking down several 12-15-foot jumpers on the baseline and from the elbows. He also proved to be a power player on the blocks while battling through a broken nose suffered a day before the Iowa State game.

The 247-pound forward appeared ready to play a key role in the Longhorns NCAA Tournament run before sustaining a muscle pull in the opening round of the Big 12 Tournament against Oklahoma State. He missed the next five games, which included the first and second round of the NCAA Tournament in Little Rock, as well as the Sweet 16 win over Stanford.

Johnson returned to action against Memphis in the Elite Eight. In 16 minutes of action in the 85-67 loss to national runner-up Memphis, Johnson scored eight points. He finished his freshman season averaging 5.6 points and 3.7 rebounds in 22 games.

This season, Johnson has already had to battle an ankle injury suffered the second week of practice, but is still showing the signs of an improved player. The first key to his improvement was better conditioning. Dropping 14 pounds to 233 over the summer, the likely fifth starter has regained quickness that he didn't possess last year, as well as increased stamina to play for longer stretches while remaining productive.

Johnson has continued to improve his game facing the basket. Catch and shoot jumpers out to 19-20 feet are now commonplace and the ability to put the ball on the floor with a hard dribble to get into a 13-15-foot jumper is the norm. Defensively, the improved quickness has showed up when defending on the perimeter and hedging on ball screens.

Entering the season, the former Houston-area star remains the best back-to-the-basket offensive option for the Longhorns.

Clint Chapman

Chapman played sparingly as a freshman for the Longhorns, producing 1.3 points and 1.4 rebounds in 6.6 minutes per game while possessing the best natural skill set of any Texas frontcourt player.

Chapman played through the same situation that most freshman post player deal with in college basketball, a lack of strength. With the lack of strength comes lack of stamina to play long stretches and that defined Chapman's freshman season. His impressive skill set was flashed on occasion with quick pivots and turn around jumpers, the ability to make an athletic play around the basket, the ability to play at the high-post and make reactive plays to help defense and defensive plays in transition.

If Chapman is to take the next step and become a consistent contributor this season, his play on the defensive end must be more physical. He has to show the ability to beat big men down the floor offensively in transition, as well as become a more effective screen and float player in the half court.

The Oregon native has improved his strength and stamina, if only by a little as was the case with Atchley during his progression the last three years. His skill set includes the best turn around jumper among the big men, and the ability to put the ball on the floor when needed.

Dexter Pittman

There has not been a player in the program the last two years that worked harder in the off-season or stayed more disciplined during the season as Dexter Pittman. The 6-10, 295-pound junior is the lone pure center on the roster, as well as the top low post threat against tall, lengthy defenders.

In the past two years, the Rosenberg Terry product has played in short stretches with his most success coming against big bodies such as Blake Griffin (Big 12 tournament) and the Lopez twins in the Elite Eight last year. More than skill, Pitman has used his big body to serve as brick wall of sorts in the post on the defensive end.

On the offensive end, Pittman has relayed on his strength and bulk to score on point blank looks or get to the foul line. Now a junior, he begins the 2008-09 season with the chance to be a difference-maker with improved stamina and confidence. In order for Pittman to take the next step, he must show that he has the feel for the game to take advantage of the opportunities his size will present.

Taking advantage on the offensive end, which is where he can help the team the most, includes moving quicker from block to block, through the lane and sitting on his defender creating optimal post entry passing angles resulting in high percentage opportunities. Should Pittman show the feel for the game to create scoring chances, he will finish with power. Along with more opportunities comes more free throw attempts. Pittman must convert at better than his 52% career rate.

On the defensive end, Pittman at times forces the Longhorns to play 2-3 zone. When in man, every opponent pulls Pittman away from the basket and forces him to defend ball screens, which will never be a strong suit. As well as defending ball screens, opponents look to force Pittman to defend off the dribble laterally or chase cutters. Matchups against big-body post players are ideal, as well as having the luxury to sag into the lane when defending an opposing big man that doesn't shoot the ball well from the perimeter.

Pittman has career averaged of 2.7 points, 2.2 rebounds and 0.4 blocks.

Alexis Wangmene

Wangmene is yet another post player that Texas will rely upon this season. The 6-7 forward blessed with a 7'4" wing span averaged 2.1 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 0.5 blocks per game in a freshman season that presented its fair share of ups and downs.

The Cameroon native served as a rebounder and shot blocker a year ago and that role will likely continue this season. If his length doesn't pose a problem for the opponent looking to score, his willingness to play very physical at times does. He has again shown signs of being a defender that can be counted on in 2008-09 as well as an active shot blocker and rebounder.

If Wangmene is going to build on his role as a sophomore, he must become an opportune scorer around the basket, chase rebounds and run the floor more consistently. The ability to score around the basket on put backs and point blank chances is key as Wangmene is still working to develop a go-to move. Chasing rebounds, simply put, is not playing stationary and with the feet seemingly cemented to the ground and that is a habit that Wangmene showed at times last year. He possess the ability to react to the ball in the air and use his length to snatch traffic rebounds if he is active.

Matt Hill

Matt Hill is back in uniform. After an injury his freshman year that began as a stress reaction, Hill suffered through setback after setback in the summer and throughout the 2007-08 season. In his absence, the Longhorns were left without a post player with a true understanding of how to play the game without the ball in his hands.

Hill played a key role as a freshman before being injured. While not being strong enough to defend the post with consistency, he showed the ability to play hard for long stretches, rebound the ball on the offensive end and make the most of opportune scoring chances.

Hill will likely work his way back slowly for the Longhorns after the extended period of time away from the court. As he gets his feet back under him and confidence returned, Hill can help the Longhorns on both ends of the floor. Possessing a strong base, the Nebraska native has the ability to keep opposing big men from walking down to ideal position inside of eight feet.

Offensively, the 6-10, 240-pounder can play facing the basket on the elbows and along the baseline, as well as be productive as a screener and offensive rebounder. Hill averaged 2.2 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 0.7 blocks in 11.4 minutes in 2006-07.

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