Longhorns host Stetson to tip-off season

The Texas Longhorn 2008-09 basketball season is finally here. At 7pm Friday at the Frank Erwin Center, the Longhorns will begin their 103rd season of intercollegiate basketball playing host to the Stetson Hatters of the Atlantic Sun Conference. Texas begins the season ranked #7 in the AP Poll and #8 in the USA Today/Coaches poll with four starters returning off of last year's Elite Eight squad.

The opponent for the Longhorns is the Stetson Hatters, who return all five starters and two key contributors off the bench from a 16-16 team a year ago that plays in the Atlantic Sun Conference.

Leading the way for the Hatters is 6-5 senior guard Garfield Blair. Last year, Blair led Stetson in scoring at 16.1 points, rebounding at 5.7 per contest as well as attempting 214 free throws in 32 games with a 75.2% conversion rate.

Joining Blair in the rotation is a trio of guards in A.J. Smith, Mark Lohuis and sixth man Kris Thomas.

Smith averaged 11.4 points a year ago, while Lohuis is the top three-point shooter and Thomas provided the spark off the bench and top passing lane defender.

The Hatters played one exhibition game, November 6, beating Warner Southern 60-59 on a last second three-pointer.

For the Longhorns, four starters with more than 70 career start return as well as sophomore Gary Johnson, who was in the starting line-up four times last season. In A.J. Abrams, Justin Mason, Damion James and Connor Atchley plus Johnson, Dexter Pittman, Clint Chapman, Alexis Wangmene and Matt Hill, the Longhorns return one of the nation's more seasoned teams.

Texas will enter Friday night a man short as sophomore point guard Dogus Balbay will sit out his final game of an 11 game suspension handed down by the NCAA due to Balbay playing on a team in which players were paid three years ago.

The game is not televised, but can bee seen on TexasSports.TV. Tip-off is set for 7pm.

The Head Coaches

Rick Barnes enters his eleventh season as the head coach at Texas. In ten seasons, Barnes has won 247 games and lost just 93. Barnes has a 120-40 mark in Big 12 play with one outright Big 12 regular season title (1999) and two co-championships in the last three years.

Barnes' NCAA Tournament record at Texas is 16-10.

In 21 years of coaching, Barnes has a career record of 449-227.

The head coach for the Stetson Hatters is Derek Waugh. Waugh, one of the nation's youngest head coaches at 36 years old, has a career record of 92-130 in eight seasons.

A Look at the Numbers

Last season, the Longhorns connected on 45.2% from the field, 38.6% from the three-point line and 68.3% from the foul line.

Stetson converted 40.9% overall, 32.5% from three and 67.3% from the free throw line.

The Longhorns held opponents to 38.9% for the season, while the Hatters ended the season surrendering 44.1%.

Texas out rebounded their opponents by +2.7 in 2007-08 with Stetson checking in at -0.2.

The Longhorn Starters

G A.J. Abrams, 5-10 Sr. (16.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.5 assists)

G Justin Mason, 6-2 Jr. (7.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists)

F Damion James, 6-7 Jr. (13.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, 1.4 blocked shots)

F Gary Johnson, 6-6 Soph. (5.6 points, 3.7 rebounds)

F Connor Atchley, 6-11 Sr. (9.5 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.1 blocked shots)

Key reserves include 6-1 freshman Varez Ward, 6-10 junior Dexter Pittman (2.8 points, 2.4 rebounds), 6-10 sophomore Clint Chapman (1.3 points, 1.4 rebounds), 6-7 sophomore Alexis Wangmene (2.1 points, 2.3 rebounds) and 6-10 sophomore Matt Hill.

The Hatter Starters

G A.J. Smith, 6-0 Jr. (11.4 points, 2.8 rebounds)

G Garfield Blair, 6-5 Sr. (16.1 points, 5.7 rebounds)

G Mark Lohuis, 6-4 Jr. (6.2 points, 2.9 rebounds)

F Sheldon Oliver, 6-5 Jr. (6.8 points, 4.4 rebounds)

F Tim Lang, 6-9 Sr. (4.3 points, 2.8 rebounds)

Key reserves include 6-2 senior Kris Thomas (7.4 points, 2.4 rebounds, 1.3 steals) and 6-6 Sr. Eric Diaz (7.1 points, 4.5 rebounds).

What To Watch For

The Longhorns are hoping to return to a dominant defensive and rebounding team in 2008-09. Against Stetson, that shouldn't be in question as long as the Texas guards and forwards chase rebounds. Because Stetson plays four guards at times and "long rebound" may be the phrase of the night, the Longhorns' ability to block out on the perimeter, chase rebounds and react quickly to loose ball rebounds will be key.

Texas would also like to become a team that has the option of a back to the basket, interior presence this season. The Hatters will give up height and length to Texas in man or zone, so the Longhorns must be consistent in their effort to utilize their strength. In the past two seasons, the Longhorn guards have been impatient to a certain extent while the post players haven't done a good job of working for position, sitting on their defender and creating optimal post entry passing angles.

If there is a possible Achilles heel with the 2008-09 Texas team, it will be free throw shooting. Gone is D.J. Augustin, who led the team by far in trips to the foul line and converted 78.3%. A host of players return that have yet to eclipse the 70% mark in a season and even the 60% mark in some cases.

Last year, James shot 57%, Atchley 67.2%, Mason 66.2%, Johnson 56.9%, Pittman 56.1%, Wangmene 66% and Chapman 68.8%. The lone bright spot returning is Abrams, who connected on 80.9% and is one of the best in school history.

With the likelihood that the Longhorns will play a bigger line-up this year, meaning more minutes from Pittman and the other big men, as well as seemingly more chances for James in transition and playing on the move, the Longhorns must convert at the free throw line at a higher percentage. For an opponent such as Stetson that gives up height, strength and length, the best chance to keep the Longhorn big men from scoring is to send them to the free throw line and make them earn the points.

The Longhorns will likely play big and small against Stetson depending on the match-ups. This year's Texas team is looking to return to the tough on the ball defense on the perimeter of years past in man to man. It goes without question that Mason, Abrams and freshman Varez Ward will bring quality ball pressure defense, but the play of James defensively on the perimeter will be key. James' transition to the wing on the defensive end is just as important as the offensive end and he will get an early test against smaller, quicker guards.

James must use his length and leaping ability to his advantage baiting jump shots, but also show the ability to slide his feet laterally and stay in front of his man. His performance in the first two games will be telling for how much three guard line-up Texas plays this season. Along with James, Johnson will play some wing and will face a similar defensive task.

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