Texas, the #7 seed in the East Region, took care of business against Minnesota 76-64 in round one behind an eight three-pointer performance by A.J. Abrams and domination inside and on the boards by Damion James and Dexter Pittman.
Last night, the Longhorns played a hard fought game to the point of having a chance to win in the final minute of the game. After Duke made a free throw to push to the final margin of 73-69, it officially meant it was the last game for seniors A.J. Abrams and Connor Atchley, who have played in 12 NCAA Tournament games apiece with an 8-4 record and two Elite Eight appearances.
Abrams leaves the Longhorns as the top three-point shooter in history and will appear in the Texas record books in a number of categories for years to come. Atchley was a player that came in without any fanfare and developed into a key contributor and big game shot maker as a junior before falling on hard times as a senior.
While the loss of the two seniors will be tough to replace in terms of big game, big shot experience, the decisions to stay or go by Damion James and Dexter Pittman will have a huge impact on the 2009-10 season.
While James is likely to enter the draft, Pittman is just the opposite and could be the foundation of a very talented team in 2009-10 that will include a top three recruiting class. The class consists of McDonald's All-American and Jordan brand Classic All-American Avery Bradley (6-2.5, 175), Jordan Brand Classic All-American Jordan Hamilton (6-7, 215) and Duncanville 6-7 wing Shawn Williams.
Throw in transfer point guard Jai Lucas and the possibility that J'Covan Brown will get academically qualified and the Longhorns have a chance to field as talented of a team as they have had.
James enjoyed a productive season as a junior averaging 15.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 1.3 assists and 1.0 steals.
James started the season on the wing and struggled putting the ball on the floor and driving by wings and guards. During the conference portion of the season, Texas moved James back to the four or fourth perimeter position in which James was much more comfortable on the offensive end.
James has the ability to put the ball on the floor and drive by some forwards as well as playing closer to the basket to weak side offensive rebound and the occasional mid-range post up opportunity. As a catch and shoot three-point threat or in the mid-range, that didn't change with the role change.
While the high leaping junior didn't show the improvement on the wing he or Texas desired, he did improve greatly at the free throw line throughout the season. This season, James converted 68.4% (106-155) from the foul line compared to 57% (77-135) as a sophomore.
From the three-point line, James dipped to 32.6% (28-86) compared to 41.3% (38-92) a season ago, but that was due in large part to taking tough threes to begin the season playing on the wing and more attempts off the bounce. The Nacogdoches product is a high 30's% catch and shoot player from 20 to 22 feet.
James will now face a decision that seems to be a simple one. The 2009 NBA draft is considered to be a weak one and James is projected anywhere from 21 to all the way to the last pick in the first round at 30. James has the option to put his name in the draft without entering an agent, go through the workout process and then make a final decision.
This rule is key for James because his ability to stick in the first round will be largely dependent on his individual workouts with teams. He's not a first round lock and will have the chance to solidify his stock with his performance against other first round hopefuls.
The light seemingly came on for Pittman in the final seven games of the season after an up and down first 25. In the final seven games, the 6-9.5, 295-pound junior center averaged 15.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots per game.
The run of terrific play the last three weeks of the season brought his season averages up to 10.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 0.9 blocks. Pittman shot 61.6% from the field and a respectable 69.1% from the free throw line.
While it may come as a surprise to many, Pittman is considered a possibility as a late first round pick in the 2009 NBA draft if he were to enter. While that may be tempting for the Terry junior, Pittman stands to make huge gains in NBA draft stock by returning for his senior season.
Pittman could emerge as the top center in college basketball next season if he continues to build stamina and drops another five to ten pounds. It's not a stretch that the powerful junior could average 18 points and 10 rebounds per game as a senior with a lengthier and more rounded backcourt around him.
Johnson's season got off to a fast start as the sixth man and continued when he was inserted into the starting line-up. Johnson's ability to knock down mid-range jumpers was key for the Texas offense as they were in transition mode.
Like last season, Johnson suffered a late season injury that hampered his ability in the Big 12 and NCAA Tournament.
The Aldine product ended the season averaging 10.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 0.7 blocks per game. Like James, Johnson improved greatly at the free throw line from a year improving to 66.9% (87-130) from 56.9% (33-58) as a freshman.
In order for Johnson to take his game to another level, he must become more athletic rebounding the ball and be more than a location rebounder. Johnson has to use his strength and jumping ability to rebound and chase the ball much more than he has in his first two seasons.
Johnson also has to improve defensively as far as reading plays/screens and helping teammates.
Balbay started the last 13 games of the year and played very well at times. Balbay averaged 3.3 points, 2.3 rebounds, 3.2 assists and 0.9 steals per game, but those numbers went way up as a starter.
While Balbay struggles as a shooter, he was handicapped much more playing when Justin Mason was on the floor. If the Longhorns have Bradley and Hamilton, who can both catch and shoot as well as put the ball on the floor and slash, Balbay will have more success and have more diving angles at his disposal.
Balbay's ability to traffic and chase rebounds as well as guard the ball and push in transition will keep him on the court next season.
Balbay must improve from the free throw line as he was dismal at 45% (18-40) and show the ability to knock down a 12 to 14-foot jumper or the willingness to put up one or two per game. With a better understanding of what Coach Barnes is looking for and expects, that will likely come.
Mason has been a key cog on the Longhorns the last three seasons, but his ability to do that for a fourth straight season will be pushed by Bradley and Hamilton as well as a more experienced Varez Ward.
Mason shot 39.8% from the three-point line as a freshman, but fell all the way to 20.6% (7-34) as a junior as well as just 52.5% (42-80) from the free throw line. Neither of those numbers as a senior will keep him in a major minute role as a senior.
Mason was named to the Big 12 all-defensive team this season and will bring much needed experience and the ability to defend to the Longhorns in 2009-10, but he has to become more of a threat on offense.
Mason averaged 6.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.1 steals this season.
Chapman played his best basketball as a Longhorn over an extended period of time the last nine games. While Chapman played sparingly for the most part, he brought energy and production and began to finish plays, which he struggled mightily for the majority of the season.
The 6-10 athletic sophomore averaged 3.8 points, 1.7 rebounds and 0.5 blocks in those nine games. He averaged 2.1 points and 1.6 rebounds for the season.
While Chapman has impressive feet and leaping ability for a 6-10 youngster, he must get stronger to be able to finish consistently as well as continue to improve his face up, mid-range game. That is an area the Longhorns will need a second post player to step up joining Johnson next season.
The freshman from Alabama certainly saved his best for last this season with his terrific 16-point performance in the loss to Duke that also included some quality on the ball defense mixed in against Gerald Henderson.
In the NCAA Tournament, Ward averaged 11.5 points, 2.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.0 steals. In fact, the 6-1 powerful guard closed out the Big 12 Tournament with a couple of impressive games against Kansas State and Baylor.
In his final four games of the season, Ward averaged 9.8 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists.
On the season, he averaged 4.2 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.6 assists.
Ward proved to be a clutch free throw shooter as the season went on making big foul shots at Baylor as well as a couple of other Big 12 conference games to help close out close wins. After the 0-6 from the line against Stetson to begin his college career, Ward knocked down 50 of 67. He converted 68.5% for the season.
Ward can become more of a factor as a sophomore if he can improve his ability to catch and shoot. Ward is much more comfortable off the dribble using his jumping ability to rise over the top of a defender in a fluid motion. Ward hit just 2-21 three-pointers on the season with the majority being catch and shoot.
The injury to Wangmene hurt the Longhorn defensively, but will be a blessing in disguise as it split up the post players (Chapman and Hill).
Wangmene was off to a good start in 2008-09 after a strong showing in the Maui Invitational before having season ending surgery. Wangmene score eight points and grabbed seven rebounds in a win over St. Joe's and chipped in four points and two rebounds in the 81-80 loss to Notre Dame the following day.
Wangmene's length and strength on the block will be key in defending the post. Like Johnson, the sophomore must be more than a location rebounder.
Lucas will not be eligible until after the fall semester in 2009-10 after the transfer from Florida. When Lucas does hit the court, he will add the ability to catch and shoot as well as run the team and combine with Balbay to have two different, but what should be, effective styles at point guard.
Lucas' ability to catch and shoot should mesh well with Pittman in the post and would give the Longhorns the ability to play four out/one in and spread the floor. Lucas isn't a drive and dish player, but with Bradley and Hamilton on the wings, that should be a requirement for him.
Lucas averaged 8.5 points and 2.3 assists as a freshman for the Gators.
Bradley will be bring length, leaping ability, a terrific hoops IQ, mid-range scoring ability, transition scoring, on the ball defense and rebounding to the guard position.
The 6-2.5-combo guard with a 6'7" wingspan has a long and quick first step and the ability to put the ball on the floor going right or left and hit the mid-range jumper. He is also a capable catch and shoot player from three, but his strength is slashing and attacking off the bounce.
Bradley will instantly become the best perimeter defender on the team from a disruptive, quickness and length standpoint. Bradley will create turnovers with his long arms, quick hands and instincts.
Hamilton will bring all-around scoring punch to the wing and guard spot in a strong, 6-7, 215-pound frame. Not a run and jump player, Hamilton just knows how to score and get his own shot off the dribble.
Hamilton also has the versatility to play some undersized four and become a match-up nightmare.
Williams is a catch and shoot three-point shooter with the type of size the Longhorns need at 6-7, 200-pounds. Williams is a sneaky offensive rebounder that has to get better moving the feet laterally to defend wings well on the next level.
Williams' ability to catch and shoot will be an asset to the program over a four-year period of time.
In closing, the return of Pittman combined with the returning and incoming talent will bring a much different look to the Longhorns in 2009-10. Texas will have a center that can dominate, a legit chance to play four out/one in offense, a much better transition team due to Balbay, Bradley and Hamilton being able to rebound and lead the break without the need for an outlet pass or break back to the ball and a taller, more length defensive team on the perimeter.
If James does depart for the NBA, rebounding will be the chief concern of the Texas team next season. A group of big men that have been location rebounders to date would be a huge drop off from the type of rebound chasing ability that James has brought for three straight years.
The point guard position should be solid with a penetrating and dishing, rebounding and on the ball defense Balbay possesses combined with the catch and shoot and mid-range pull up ability of Lucas. That will enable the Longhorns to change styles of play within a game and make them a difficult team to prepare for.
The Longhorns will again have the length and size to play an effective 2-3 zone, which has been a struggle the last three seasons. That would also help protect Pittman from foul trouble and enable him to play more minutes. Bradley and Balbay up top has the ability to be terrific combined with 6-7 Hamilton, 6-9.5 Pittman and 6-6.6 Gary Johnson or 6-10 Chapman on the baseline.
In the half court offense, the ability of Bradley and Hamilton to create their own shot off the bounce is something that the Longhorns sorely missed this year against quality defensive teams. Throw in the fact that both will have an easier time as far as seeing over the defense to throw the ball into the post from the wing and Texas will have a much different look in the half court in 2009-10.
Free throw shooting is still a serious offensive concern for the Texas team, however.