Another Final Four Run in Store?

The Texas basketball team will enter the 2009-10 season as one of the top ranked teams in the nation. While some had already placed the Longhorns in the top five, the Saturday decision of Damion James to return for his senior season vaults Texas into every top five pre-season poll. Burnt Orange Beat takes a look at the roster for what should be a deep run in March.

The Texas Longhorns basketball program under the direction of Rick Barnes has become one of the top programs in the nation in recent years. The run of success began in 2001-02 with a Sweet 16 appearance followed the next season by a Final Four run.

Texas followed with a third straight season of Sweet 16 or better in 2003-04. After a first round loss in 2004-05 due to the injury to freshman LaMarcus Aldridge and the academic woes of P.J. Tucker, the Longhorns advanced to the Elite Eight in 2005-06 before losing in overtime to LSU.

The Longhorns started one of the youngest, if not the youngest, teams to ever advance to the NCAA Tournament in 2006-07 led by Kevin Durant. A second round loss to USC ended the dreams of many fans and players. Texas then won a school-record 31 games the following season advancing to the Elite Eight before losing to national runner-up Memphis.

Last season, the Longhorns advanced to the second round of the Big Dance for the seventh time in eight years before losing to Duke 74-69 in Greensboro.

After the season, the attention turned to an incoming highly ranked recruiting class featuring Avery Bradley, Jordan Hamilton and Shawn Williams and the decision of junior forward Damion James to enter the NBA draft or stay for his senior year.

James announced on April 15 that he would test the water without hiring an agent. James finished the spring semester and drove to Houston to workout with John Lucas on weekends. James then attended the Chicago pre-draft combine followed by several workouts for NBA teams.

Yesterday the news broke that James had decided to return for his senior season taking the expectations through the roof for the 2009-10 Longhorns team. If the Longhorns are to deliver on a top five pre-season ranking and Final Four predictions, it will be because of a near perfect balance of talent and returning experience with the addition of instant impact play by freshmen at a position of need.

Damion James

James will enter his senior season with 1,306 points, 968 rebounds and 123 blocked shots for his career after averaging 15.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists last season.

James will be as experienced as any returning player in college basketball having appeared in 108 games with 106 starts and over 3,000 minutes logged.

As a junior the 6-7, 227-pound forward recorded 15 double doubles (nine in Big 12 play), and 30 games scoring in double figures with five of more than 20.

In Big 12 play, James averaged 17.1 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists as well as 16.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and two assists per game in the NCAA Tournament.

James scored a season high 28 points in Austin against Texas A&M as well as 26 at Kansas to end the regular season.

In 2009-10, James will return as one of the top rebounders in college basketball. His return to the Longhorns is huge from a rebounding perspective as he is the only consistent rebounder outside his area along the front line. His ability to chase rebounds will be key for Texas in man or 2-3 zone.

Along with his rebounding prowess, James will very likely get the chance to play in more of a screen/roll/float role as a senior as well as play on the weak side in catch and shoot situations helping spread the floor for center Dexter Pittman.

With another off-season of work off the dribble, putting the ball on the floor against four men should be improved.

On the defensive end, James can improve his versatility defending wings on the perimeter as well as team defense.

Dexter Pittman

The play of Pittman in the final seven games gave many Longhorn fans hope of another NCAA Tournament run along with the incoming talent regardless of the decision by James. In the final seven games of the season, the 6-9.5, 290-pound center averaged 15.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots per game.

Pittman's most impressive play came in the Big 12 tournament and the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Against Colorado in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament, Pittman scored a career-high 26 points along with 10 rebounds and a block. One day alter against Kansas State, the Rosenberg Terry product scored 19 points, grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds and blocked a career-high four shots.

In the first round the Big Dance against Minnesota, Pittman recorded a third double double in four games scoring 17 points and snatching 11 rebounds.

For the season, the powerful low block player averaged 10.1 points, 5.5 rebounds and 0.9 blocks per game. He recorded 16 double figure scoring games and six double doubles.

Now 100 games into his career, including 25 starts, with added stamina and strength, Pittman appears ready to become the consistent inside presence the Longhorns need to form a complete team.

Pittman will be a low block presence from day next season that will command a double team or rotating help defense. Late in the season, Pittman showed an improved ability to score over the right shoulder (left hand) and another off-season working on a secondary move to the power step and right handed finish with a dunk or jump hook will make him that much tougher to defend.

One key for Pittman will be continued free throw shooting in the 68-70% range as he did last year at 69.1%.

In his first three seasons, Pittman has been a location rebounder. That won't likely change in 2009-10 and he doesn't have to expend his energy chasing rebounds with the return of James.

Look for teams to pull Pittman away from the basket in man and force him to hedge, move the feet laterally and recover on the defensive end. The best way for the opponent to limit Pittman's minutes and affect on the game on the offensive end is to make him work on the defensive end and the farther from the basket, the better.

Justin Mason

There may not be a player in a more difficult position next season than the 6-2 senior guard. In three years, Mason has played in 108 games, including 101 starts and more than 3,300 minutes played.

Mason averaged 6.1 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.1 steals as a junior including six double figure scoring games, 10 games of five or more rebounds, 11 games of five or more assists and 11 games of two or more steals.

Mason's best games of the year came against Oregon (season-high 18 points) and a 15-point, 10-rebound performance at Texas Tech.

Mason began the season running the team and by seasons end was playing less minutes and was a non-factor on the offensive end for the most part. Mason's struggles shooting the ball, willingness to shoot the open jumper and only 52.5% from the free-throw line along with Dogus Balbay's inability to make jump shots and free throws put Texas in a precarious position on the offensive end and closing out games.

Next year Mason will have more quality competition for playing time than at any point during his career. With Avery Bradley coming in, the transfer of point guard Jai Lucas and Varez Ward a year older along with Balbay and Jordan Hamilton's ability to play guard in a big line-up, Mason is faced with competition in every scenario.

What Mason has is experience, defensive ability on the ball and the ability to play without the ball on the weak side.

In order for Mason to see quality minutes he must improve as a shooter not only on the perimeter, but especially at the free throw line.

Gary Johnson

Johnson emerged last season as a consistent scorer in a sixth man role for the Longhorns with a vastly improved mid-range jumper. That mid-range jumper will be key when on the floor with Pittman in 2009-10 as Texas has to spread the floor against man and attack the 2-3 zone at the high post.

Johnson scored in double figures 15 times as a sophomore including a career-high 20 against Michigan State. He posted double doubles against St. Joe's (14 points, 10 rebounds) and at Arkansas (15 points, 12 rebounds). He had season averages of 10.0 points and 5.3 rebounds after averaging 5.6 points and 3.7 rebounds as a freshman.

Johnson averaged 11.2 points and 4.3 rebounds in Big 12 play, but a high ankle sprain cost him three conference games and lingered the entire post season limiting his effectiveness on both ends of the floor.

Two areas Johnson must improved headed into his junior season is rebounding and defense as well as becoming a more willing and better passer on the offensive end.

To this point, Johnson has been a location rebounder in his college career, but he has to use his athleticism and tenacity to chase rebounds. On the defensive end, he has to make gains in the consistency department in man, help defense and in zone.

Johnson enters his junior season with 56 games played and 13 starts.

Dogus Balbay

Balbay's first season at Texas got off to a slow start with limited minutes in the first few games. The sophomore began to receive quality minutes in the first half of the Michigan State game and then was key in the second half in a win at Wisconsin.

Balbay played key minutes in the first half of Big 12 play before being inserted into the starting line-up before the Oklahoma State game in Austin. He responded with 10 points and seven assists.

Balbay's best game came in the huge upset win over Oklahoma scoring 10 points to go with nine assists and eight rebounds.

All told, the speedy point guard started the last 13 games of the season averaging 5.9 points, 3.3 rebounds, 4.7 assists and 1.2 steals.

On the season, Balbay averaged 3.3 points, 2.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists.

While Balbay will get to play with a more complete offensive team n 2009-10, he must improve in two key areas on the offensive end. The left-hander has to show the ability to knock down the occasional 12-15-footer and the willingness to take the shot. Balbay also has to convert at a much higher rate at the free throw line to have a chance to close out games. He shot just 45% last season.

What will keep Balbay on the court regardless of the talent in the program is his ability to sever as a pest guarding the ball, push in transition and is the best the Longhorns have at penetrating into the lane and creating a shot for others.

Balbay is also a player that is seemingly always around the ball and gives Texas perimeter rebounding ability.

Varez Ward

The lasting impression fans will have of Ward is his second half against the Duke Blue Devils in which he was unstoppable off the dribble. Ward hit big shot after big shot in the last game of the season scoring a career-high 16 points.

What may be lost on some is that Ward came on the last four games of the season and produced like Texas had hoped he would the entire season. Ward averaged 9.8 points, 2.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists in the last four games of the season after a stretch in which he wasn't seeing much, if any, time at all.

The 6-1 powerful and quick guard averaged 4.2 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.6 assists as a freshman. Like Balbay, Ward can guard the ball and that will give him a chance to get on the floor as a sophomore.

On the offensive end, Ward has to show an improved jump shot on a team that could see a lot of 2-3 zone. He connected on only two of 21 three-pointers in 2008-09.

At times, Ward played too fast which led to out of control turnovers. That is a second area of need that he must address.

Clint Chapman

Chapman had his ups and downs during his sophomore campaign. He posted career-high six rebounds against Villanova, scored seven points in 22 minutes against Texas Tech and posted six points and three rebounds in a win over Baylor.

The 6-10 big man scored a career-high nine points in a key win over Kansas State in the big 12 Tournament.

All told, Chapman recorded six games of three rebounds or more averaging 2.0 points and 1.6 rebounds on the season.

If Chapman is to expand his role as a junior, he has to make strength gains and convert on the offensive end at the free throw line and around the paint.

Alexis Wangmene

Wangmene will be sophomore again in 2009-10 after receiving an extra year due to knee surgery that ended his season.

The long armed defender and rebounder was off to a solid start in 2008-09 including an eight point, seven rebound performance against St. Joe's in Maui. He averaged 3.0 points and 3.0 rebounds in four games.

Like Johnson, Wangmene has to become more than a location rebounder. With his length and quickness, he has the ability to grab more rebounds away from his area.

The Longhorns missed his defensive ability not only in the post, but aggressively hedging on ball screens pushing the offense out a year ago. That ability is key for Texas because he has the length to affect the vision of a guard and the lateral ability to move and recover.

Center Matt hill and senior guard Harrison Smith also have experience in the program.

Newcomers

Avery Bradley, Jordan Hamilton, Shawn Williams and Jai Lucas all bring key strengths to the Texas program and have the chance to make an immediate impact.

Bradley brings the length, quickness, speed, ability to guard the ball, perimeter rebounding, mid-range game off the bounce and toughness the Longhorns backcourt needs. He will likely push for 30-minutes of playing time per game and has a chance to become a one and done type of player.

Bradley has a long and quick first step, which creates instant separation. His 6'7" wingspan plus his quickness and instincts will give opposing guard fits.

Hamilton is a 6-7.5 wing that can create his own shot off the dribble, handle the ball in the open court, rebound on the perimeter and on the offensive end, run the floor, get to the free throw line, knock down the long range jumper out to 23-feet and is an underrated passer in the open court and half court.

His versatility could put him at the off guard in a big line-up or the power forward spot (ala Kyle Singler at Duke) in a small line-up. Because he is talented with the ball and as a decision maker and shooter, he could even run screen roll to exploit match-ups.

Williams is a catch and shoot player with range out to 23-feet. That ability combined with his instincts and sneaky offensive rebounding prowess gives him a chance to contribute on the offensive end. On the defensive side is what could very well decide how much the 6-7 wing plays as a freshman.

Williams has to prove he can defend wings consistently to force his way onto the court for meaningful minutes.

Jai Lucas will bring a second point guard and contrast in styles to Balbay. Lucas is good free throw shooter, understands how to run a team and make use of post player through spacing and timing. Lucas shot over 40% from three as a freshman at Florida and that ability could lead to major minutes next season. Because he can knock down the open three keeping a defender from retreating and helping in the paint as well as make free throws, Lucas could very well become the closer at the point guard position.

Lucas brings 36 starts and major conference and post-season experience to the Longhorns. He will be eligible to play in December (likely to miss the first 9-10 games)

Weaknesses

There aren't many teams that enter the season with a weakness or two and that includes the Longhorns. Texas doesn't return a player that converted more than 70% from the free throw line. The retuning players hit 63.1% (415-658) from the foul line and that is an area of real concern.

Jai Lucas hit over 70% at Florida and will likely hit over 75% next season, but the ability of Bradley and Hamilton to convert is still an unknown as many players shoot 75-80% in high school and that doesn't always follow into the college ranks.

Gary Johnson and Damion James improved a lot last season and have to do so again. The duo along with Dexter Pittman will get to the foul line a lot in 2009-10. Pittman shot 69.1% for the season, but his percentage slipped as his playing time expanded and he went to the line winded.

Another area of concern will be perimeter shooting from the three-point line. The Longhorns return a group of players that converted just 24.3% (41-169) from long range.

The addition of Lucas will help in that area and Hamilton has the ability to score in bunches from long range. Bradley isn't a player that hunts the three and will only fire two or three per game on average.

Williams may be the best catch and shoot player of the four newcomers.

Expect Texas to face more 2-3 zone that in recent memory the opposing coach is willing to go away from man-to-man. If Texas plays a line-up of Balbay/Ward, Bradley, Hamilton/Mason, James/Johnson and Pittman in the first 9-10 games of the season, playing 2-3 zone makes a lot of sense.

Last year, A.J. Abrams made it tough to zone Texas as shown against Minnesota, but in 2009-10 the strength of the Texas team will be in the post and off the bounce from the wings and point (until Lucas becomes eligible).

Forcing the Horns to shoot the ball from the perimeter and work hard in the high-low game will be key for the opponent.


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