The Baseline Report – June 30, 2009

The Texas Longhorns basketball team is currently going through Todd Wright's off-season strength and condition regimen with the majority of the returning players in Austin. Burnt Orange Beat's Gerry Hamilton answers questions from subscribers about the hoops team.

The Texas Longhorns will enter the 2009-10 season as one of the top ranked teams in college basketball. With the return of NBA prospects Damion James and Dexter Pittman along with a bevy of experienced players plus an immensely talented incoming class including transfer Jai Lucas, the expectations will be sky high in Austin long after the football season has concluded.

In this week's edition of the Baseline Report, finding minutes for a stacked roster, the strength and weaknesses of the team, recruiting and eligibility take center stage.

Q: Obviously it's very early but as you consider the strengths and weaknesses of this year's team, what kind of team do you think will really give Texas trouble? And beyond that, how about any specific teams that you could see?

A: The strengths with this Texas team will be rebounding with the ability to dominate the glass similar to the 2005-06 Texas team did with a near +10.0 margin. Not saying this Texas team will have that margin, but they should be the best rebounding team since that season and a +7.5-8.0 margin isn't out of the question. The reason for improved rebounding should be more of a presence from Dexter Pittman on the offensive end, James continued dominance, improvement from Gary Johnson and vastly improved perimeter rebounding, which has been a three year weakness of the team.

Adding guys like Jordan Hamilton, Avery Bradley and Shawn Williams to the perimeter rebounding ability is huge for this team. Throw in Mason not having to play the baseline of the 2-3, but play up top and that improves perimeter rebounding as well as Balbay as he is always around the ball. Varez Ward is also a capable rebounder at the guard spot too.

Along with the improved perimeter rebounding should be more transition opportunities as Bradley and Hamilton can grab a board and lead the break.

The next strength would be versatility on defense. For the first time in a while, the Longhorns should have the ability to be a tall and lengthy 2-3 zone team. Texas could run out a 2-3 zone look of Pittman, James, Hamilton, Bradley and Mason if they desire or even something such as Pittman, Johnson, James, Hamilton and Bradley which would be a very big 2-3 look. Texas could also play small and more of a 1-2-2 ¾ court look too with Balbay, Bradley, Hamilton, James and Johnson/Chapman.

The Horns will be very versatile on defense in man or zone. On the ball defense when Balbay and Bradley are in the game at the same time will create the best ball pressure Coach Barnes has had in a while.

A third strength will be improved ability to score the ball off the bounce. That is a strength of both Bradley and Hamilton. If Brown gets cleared, he may be the best of the bunch. Bradley is advanced in the mid-range and Hamilton can get to the rim or pull up and shoot over the top.

The main weakness at this point is free throw shooting. It's hard to imagine this team being a quality free throw shooting team (over 70%) at this point. There isn't a returning player that shot 70% or better last season. Jai Lucas shot in the low to mid 70's as a freshman at Florida, so that will help in late game situations. Bradley, Hamilton and Williams were all capable free throw shooters at the high school level, but it's an unknown how that will translate to the college level, especially during crunch time.

Along with free throw shooting, closing out games and scoring late in games (last four minutes) has to be a question until proven otherwise. That could be largely dependent on Bradley, Hamilton, Lucas and Brown should he be eligible. Hard to say how good of a close out team Texas will be until it is shown on the court. Of course, that will be huge in just how good this Texas team will be come NCAA Tournament time.

As far as teams that will give Texas trouble, look for a team that can play a quality 2-3 zone and force the Horns to be three-point oriented as well as a team with interior depth to negate the Longhorns rebounding and interior scoring/offensive rebounding advantage.

Q: Clearinghouse issues notwithstanding, Rick Barnes seems to have a gargantuan task when it comes to managing playing time for a Texas team that is theoretically adding four rotation players (Avery Bradley, Jordan Hamilton, Jai Lucas, and J'Covan Brown) to a fairly deep team that only loses two rotation players from last year. We basically have six guys for two guard spots (Bradley, Lucas, Brown, Justin Mason, Varez Ward, and Dogus Balbay) plus six guys for the 4 and 5 spot (Dexter Pittman, Damion James, Gary Johnson, Lexi Wangmene, Clint Chapman, and Matt Hill). When Jordan Hamilton isn't playing the three, James or a guard can slide over to the wing, but that still leaves a lot of guys for a few spots. When Hamilton is in the game, we basically have 12 guards and forwards for four spots.

To exacerbate the issue, we have many players that desperately need game repetitions to improve, specifically, all of the freshman, Balbay, Ward, Pittman, Chapman, Wangmene, and Hill. Barnes needs to get all these guys minutes, win games, and prepare the team for a Final Four run at the same time. I know I am whining about an overabundance of talent, but I foresee this as being the biggest impediment to the team reaching its potential. Of course, he needs to have all this settled by the start of conference play.

What does Barnes do? What should Barnes not do?

Make the practices wars for playing time? Tell Damion James and Justin Mason to report in January for the conference schedule? Tell guys before a game that group A is getting the minutes and they will get theirs the next game?

A: I think you hit on the toughest task with this team with or without J'Covan Brown. The minutes are tough to add up and keep players happy. A lot of it is on locker room leadership playing for one team-oriented goal with the understanding the playing time will clear out after the 2009-10 season with the losses of James and Pittman with Bradley already being talked about as a potential lottery pick.

In terms of the tough task for the coaching staff, it will be what you hit on. Developing the team and getting them prepared for conference play. The tough schedule doesn't lend itself to dishing out a lot of minutes to 10, 11 or 12 players as positioning to be a #1 seed should be the goal in the non-conference. With North Carolina, Michigan State (in Austin), at Connecticut, at Arkansas and USC at home on the schedule as well as a possible game against Pittsburgh in Kansas City, the Longhorns can position themselves quite nicely headed into Big 12 play.

A lot of minutes as far as big men will be determined by how many minutes Pittman plays each game. Then there is the battle between Chapman, Hill and Wangmene for minutes behind Pittman. James and Johnson will very likely take near 40 minutes at one spot (fourth perimeter player/face up four man role).

With Lucas not being eligible until December (likely 8-10 games depending on the schedule), the minutes should play out favorably among the guards with Hamilton included as a guard/wing. How many minutes James plays on the wing will also play in to the equation.

The practices will be major competition and a fight for roles and minutes. Two past Texas teams featured 10 or more players playing 10+ minutes per game.

The 2002-03 Final Four team had nine players log over 10 minutes per game with reserve guard Terrell Harris playing 9.9 per game to make 10 players at 10 or more minutes per game.

The 2003-04 Sweet 16 team had 11 players play 10 or more minutes per game, so the history is there to show that Coach Barnes will play a lot of players if he has confidence in the bulk of the roster and the depth to wear down the opponent over the course of a game.

Q: Is Kansas overrated? Collins is up to nearly 230 lbs., and both Henry's are showing little interest in academia. Which teams have a reasonable chance to win it all next year?

A: If Xavier Henry shows up, Kansas isn't overrated at all for me. They would have a complete team with a big guard/wing scorer added to the mix. Collins' weight should be of a concern because it doesn't send the correct message, but he'll likely play around 210-215 during the season. The play of the Morris twins, Jeff Withey and Thomas Robinson will likely tell the story of how good this Kansas team will be assuming Henry shows up. The backcourt will be salty with Henry and if they front court depth comes through; they will have the most complete team in college basketball.

The teams I'm keeping an eye on next season are Kansas, Texas, Villanova, Michigan State and my sleeper to be in the mix is a talented and tough West Virginia team.

Q: Where are all the good big men for 2010-2012?

A: Great question. The 2010 class, nationally, isn't a deep class of big men. There are a lot of 6'8" types in the class that are very good, but the number of true back to the basket 6'9"/6"10" prospects are limited. It's looking more and more like Seattle area center Josh Smith will in fact stay on the West Coast as we have been saying throughout the entire recruitment. It looks like UCLA or Washington at this point.

As far as the 2010 and 2011 classes, the Longhorn staff is in evaluation mode. In 2012, Isaiah Austin of Arlington Grace Prep (rumored to be transferring to) will be as highly recruited of a big man as there is. He will likely be a true 7-footer with skill and athleticism. Texas will be in the mix, but he's not a lock for the Longhorns as he has family ties in Utah and California.

Texas needs to sign a big in the 2010 and 2011 classes for sure.

Q: Will Balbay come back early due to the broken hand?

A: There hasn't been any word on when Balbay will return to Austin at this point. There also hasn't been any word on his timetable for a return to the court.

Q: What does James need to do to improve his perimeter defense?

A: James actually did a good job on Singler in the Duke game to end the season. Team defensive rotation/help defense is key and anticipating. His ability to defend a three/wing on the perimeter will be key for him as being a versatile defender of big wings and power forwards in the post. Attention to detail and anticipating/reading what the offense is trying to get accomplished is key. Everything else is there in terms of reactive quickness, ability to get up in the air and change shots and chase the rebound when a shot goes up. With any defender, playing with the arms down (which allows the offensive player to rise up and get a clean look) is something to become more consistent at.

Q: How much, going into next year, is just a big UNKNOWN?

A: The unknown with this team at this point is getting every player to buy into their role, sacrifice individual numbers for team (that is key for any talented team in any sport) and the ability to not only make free throws, but closing out tight games.

Free throw shooting is the biggest unknown headed into next year though. After that, it's the ability to close out games in the closing four minutes on the offensive end.

Q: Status on Clearinghouse for Shawn Williams, Jordan Hamilton, and J'Covan Brown?

A: Shawn Williams is enrolled in summer I and is working out with the team. The university is still waiting on Hamilton and Brown.

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