The Baseline Report (August 16)

The Texas basketball team has wrapped up another successful summer of workouts under Todd Wright and is now days away from beginning the offseason work preparing for the 2009-10 season. Burnt Orange Beat's Gerry Hamilton answers questions from the BOB subscribers on the hoops squad.

While the Longhorns are still awaiting word from the NCAA on the status of J'Covan Brown as of August 16, the roster is already that of a team that has a chance to contend for a place in the Final Four with a salty mix of experience, future NBA talent and a highly skilled freshman class with a pair of difference makers.

In the latest installment of the Baseline Report, the questions range from the improvement of Gary Johnson to possible rotation and the impact of newcomers.

Q: What will be Lucas' impact on the team with/without Brown?

A: Lucas will have an impact on the team on the court and off the court. He's a terrific fit with the guys on the team. On the court, he's comfortable with the ball, will make free throws, will knock down the open three and has a lot of game experience and tight game experience from his season at Florida. Lucas will also understand exactly what Coach Barnes desires on the offensive end and understands how to run a team.

Q: How do you feel the Ward/Mason battle for backup 2 will go?

A: Coach Barnes always says the players will determine who plays and I think that is certainly the case with the depth on this year's team. Mason has started a lot of games at Texas with a ton of big game, NCAA Tournament experience and that is feather in his cap. Ward is an improved player from last season through the summer. With Texas looking like a poor free throw shooting team, Ward has a huge advantage on Mason in that regard. With the offensive weapons on this year's team, players that don't make free throws are going to have a tough time earning major minutes in the backcourt.

Q: Will Williams and/or Chapman redshirt?

A: The redshirt question is of note with this team because the depth is available to redshirt a player. Of course, staying healthy in the early part of the season is key in that. If Texas is healthy through the rugged practices leading up to the season, then a redshirt option for a post or perimeter player could definitely be available. Those are likely the top two options as far as depth at their position and the gains they could make with a redshirt year.

Q: Who will assume the DJ/TJ role of being the leader who stands up for the team?

A: That is a great question on the leader that steps up. Avery Bradley has a lot of those qualities and has that ability through his play on both ends of the floor on a daily basis. Once he gets his feet wet, I expect him to jump into that type of role.

Q: Will Balbay be more relaxed playing this year? Last year it looked like the demands of Barnes and coaching staff affected his play.

A: Balbay should be more relaxed this year from a few standpoints. First, he now has game experience and a better understanding of what Coach Barnes expects out of him. Second, he's in a different position this year with some very talented wing players in Hamilton and Bradley around him. His ability to play in transition will be easier this year with those two freshmen running the floor with him and James as the trailer. Make the correct, simple play comes with desired results this year. Third, the competition at the position should really push him more this year. One has to deliver on what Coach Barnes expects or the playing time will not likely be there as it was last year.

Q: Based on practice reports, what do you see as the regular rotation with and without Brown?

A: The rotation isn't really possible to predict at this point because the competition hasn't begun and won't until practice. I do think six guys will play major minutes for sure in Damion James, Dexter Pittman, Jordan Hamilton, Avery Bradley, Gary Johnson and Dogus Balbay. As far as a back-up center, Matt Hill appears to have made a move and is right there in that competition. Jai Lucas isn't going to be eligible for the first 8-9 games and the word on J'Covan Brown still awaits, so getting into guard rotation is next to impossible at this point. Mason and Ward have put it in the books and will play.

It will be a surprise if anyone on this team averages 34-35 minutes this year with the exception of the games that are the big ones. This team is one that lends itself to a faster pace, consistent rotation and the ability to play different line-ups.

Q: Earlier reports had Johnson as one of most improved in offseason, is this still correct? In what ways has he improved?

A: Johnson was mentioned consistently as having a very good spring. The junior is continuing to improve his face-up game and range. Johnson can be a player in the ball screen game (think Michigan State) and the ability to knock down the 15-17 foot catch and shoots on this team are going to be big when playing with Pittman. Spacing will be huge when Pittman is in the game and that means four out/one in for the most part.

The determining factor on how much Johnson improves will be team defense and becoming a rebound chaser and not just a location rebounder. That will have to play out over time when practices begin and the early in the season. Johnson is one of the top Horns in terms of ball screen defense as he has the ability to hedge strong and recover. If he is in the game with Pittman, the opponent will look to pull Pittman away from the basket and Johnson's strength will be taken away in large part, so that is something to watch for in the way the opponent will attack Texas.

Q: If Texas shoots a high free throw percentage would they be a favorite to win the national championship?

A: That would be huge in my mind. At this point, it's very tough to look at this team and be convinced that free throw shooting can become average to above average. Varez Ward, to me, has proven he can be counted on late and in big games, yet he still shot 68.5% last year due in large part to 0-6 in his first college game.

Throw out the first games nerves and Ward shot over 70%. After that, James was 68.4%, Pittman 69.1%, Johnson 66.9%, Mason 52.5%, Balbay 45% and Chapman 23.1%.

Pittman, as he logged more minutes, dropped in % as expected as he is winded going to the foul line. James and Johnson made nice strides last season and have to make similar gains.

Mason and Balbay won't be on the court as much if they can't convert pure and simple.

Lucas shot 73% as a freshman at Florida, so he's a guy that can be counted on for 75%, but he's not going to get to the line much. That ability will likely put him on the floor in the closing minutes of games though.

Bradley and Hamilton were good in high school, but they have to do it in front of big crowds in much different pressure situations.

If Texas can find a way to convert at 72-73% for the season, they will be very, very tough to beat. More importantly, if they can make free throws late in games early in the season it would be huge mentally. Struggles early in the season will leave the doubt in must make situations.

Q: Really, why are we taking so many guards in the next three classes?

A: I think one has to look really hard at the roster. This year, Bradley and Hamilton are likely to be early NBA draft talents. That could be one year or two years. Most likely, one of the two will be in position to leave after one year if not both.

Balbay can leave at any time and receive a nice contract to play in his home country. Depending on how the season goes for him, that could come into play.

Mason is a senior on this team. Also with the logjam in the backcourt and on the wings, it's not out of the question that playing time could become an issue and that leads to transfer possibilities.

Q: How's Balbay's wrist, and how has Wangmene looked over the summer?

A: Balbay is back playing now as of ten days ago fully healed. As far as Wangmene, he's healthy. In terms of making a move in the crowded frontcourt, that will be played out when practices begin. His post defense and ball screen defensive ability gives him a chance. Wangmene would benefit being on the floor with quality offensive players and he could play to his strengths, which is defense, rebounding, shot changing and running the floor.

Like Johnson, Wangmene has to become more than a location rebounder.

Q: With the way that we're recruiting, it seems that we're basically able to call upon any player that we would so choose and at least could get in the door. So my question is how does the staff decide whom they genuinely want to pursue? What types of skills/attributes does the staff put the most emphasis on? And have these emphases changed as we have landed better players, or do we simply get players who have the same kind of attributes as before just at a higher level?

A: The staff puts a lot of stock in how a prospect would fit in their program after having the baseline talent to play at Texas. Fitting in the locker room and guys that will maximize their ability working with Todd Wright is key. Love or passion for the game is huge. One has to love the game and be dedicated to the game to put in the tough offseason work under Wright and do all of the things to improve as players. That is always underrated in every sport.

Q: Who is the first big off the bench to spell Dexter, when we're keeping a five in the game?

A: To be determined is the simple answer because Coach Barnes always says the players will decide. Matt Hill is an improved player, is a good post defender and understand team defense. One has to think back to Hill as a freshman before his injuries to remember how he can help, but with more confidence, strength and flexibility/agility than that time. Now well removed from the injuries, he has the look of a player that can contribute.

Wangmene and Chapman will compete for sure. Texas can play small and not be small at the same time with James, Johnson and Hamilton in an up-tempo line-up.

Q: Who is on the floor in the small lineup?

A: An interesting small line-up look early in the season is Balbay, Ward/Mason, Bradley, Hamilton and James. That would be a trapping/man full court pressing team with three tough on the ball defenders. That team would also change ends of the floor very quickly. Texas has to force more turnovers than the last couple of years and they have the players to do that with more success in 2009-10.

Q: Who will be the pick and pop guy, a la Atchley, because we know how much Coach Barnes loves those screens.

A: Damion James was stellar in the pick and pop game at Kansas last year. Expect to see more of that this year and that is a huge advantage for James on the offensive end. Of course, be a quality screener consistently is the key and understanding the desired spacing.

Like James, Johnson will play in that role this year. The ball screen game to get into a high/low look this year is something to watch for. James and Johnson will both get ample chances in the mid-range game in that regard.

Depending on match-ups, don't be surprised to see Hamilton in both roles. Specifically to your question, Hamilton could be devastating in the screen and float/roll game against smaller line-ups in the college game. He can shoot it from 23-feet and will have to be closed out on tightly. He can put it on the deck, pull up in the mid-range, get to the rim and make plays for teammates. Hamilton's weakness off the bounce that will likely show up during the season is that he's much more comfortable going right than left. Opponents will play him that way once the video breakdowns happen.

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