We're all familiar with the story by now. Texas was No. 1 in the country, undefeated and sailing high precisely one year ago.
Then the Longhorns wandered into The Octagon of Doom.
Two hours later, they staggered out, still unsure what just had happened, their mojo gone for good that season.
They limped to the finish line, losing nine of their last 16 games.
Seniors Damion James and Dexter Pittman graduated, freshman Avery Bradley left for the NBA, and Rick Barnes was left to pick up the pieces.
So far, he's done a pretty good job. Texas is 11-2, ranked No. 12 and appears to have a certain chemistry among its young stars that was lacking a year ago.
But what are the Longhorns' prospects in Big 12 play?
My preview is after the jump, but you also can visit Burnt Orange Nation for a view from the ground.
After all, it's not like they have anything else to talk about besides who their new football coordinators will be.
The Story So Far
Texas is 11-2, with a loss to RPI No. 8 Pittsburgh by two points on a neutral court before Thanksgiving (extremely respectable) and a blowout loss to RPI No. 55 USC on the road (not quite as respectable, but gaining in stature).
The Longhorns already have two extremely good signature wins — over RPI No. 28 Illinois (in the same tournament as the Pitt game) and over RPI No. 29 North Carolina in what essentially was a road venue.
There also are two quality wins of differing status. The win at RPI No. 50 Michigan State only will gain in power as the Spartans polish up their numbers in conference play, but the win over RPI No. 98 Sam Houston State soon should be a win over a triple-digit RPI team.
The rest of the schedule has been relatively soft, comprised of home games against mostly smaller instate peons. But those quality wins carry a lot of weight with the selection committee and should have the Horns ready for Big 12 play.
Current Texas RPI: 36
Current Texas SOS: 110
Note: All stats for current players are updated through the most recent game this season, unless otherwise noted.
305-122 (138-57) at Texas
- Avery Bradley (29.5 minutes per game | 11.6 points per game | 2.9 rebounds per game)
- Damion James (30.3 minutes per game | 18.0 points per game | 10.3 rebounds per game)
- Justin Mason (19.0 minutes per game | 3.6 points per game | 2.0 rebounds per game)
- Dexter Pittman (19.1 minutes per game | 10.4 points per game | 5.9 rebounds per game)
- Shawn Williams (5.6 minutes per game | 1.6 points per game | 1.7 rebounds per game)
- Varez Ward (23.0 minutes per game | 6.7 points per game | 3.0 rebounds per game)
#4 Dogus Balbay
17.3 minutes per game | 4.2 points per game | 2.9 rebounds per game
#14 J'Covan Brown
20.2 minutes per game | 9.0 points per game | 2.1 rebounds per game
#53 Clint Chapman
5.1* minutes per game | 1.9* points per game | 1.4* rebounds per game
#22 Andrew Dick
2.0 minutes per game | 0.8 point per game | 0.3 rebound per game
#3 Jordan Hamilton
30.2 minutes per game | 19.8 points per game | 7.2 rebounds per game
FANTASY OWNER: TB
#21 Matt Hill
14.8 minutes per game | 2.2 points per game | 3.5 rebounds per game
#1 Gary Johnson
28.8 minutes per game | 11.7 points per game | 7.3 rebounds per game
#10 Jai Lucas
16.1 minutes per game | 4.2 points per game | 1.0 rebound per game
#25 Dean Melchionni
1.5 minutes per game | 0.8 point per game | 0.0 rebounds per game
#20 Alexis Wangmene
10.5 minutes per game | 3.0 points per game | 2.8 rebounds per game
#5 Cory Joseph
31.9 minutes per game | 11.7 points per game | 3.8 rebounds per game
#12 Trent Morgan
1.3 minutes per game | 0.0 points per game | 0.3 rebound per game
#13 Tristan Thompson
30.7 minutes per game | 12.0 points per game | 8.1 rebounds per game
FANTASY OWNER: TB
My thanks to the Texas sports information department for the photos.
What do you when a season crumbles apart like 2009-10 did for Texas? You blow it all up and start over.
Well, not exactly. The Longhorns return 10 players from last year's roster, eight of whom saw significant playing time.
That's an impressive number, considering Texas also lost four starters and another player who was a starter for three games to begin the season before going down with a leg injury.
Those losses would constitute the "blowing it up" part, by the way. Three of the Longhorn's four double-digit scorers — Bradley, James and Pittman — are gone, leaving only Jordan Hamilton to carry the load.
In some ways. that might be a good thing. Bradley wasn't quite the talent he was hyped to be, although he obviously was good enough to be one-and-done, and he sometimes seemed to shy away from the limelight and fear the leadership position Barnes was trying to thrust him into.
Pittman was notoriously inconsistent even after he got his legendary weight under control, and his penchant for foul trouble kept him on the bench for an average of an entire half of each game. That's not much help from a senior.
But replacing the leading rebounder in Big 12 history? That's not just impossible — it's laughable. The best you can hope to do is mitigate the loss of a Damion James, not celebrate it.
But as great as James was, he couldn't do it alone. And all too often, there wasn't consistent help for one of the greatest players in school history. That means Barnes must build a better team this year, and the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts.
What pieces does he have to work with? Well, for starters, two freshman newcomers from Canada are making a nice impact.
Center Tristan Thompson leads the team in rebounding, averaging only two boards less per game than James did his senior year, and also contributes 12 points per game. He's a monster defensively, too — imagine a less polished version of Purdue's JaJuan Johnson.
Combo guard Cory Joseph was expected to address the Longhorns' many point guard woes (and with a team-leading 40 assists, he's doing just that), but he's proving to be a very capable scorer, too, tying Gary Johnson for third on the team charts.
Speaking of Johnson, the team's second-leading rebounder always had flirted with greatness, but mostly it seemed a tantalizing, nebulous future as he languished in the shadow of more prominent players.
But this is his senior season and this is his team, and it's reflected in his more assertive play this year. He's a real treat to watch, just like always.
Point guard Dogus Balbay is back after rupturing his ACL midway through last season, but his minutes are down considerably.
Balbay is a hard worker and a pretty good defender, but his lack of shooting acumen makes him something of a liability on the court when scoring is the goal. Joseph's continued improvement is the key to phasing Balbay out slowly.
Also assisting in that regard is reserve point guard Jai Lucas, who's contributing some good minutes off the bench.
The ever-enigmatic J'Covan Brown has not elevated his game sufficiently to claim a starting spot like I expected prior to the season.
Nor is he really the point guard some envisioned him to be after he was pressed into action following injuries to Balbay and Varez Ward (who has transferred to Auburn for family reasons, a loss I consider to be sizable).
But he is averaging nine points a game in only 20 minutes of action, so that's something. I think they need more from him if they are to be Big 12 contenders, however.
Veteran reserves Alexis Wangmene and Matt Hill are providing marginal rebounding and scoring in the post, but it's nothing to write home about. They're mainly there for their defense, to spell Johnson and Thompson, and to soak up fouls.
In a curious move, senior big man Clint Chapman has not played yet this season, and speculation is that Barnes wants to redshirt him to help offset the likely loss of Thompson to the NBA this summer. If push comes to shove in conference play, though, he might have to be pressed into action to provide necessary post depth.
I penciled in Andrew Dick as Hamilton's backup at the wing position, but you just as easily could pick Dean Melchionni or Trent Morgan. It doesn't really matter — none of those three underclassmen sees more than garbage time. Texas is using a nine-man rotation this season.
That means almost all the minutes at the 3 spot are going to Hamilton, the team's leading scorer with almost 20 points per game. The mercurial sophomore has found more consistency this year, but still sometimes lapses into the selfish habits of his freshman year that could derail an offense with too many poor shots.
When Hamilton is on and the other players execute their roles well, the Longhorns are hard to beat. When he takes bad shots or they turn it over too much and don't hustle on defense, they're only slightly better than mediocre. Just ask USC.
Projected Big 12 Starting Lineup
|Dogus Balbay||Cory Joseph||Jordan Hamilton||Gary Johnson||Tristan Thompson|
Projected Top Big 12 Reserves
|Jai Lucas||J'Covan Brown||Andrew Dick||Alexis Wangmene||Matt Hill|
The Final Verdict
It's still hard to know what to make of Texas. Yes, the Longhorns have some huge wins and they are to be commended for that. But it still feels as though we're waiting for the bottom to fall out again.
I don't know that the lack of performance at point guard truly has been solved from a year ago. It's still basically a "point guard by committee" situation, and those never really seem to work.
Depth in the post is another huge issue. Johnson and Thompson are both a little skinny for their positions, and Hill and Wangmene are average backups at best. The better Big 12 frontcourts might be able to take advantage of them.
And then there's the Jordan Hamilton factor, as I described it above. When you roll the J-Ham dice, sometimes you win and sometimes you roll snake eyes.
When I add up all these issues and throw in Rick Barnes' coaching style (he's often described as a "players' coach" who's more concerned about getting guys to the NBA than breaking them down and building them back up), it equals a solid tournament team that just won't be consistent enough (especially on the road) to compete for a championship.
Keep this in mind: Other than Balbay and Johnson (both of whom are somewhat limited in what they can do), this is a team of freshmen and sophomores. That's never really a great formula for consistent success, even when you have talents as great as Hamilton and Thompson.
Big 12 preseason prediction: 3rd
My predicted finish: 5th
Best-case scenario: 3rd
Against K-State?: Win in Austin (Seems like the Chisholm Trail Rivalry is a rotating series, and it's their turn this year.)