Apologies for the delay, but after digesting another weekend of Big XII basketball, we're back to our mini-previews. As you may have noticed, Rick Barnes has turned Texas into one hell of a program. Consider, in the last three years they've lost Boobie Gibson, LaMarcus, Aldridge, PJ Tucker (however ill-advised), Kevin Durant & DJ Augustin early to the draft. Yet again, they sit highly ranked at 13-4 after a tough non-con slate and in contention for the Big XII title. Unfortunately, for them, Barnes didn't see the DJ Augustin defection coming and as a result, he's been left without a point guard. If the second half at Tech was any indication, they may figure things out yet, but ultimately you just can't go where they want to without a competent point guard and he doesn't exist on this year's roster.
However, they're still plenty dangerous on a game by game basis and are definitely Sweet 16 material if not further. As you know by now, their two leaders are Abrams and James. You won't find many (or any) better shooters than Abrams and despite his size he's become a decent defender, but that's where his abilities stop, despite what his father will tell you. He's not a great handler, he can't really create for himself or others and I've yet to see much out of him in regards to leadership. That doesn't mean I don't like him as a player, just that he has certain limitations that he doesn't want to recognize, despite how obvious they may be. James, on the other hand, I can't quite figure out. He's a match-up nightmare and as good a rebounder as you'll find (when he wants to be), but I'm always left feeling like he should be doing more and I get the feeling he's trying to cater his game to the NBA scouts – but really, I have no basis for either of these assumptions. All in all, he's a guy I'd take on my team in a second and the Horns love being able to count on him for 15 and 8 every time out.
The surprise, to some, is Gary Johnson. I call him a surprise because his heart condition prevented us from getting a full look at him a year ago. But anyone who watched him play saw the skill set and effort and knew that once his health issues subsided, he would be a force. I don't love his 47% shooting, but if he could get a little more efficient and still get his 11 & 7 he'd take the next step and he's already a very viable (but under-sized) big man.
The others you'll remember are Mason, Atchley and Pittman. I love everything about Mason (7, 4, 5) and yet, like James, I don't feel like he's doing all he can. He's much more of an all-everything than the PG Barnes wanted him to be and I still can't explain his utter no-show in Norman (0 points on 0 shots, 2 boards, 3 assists), but all in all, he's an excellent defender and effort guy and can score it a little as well – though I don't care for his 43% shooting on only 6 shots a game). Atchley is also a little confusing as he seems to have regressed. Once known as a guy who got a couple more rebounds than he probably should have and always seemed to hit a timely three, he's now been reduced to 21 minutes and is only producing 6 points and 3 boards in that time; and he's only hitting 33% of his threes, down from 42% a year ago. I still think Atchley is a good player, and under-rated defender, but his ability to shoot is what separated him before and until he gets that back, he's nothing special. And finally, the ultimate enigma is Dexter Pittman. Despite his inability to play a ton of minutes, Pittman is probably their most efficient offensive player and certainly their best inside option – but he doesn't fit their offense one bit. In only 13 minutes a game, he's scoring 9 points and grabbing over 4 boards while shooting 59% and yet he barely saw the court against Tech (1 minute) which is probably a sign of things to come as Barnes has become frustrated with trying to run an offense without a point guard and in their new "scheme", Dexter takes up too much space.
The other guys you should know are: Varez Ward, Dogus Balbay, Clint Chapman and Matt Hill. Each bring a little something extra, but none are complete players in any sense. Balbay is their first option here and he is an excellent on ball defender and a pretty good penetrator, but his jump shot deserves exactly zero respect for the time being. Ward has a similar offensive game, but is not nearly the defender of Balbay and may be getting fazed out a bit. Hill & Chapman (to a lesser extent) are both effort guys that don't play usually a ton but give them serviceable bigs, and more importantly, fouls – anything else is a bonus. Hill is clearly the better player and may turn into something more down the road, but for now he's just worth keeping an eye on.
As has become customary, the Horns are good. But like always, they're missing a piece of the pie. Back in '05 it was depth (and a PG). In '06 they were too young. And last year they didn't have enough size, plus it was the year of the Jayhawk. This year it's their lack of a point guard. However, they play much better defense than we've become accustomed to and they're certainly still good enough to contend for the league and do some damage for a week or so in the tournament, but I'd anticipate that being their ceiling for 2009.
Up next: Iowa State