College Preseason Top 25: No. 2, Texas
The Longhorns may not be the best team in the Big 12, but they could win it all.
Out of all the teams you will find listed in the top five in this preseason ranking, perhaps no program’s fans are more content to wait for the start of basketball season than those of Texas. Of course, it helps when you have a football team that can compete for a national title as well. Gridiron talk aside, Rick Barnes has arguably his most talented team top to bottom ever as he prepares for the 2009-10 campaign. The Longhorns have talent, size and depth at seemingly every position and have an all-star cast of returning names and new faces, giving them the right balance to make a legitimate run at their first ever national championship.
Any other season, losing a guard of A.J. Abrams’ caliber can set a team back quite a bit. No knock against the now departed senior, but Texas will be even better on the perimeter this season. The Longhorns welcome three new faces to the wing, all three of whom were considered some of the best talents in the nation in their respective classes. Let’s start with Florida transfer and former McDonald’s All-American Jai Lucas who sat out last season due to NCAA regulations. As a freshman, the Texas native saw a tremendous amount of playing time against stiff competition, so he will already be seasoned and experienced when he takes the floor in November. The junior has a very good feel for running an offense, possessing solid handles, a good understanding of tempo and excellent passing skills. Lucas shows a good knack for getting into the lane and drawing defenders before kicking out to open teammates – though his modest assist numbers at Florida wouldn’t indicate such. Given his tiny stature, it isn’t surprising that the closer he moves to the basket, the lower his shooting numbers are. Lucas got the bulk of his touches two years ago in spot up situations and in transition – the latter scenario was the only time he attacked the rim with much success. He likes to catch and shoot when he can from the outside, showing a smooth quick release which allowed him to connect on a blistering 43.5 percent of his three-point attempts. He can break down defenders as well and shoot off the dribble, but again, given his size Lucas needs to create a fair amount of space in order to get a good look from mid-range.
Freshman Avery Bradley absolutely flew up the national rankings board as a senior in high school, going from a solid high major prospect, to emerging as one of the elite players in his class. A 6-2 shooting guard with absolutely freakish athleticism, the Findlay Prep product has the potential to step in right away and be a star at the college level if he continues to develop his game. While certainly his high flying slams in transition will get the most attention from fans, keen observers will notice that what makes the youngster such a tremendous player are the more fundamental parts of his game. Bradley’s most dangerous offensive weapons is his mid-range jumper – a seemingly lost art at all levels of the game. He has a smooth, quick release and can pull up on a dime, exhibiting very good form when shooting off the dribble. Many younger players tend to sway or fade when shooting on the move, but the McDonald’s All-American knows how to keep himself aligned straight on when firing off shots. The other staple of Bradley’s game is his defense; there isn’t a better perimeter defender in this class. Aside from possessing outstanding lateral quickness and equally as quick hands, the newcomer anticipates well and just plays with a passion that can’t be taught at that end of the floor.
Lastly, there is 6-7 small forward Jordan Hamilton, a player who has gotten almost no attention entering the season because he didn’t play his senior year of high school due to a ruling that made him ineligible based on previous schools attended. Sleeping on this west coast scoring machine is a big mistake though. Hamilton is one of the top ten players in his class, possessing an impressive combination of size for the perimeter and an offensive arsenal that few freshmen will be able to rival. The Compton product can shoot with pretty good consistency from the wing, has solid handles, knows how to get to basket and once there finishes with great efficiency given his size, strength and athleticism. Given the amount of firepower returning for the Longhorns this season don’t necessarily expect to see Hamilton consistently putting up monster numbers, but he will definitely be a consistent double-digit scorer who will go off from time to time. Hamilton isn’t the only elite small forward joining the program though, with 6-6 super athlete Shawn Williams suiting up this fall as well. He excels attacking the basket off the bounce where he can elevate with the best of them and his perimeter shot has shown a lot of improvement in the last year as well.
A lot of the pressure to help show these newcomers the ropes will fall on the shoulders of senior Justin Mason who was a solid part of the Texas backcourt attack last season, existing mainly as a playmaker. The Amarillo native dished out a team-high 4 apg last season and despite his somewhat smaller stature as a perimeter player, wasn’t afraid to crash the glass either. As an offensive weapon he was average at best as a scorer, getting the majority of his touches in spot up and isolation scenarios but not really excelling at any one particular discipline. Still, if Mason can produce a couple of standout showings this year as he did last season (18 points vs Oregon, 15 points 10 rebounds vs Texas Tech) that will be enough for him to keep the coaching staff happy.
The frontcourt will rest of the shoulders of two seniors in Dexter Pittman and Damion James. Pittman has been a study in basketball development, losing nearly 100 pounds since his senior year of high school and now fits the bill as a player who will get some professional looks in addition to being a major impact player in the Big 12. The massive center averaged better than 10 points and 5 rebounds in just 17 minutes of action last season due to his still improving condition – something that should be even better this year. No one at the college level will be able to consistently handle him physically when he established position on the block; he is simply too big and strong. Though he is still very raw as a post presence, Pittman shows pretty good footwork and a developing back to the basket game that features some basic moves and a soft touch. Don’t expect him to operate beyond the immediate vicinity of the rim, but he has the potential to be a real go-to scoring option down low as he continues to improve. Defensively, his frame alone makes him effective at the college level as he takes up an enormous amount of space, while also showing pretty good instincts. Cutting down on the number of fouls he commits will be a big step in the right direction and will also go a long way to keeping him on the floor longer as well.
James tested the NBA waters this past spring but ultimately decided it was in his best interest to return for another season – good choice. The combo-forward has been trying to make the transition to small forward for the last season plus, but is still more of a four than a three. He’ll always be undersized for the power forward position at 6-7, but his athleticism, freakish wingspan and constant hustle have allowed him to operate at a very high level for the last few seasons, averaging nearly a double-double as a junior. James moves very well without the basketball, getting the bulk of his points in transition and cutting to the basket in addition to the offensive glass. He knows how to finish at a high rate around the cylinder and he isn’t deterred by contact – in fact he often seeks it out. While he took a big step back in terms of his perimeter shooting last year, James will still be a big time impact player in his final season thanks to the work he does inside for the Longhorns.
The duo of Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman saw limited minutes inside last year, but with the departure of Conner Atchley, they will have to be ready to contribute more time inside as rotational big men. Chapman in particular, with his 6-10 240-pound frame will have to help on the glass and defensively when Pittman is on the bench for stretches during the game.
This is going to be a very interesting team to watch develop over the course of the season. Expect a couple of early slow starts during the regular season non-conference schedule while the freshman adjusts, but it likely won’t take long. The Longhorns are deep, athletic and very long at every position on the floor – a fact that will make them a stingy defensive team. With a potential starting five or Lucas, Bradley, Hamilton, James and Pittman, Texas has the look of a team that could take home a national championship come the month of march if their bench can produce enough to help support the starters.