The 2008 season was a bit of a roller coaster ride as far as the Texas Longhorns were concerned.
Rick Barnes' squad entered the season as a top 10 team, but faltered in January and February, limping in to the NCAA Tournament. The Longhorns finished a modest 23-12.
For a team with the kind of talent Texas had, the inconsistency throughout the season was a bit unsettling.
The Longhorns were looking good in December, knocking off ninth ranked UCLA and 12th ranked Villanova in back-to-back games.
Heading in to a match-up with fifth ranked Oklahoma in January, Texas was 12-3 on the season. However, a poor showing against the rival Sooners sent the Longhorns into steady decline down the stretch.
Texas went 14-7 in the last 21 games, including three straight losses to Kansas State, Missouri, and Nebraska in Big 12 play.
The limping Longhorns managed to slide in to the NCAA tournament after suffering a rather surprising loss to Baylor in the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament.
Texas was able to drive past New Mexico in the first round, but couldn't overcome Duke in the second round. For only the second time in five years, the Longhorns bowed out of the tournament before the Sweet 16.
The 2009 version of the Texas Longhorns is looking to right the ship and get the program back among the elite.
With 16 players on the roster, Rick Barnes has one of the deepest squads in the country, and Texas fans know that depth has been hard to come by the last few years.
G/F Damion James
Longhorn nation breathed a sigh of relief when the dynamic James backed out of the NBA Draft and opted to return to Texas for his senior season.
James is the heart and soul of this Texas squad. Last season, he averaged 15 points and nine rebounds a game, shooting 46 percent from the field. At 6'7", 225 lbs, James is the kind of player that can dominate inside the paint and keep defenses honest on the perimeter.
However, James struggled at times being the go-to guy a year ago. His numbers were solid, but his shooting percentage from behind the arc fell from 41 percent in 2007 to 32 percent in 2008.
James' return to Texas will be key for both the Longhorns' success as well as his individual development as a pro prospect. It will be interesting to see how he handles the role of team leader this season.
C/F Dexter Pittman
"Sexy Dexy" may have made the most significant improvement out of anyone on the team.
After averaging just three points and three rebounds a game in 2007, Pittman saw increased playing time, and as a result, he averaged just over 10 points and five boards a game in 2008.
Pittman came on strong towards the end of last season, averaging a double-double in the Big 12 tournament. His best game came against Kansas State when he scored 19 points, grabbed 20 rebounds, and had seven blocked shots.
Get used to seeing that kind of stat line in 2009 as Pittman will continue to develop into one of the most dominating inside forces in the nation.
G Justin Mason
Every coach wants a player like Justin Mason on his team. He is a tireless defender, he can rebound with the best of them, and he's got a decent shot.
Mason has been the utility player for the Longhorns the last few seasons, getting time at the point, on the wing, and at forward.
A year ago Mason averaged six points, three rebounds, and four assists per game.
Mason was as good as ever on defense, but he struggled on the offensive side. While his overall shooting percentage was up from 2007, his three point percentage dropped from 34 percent to 20 percent and his free throw percentage plummeted to 56 percent.
If his offensive game has improved in the off-season, he'll be one of the better all around players in the Big 12.
F Gary Johnson
Johnson really improved his shooting last season, averaging 10 points a game. He shot around 48 percent from the field.
Gary's greatest attribute is his defense down low. He moves well laterally and is a terrific rebounder.
Johnson can get off the ground and block shots with the best of them and will be a force to be reckoned with on the Longhorn front line.
G Varez Ward
Talk about coming out of the wood work.
Not many people knew about Ward, but he made fans take notice during the Big 12 tournament. While his numbers weren't staggering (total of 16 points during the tournament) he made some huge plays driving in to the lane and picking up tough points.
Ward's aggressive play has earned the respect of his teammates as well as some significant playing time in the upcoming season.
He should fit in nicely to Barnes' guard rotation with A.J. Abrams gone.
G Dogus Balbay
Balbay came on the scene last season as a highly touted point guard from Turkey.
He had earned a reputation for being an extremely physical guard who could drive into the paint and make plays around the rim.
While Balbay showed flashes of those skills, he was hardly the offensive force many expected him to be. He averaged a mere three points per game in significant time at point guard. While he did shoot around 45 percent from the field, his jump shooting was far from impressive and his free throw shooting was atrocious (also 45 percent).
However, Balbay is an impressive defender. Rick Barnes said before last season that Balbay was perhaps the best pure athlete on the team, and it was evident at times. His vertical is amazing for a player of his size (6'0", 176 lbs) and his speed in transition isn't too shabby either.
Look for Balbay to continue to play a lot, but in a more defensive role, at least until he develops a more potent offensive game.
F/C Clint Chapman
Big man Clint Chapman saw limited duty during the season, but played some valuable minutes off the bench last year.
Chapman isn't the most graceful of athletes, but he's a physical presence in the lane and he's continuing to improve his play around the rim.
Chapman will see more time this season backing up Dexter Pittman and should be much improved from a season ago.
F/C Matt Hill
Hill spent much of last season on the bench as a result of a foot injury.
Hill, like Chapman, is a big man who can rebound and make some shorter-range shots. He is continuing to work on his footwork on defense as well as his free throw shooting.
He should work his way in to the rotation with Pittman and Chapman.
F/C Alexis Wangmene
After sitting out last season with an injury, Alexis Wangmene was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA, giving him another year of eligibility.
Wangmene is now healthy and ready to contribute this season.
Alexis has a remarkable wing-span and is a furious defender. He is physical and adds a mean streak that Rick Barnes seems to really like. Moreover, the kid is as humble as they come.
Rick Barnes brought in the sixth ranked recruiting class in the nation, adding some much needed firepower to an offense that struggled at times last season.
Shooting guard Avery Bradley was the No. 1 ranked player in the nation at his position. Bradley has been picked as the Big 12 Freshman of the Year and we have yet to see him at the college level.
He's an incredible scorer who is able to drive into the lane and play around the rim as well as sink deep three's. Bradley should fill the void left by three point ace A.J. Abrams.
Small forward Jordan Hamilton was the second ranked small forward in the nation. He resembles a lankier Damion James.
At 6'7" Hamilton is a dominating presence both inside and out. He likes to utilize the fade away, but he is best suited to play around the rim.
He will provide huge match up problems for the smaller forwards he will face.
Small forward Shawn Williams is a dynamic three point shooter, much in the way Abrams was for Texas a year ago.
At 6'6", he is another large small forward, but he needs more work rebounding and playing defense.
Williams will be a source of instant offense for the Longhorns this season.
Junior guard Jai Lucas , a transfer from Florida a year ago, immediately enters the mix for starting point guard. Lucas averaged eight points and three assists at Florida in limited playing time.
Lucas will be playing for Texas this season without a scholarship in order to make room for the three incoming freshmen. Talk about a team player.
Guard J'Covan Brown was cleared to play this season after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA earlier this year due to academic issues.
Brown is an electric scorer and a gifted ball handler, who many around the team seem to believe will be the starting point guard this season. Brown immediately infuses a great deal of versatility for the Texas offense.
This Texas team is stacked.
Last season, this squad struggled to find an identity on offense, despite having playmakers like A.J. Abrams and Damion James.
While Abrams is gone, James and a host of experienced players return to the 40 Acres to complete some unfinished business.
James should be far more productive this season with the improvement of players like Justin Mason and Dexter Pittman. He won't have the pressure of having to carry the team all by himself.
With the addition of players like Avery Bradley and J'Covan Brown, this team should be a lot more explosive on the offensive end, as well.
Texas has a killer line up of games this season.
The Longhorns face a game USC squad on December 3, followed by a huge match-up against North Carolina in the new Dallas Cowboys stadium on Dec. 19 and a showdown with Michigan State in Detroit on Dec. 22.
What's more is Texas will have to contend with yet another talented Bill Self coached Kansas team, which is favored by many to win the Big 12 this season.
Should all the pieces of this Texas squad come together early in the season, they should be able to navigate through a brutal non-conference schedule with no more than two losses.
Texas matches up well with Kansas yet again and I look for the Longhorns to finally get over the hump and win the Big 12 tournament.
The talent is there for not only a run to yet another Sweet 16, but a run to the Final Four.
Rick Barnes has done an incredible job at Texas and this year he may have the deepest team he's ever had.
Look for the Longhorns to make an appearance in the Final Four this season behind the elite play of Damion James and company.
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