AUSTIN, Texas -- Before Texas center Dexter Pittman could eat a meal during the past two years, he had to call Longhorns strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright before ordering.
Their conversation would go something like this:
"Coach, it's Dex," Pittman would tell Wright.
"What do they have?" Wright would ask him.
"The guys are eating chicken wings," Pittman would say.
"Dex, if they have chicken wings, I know they have grilled chicken," Wright would say. "Order the grilled chicken sandwich -- and throw away the bun."
"Coach, they have french fries," Pittman would plead.
"You can't have french fries," Wright would tell him. "I know they have side salads. Get a side salad -- with light dressing."
When Pittman arrived at Texas as a freshman more than two years ago, he weighed close to 400 pounds. As a three-year starter at Terry High School in Rosenberg, Texas, (near Houston) Pittman was mostly a one-way player. He played on only one end of the court because he was too big and slow to run to the other end to play defense.
"We were just concerned about him getting through practice when he got here," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "He didn't even know there was anything outside the middle of the floor. It just took so much for him to run up and down the floor."
Wright, who is in his 11th season as Texas' strength and conditioning coach, made Pittman his personal project over the past two years. As a freshman, Pittman would report to the Longhorns' gym at 5:30 a.m. -- two hours before any of his teammates were out of bed.
Wright started slowly, working Pittman for about 30 to 40 seconds at a time on a stationary bike. Then Pittman would throw a medicine ball for another 20 seconds and do lunges. Initially, Wright was worried about getting Pittman's heart beating too fast. Pittman eventually worked his way up to running on a treadmill and doing sprints.
"When we first got him, he couldn't squat down," Wright said. "He'd have to bend over."
But through hard work and relentless dedication, Pittman has lost more than 90 pounds as he enters his junior season. Wright said Pittman's body-fat percentage has dropped from 41 percent to 13 percent. He can run up and down the floor with his teammates and stays in practices longer.
"I'm proud of the kid," Wright said. "From where he started, no one really knows how hard he's worked. I hope he gets to reap some of the rewards. Whether he produces or not, I'm just proud of him for what he's done to his body."
Barnes and Pittman's teammates are counting on him to do much more this season. After showing glimpses of being a dominant player near the end of 2007-08, Pittman figures to play a much bigger role this season.
A 6-foot-10, 293-pound center, Pittman could become the low-post presence the Longhorns have lacked during recent seasons. He attended Pete Newell's Big Man Camp in Las Vegas this summer and has looked more confident and productive in preseason practices.
"We've changed the expectations for him," Barnes said. "Dexter knows just getting through practice isn't good enough anymore. Dexter can give us a really good power game inside. He's got to be a factor. We've got to make him become a factor."
Pittman showed Barnes how good he can be in last season's NCAA tournament. In a 74-54 win over Austin Peay in the first round, Pittman scored 11 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. He had six rebounds in a 75-72 win over Miami in the second round, and grabbed six rebounds in an 82-62 victory over Stanford in the regional semifinals.
To be real honest, I feel like every time I give Dexter the ball in the paint, it's a basket. He has worked his tail off. He has to be a force inside. If we're going to go where we want to go, Dexter has to be a big force.
"I'm more confident because I understand the game a lot more," Pittman said. "My teammates really helped me get through some tough times."
Pittman -- whose father, Johnny, is 7-foot and played at Oklahoma State from 1989 to 1991 -- has greatly altered his diet. He eats one cup of eggs with ham and half a piece of toast for breakfast. He eats half a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich and drinks two bottles of water between classes. For lunch, Pittman usually eats a ham sandwich or baked pasta. Lunch is followed by a one-hour workout and then practice. Pittman said he eats some sort of baked chicken for dinner nearly every night.
During a road trip to Texas Tech last season, the team's bus stopped at a fast-food restaurant for lunch. Wright didn't see Pittman inside and found him sitting alone on the bus.
"What are you doing?" Wright asked him.
"Coach, I can't eat fried chicken," Pittman told him.
Pittman's dedication to losing weight has never wavered, Barnes said.
"He's done it," Barnes said. "He's the one who put in the time."
And now it's time for Pittman to produce on the court.
"I know I've got a big role to play," Pittman said. "If I don't live up to that role and become the player coach Barnes wants me to be, I know I'll let my team down."
A dominating inside presence might be the only piece the Longhorns lack heading into the 2008-09 season. They return four starters from a team that finished 31-7 and lost to Memphis 85-67 in the regional finals of the 2008 NCAA tournament. Texas has more depth in the backcourt and frontcourt.
"This is the most depth we've had since our Final Four team [in 2003]," Barnes said. "We're really thick up front. We have six or seven or eight bodies we can put up there. We can play small ball if we need to. We can get big if we need to. We have a lot of combinations."
Senior guard A.J. Abrams is the top returning scorer in the Big 12 after averaging 16.5 points per game last season. Junior Damion James is one of only six returning players in Division I who averaged a double-double in 2007-08, finishing last season with 13.2 points and 10.3 rebounds per game. Senior Connor Atchley, a 6-foot-10 forward, is coming off his best season at Texas, averaging 9.5 points and 5.3 rebounds with a team-high 80 blocked shots.
James, a 6-foot-7 swingman from Nacogdoches, Texas, spent a month this summer working with former Longhorns star Kevin Durant, who returned to Austin for summer school. Each morning, James and Durant would play one-on-one at the Longhorns' practice facility. James would try to score against Durant with no dribbles, one dribble or two dribbles.
"It was great," James said. "It took my perimeter game to another level. Going against Kevin every day took my overall game to another level. We got into a bunch of arguments and almost got into a couple of fights. But it was tough love. I really love him for coming back down and helping me get better and helping my team get better."
But Pittman is the player who can make the Longhorns better than anyone else.
"To be real honest, I feel like every time I give Dexter the ball in the paint, it's a basket," James said. "He has worked his tail off. He has to be a force inside. If we're going to go where we want to go, Dexter has to be a big force."
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.