Team preview: Texas

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

Funny thing about sleeping giants.

Once you get them out of bed, it's almost impossible to tuck them back in.

The University of Texas basketball program has experienced an awakening under the leadership of eighth-year coach Rick Barnes. A program that was in disarray when he arrived has now won at least 20 games in each of the last six years and gone to seven straight NCAA tournaments.

"I never doubted that you could have success here, but you can't sit back and wait for it to happen," Barnes said. "You can enjoy the success, but you have to keep working. If you're not getting better, you're getting worse."

The evidence is unmistakable. The Longhorns are getting better:

• Texas has spent 80 weeks in the Associated Press Top 25 poll during the Barnes era, including 52 in a row. UT spent just 50 weeks total in the polls in the previous five decades.
• Barnes has a school-record 29 wins against Top 25 opponents, 19 more than Tom Penders produced from 1989-98.
• His 82-30 (.732) mark in the Big 12 over the last seven years is the second-best record in the league.
• Texas signed just one McDonald's All-American before the arrival of Barnes, who has already landed seven.

Those prized recruits include sophomore point guard Daniel Gibson, sophomore center LaMarcus Aldridge and junior forward P.J. Tucker, three NBA-bound talents who have Texas poised for the national championship hunt in 2005-06. If that nucleus had remained intact last season, the Longhorns might have made a deep run last March instead of losing to Nevada in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But they lost Aldridge to a bad hip on Jan. 15 and Tucker to bad grades on Jan. 20. Neither returned.

"We lost a lot of our leadership and a lot of our swagger when we lost P.J., and LaMarcus was just starting to come into his own and make a real impact," Barnes said.
They're chomping at the bit to get back out there."

They will face a challenging nonconference schedule that includes Duke, Villanova, Tennessee and Memphis.

"If you're going to be a national program, you have to play a national schedule," Barnes said. "Our players enjoy it. They want to test themselves against the best."

This team may be more talented than the T.J. Ford-led squad that advanced to the Final Four in 2003 before losing to eventual national champion Syracuse.

"We can go the whole way," Tucker said. "We've got a great chance to win it all. The sky is the limit for us and we're going to do whatever it takes."
Tucker and Gibson are both on the preseason Wooden All-America watch list.

"We know we have the talent. We just have to make the most of it," Gibson said. "We're trying to do something big and make it happen this year."

Daniel Gibson was the consensus Big 12 Freshman of the Year and the first freshman in Texas history to lead the team in scoring and the only Longhorn to start every game last season.

"With everything that happened last year, Daniel had as much pressure placed on him as any freshman I've ever coached," Barnes said. "Every time we had to remake our team, he was affected most of all. But he never wavered and continued to do whatever he could to help us win."

Gibson led the team in scoring in nine of the last 16 games, averaging 16.1 points with five 20-point performances during that stretch.

"There were certain situations when I was asked to score more, to step into the leadership role, to direct other players on the court," Gibson said. "I learned a lot from it. I feel like I've already played a few seasons."

Gibson had 27 points (10-of-12 free throws) and 10 boards in the 75-61 upset against No. 5 Oklahoma State. He committed just one turnover and limited Cowboys star John Lucas Jr. to 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting.

Other highlights included 20 points (six-of-six threes), four steals and four assists to beat Texas Tech and scoring 14 of his 23 points in overtime to defeat Kansas State (Feb. 12). He made 40-of-97 (.412) three-point attempts during Big 12 play.

"He's a hard guy to guard," Barnes said. "He can also pass the ball and he's very unselfish. You can't give him much daylight. He has such deep range and he has worked on taking the ball to the basket."

Gibson led the Longhorns in steals (55), including six against Iowa State, but Barnes said he had just scratched the surface of his defensive talent.

"I think you'll see a much better defensive player," he said. "Not that he wasn't willing to do it last season, but circumstances were such that we had to have him on the floor for so many minutes and we played more zone than normal."

Barnes guaranteed that Gibson's assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3 to 1) would improve dramatically during his sophomore season.

"He knows that I recognize everything better now and I'm learning when to make passes," Gibson said. "The game is a lot faster than it was coming out of high school and I can't make some of those lazy passes I used to get away with. I'll be able to make better decisions this year."

He also has a lot more confidence.

"Last year, everything was new to me and I didn't know what to expect," Gibson said. "I learned that when you're in another arena, you've got to dictate the tempo and try to get the crowd out of it as soon as possible."

J.D. Lewis is a sharp-shooting transfer from Midland, where he garnered first-team All-Region V and All-Western Junior College Athletic Conference honors as a freshman.
This spot would have belonged to prized recruit C.J. Miles, a McDonald's All-American who decided to skip college and signed with the NBA's Utah Jazz after being picked in the second round in the June draft. The 6-6 Miles was the Class 5A Player of the Year in Texas after averaging 23.5 points, 10.0 rebounds and 4.8 assists as a senior at Skyline High in Dallas.

Lewis will have a tough battle on his hands for the starting position against fellow newcomers A.J. Abrams and Craig Winder.

Lewis paced Midland (26-10) in scoring and helped the Chaparrals advance to the quarterfinals in the NJCAA Tournament. He scored 45 points against New Mexico Junior College, converting seven three-pointers. Against Clarendon, he had 40 points, 10 rebounds, six assists, five steals and zero turnovers.

"J.D. obviously is an excellent shooter and we love his knowledge of the game," Barnes said. "He's great at moving without the ball and has great range coming off the screens. There is always a need at this level to have guys on the court who can put the ball in the basket."

Lewis didn't go the JUCO route for academic reasons, but because he received no interest from Division I programs. The moved proved to be prudent -- he chose Texas over competing offers from Oklahoma and Texas Tech.

As a senior at Amarillo High, Lewis was the co-Most Valuable Player in District 2-5A. He averaged 17.4 points per game, including a career-high 43 points in a 95-92 win in overtime against Palo Duro. Amarillo (24-5) went unbeaten in district play and rose as high as No. 4 in the state polls.

P.J. Tucker , the team's leading scorer and rebounder at the time, was declared academically ineligible on Jan. 20, abruptly ending his season after just 17 games. The Longhorns were 14-3 with Tucker and 6-8 without him.

"You can use any word you want to describe how he felt last year -- embarrassed, humiliated -- but he didn't hide from it," Barnes said. "He had to walk across the campus every day and felt like all eyes were upon him in not such a good way … but he has taken that negative and turned it into a positive."
Tucker didn't like the view from the sideline.

"It's hard to be a leader from the bench," he said. "I take that leadership role on with open arms. I've been through a lot of situations and I've got a lot to share."

Not only did Texas miss his leadership, but his versatility. A warrior on the court, he can handle any position from one through four. His strengths include leaping ability, toughness on the offensive glass and ball handling, as well as intensity and hustle. He takes heat for his shooting skills (just one three-point try in 50 games), but his impressive career field-goal percentage (.539) at least indicates he knows his limits.

Tucker had five double-doubles last season, including 27 points (on 11-of-13 field goals) and 14 rebounds in a one-point loss at No. 3 Wake Forest (Dec. 18). He had 25 points, 10 boards, three assists and two steals in an 89-82 defeat of UNLV (Jan. 2). Both efforts led to Big 12 Player-of-the-Week selections.

"If you ask our guys in the locker room, they'd all tell you that P.J. Tucker is not backing off anyone when the game is on," Barnes said. "Take a look at the second half of the last game he played a year ago. He showed then what he is about. The question will be can he play at that level all the time?"

His last game was the win over Oklahoma State on Jan. 17. After spending most of the first half of the bench with foul trouble, Tucker poured in 15 points in the second half and went nine-for-nine at the free-throw line down the stretch.

Three days later, his season was over.

"Everybody knows what happened. It was embarrassing for me, but the big part is to show that I can come back, and come back even stronger," Tucker said. "I just need to be out there and do what I do, trying to make the game easier for everybody. That's what I'm best at."

Brad Buckman was chosen the team's most improved player after leading the team in rebounding and blocks (50) and finishing third in scoring. In the Big 12, only Kansas' Wayne Simien (11.0) and Iowa State's Jared Homan (8.7) averaged more rebounds per game.

Barnes said Buckman picked up the slack and was not afraid to take the big shots after the losses of Tucker and Aldridge. In his first 20 games, he averaged 10.5 points and 7.1 rebounds. In his last 11 games, he had six double-doubles and averaged 16.0 points and 10.5 boards while hitting 56.4 percent of his shots. He led the team in rebounds in 11 of the final 14 games.

"He was forced into the position where he had to produce for us last year, and he responded," he said. "Now we want him to think of himself as a 'double-double' man. He needs to be a guy who can do that every night for us."

Buckman had 27 points and 21 rebounds at Colorado on Feb. 8. It was the third 20/20 game in Longhorns history and the first since LaSalle Thompson had 26 points and 21 boards at North Texas in 1981. It was the highest single-game rebounding total all season in the Big 12 and fourth-highest in Texas history. Buckman was chosen the Big 12 Player of the Week.

He also added a new weapon to his offensive game. After making just four-of-15 three-point attempts in his first two seasons, he nailed 18-of-41 in 2004-05. In the upset at Oklahoma State, he tallied 27 points on 8-of-11 shooting (three-of-five from long range).

Barnes said the strong, physical forward ranks among the most underrated players in the Big 12. He can score on the blocks and is a frequent visitor to the free-throw line, where he led UT with 156 free-throw attempts. Despite the pounding he takes, he was one of three Longhorns to appear in all 31 games.

"Brad is an excellent passer, ball handler and rebounder, and he has gotten better every year with the conditioning," Barnes said. "He will stretch defenses and he will not get pushed around."

LaMarcus Aldridge had surgery on March 1 to repair torn cartilage in his left hip. He returned to the court in July and is expected to be 100 percent by the time the season starts.

"No doubt he'll be ready," Barnes said. "He's worked diligently at rehabilitation. And while he was not able to do that much, he was working on the mechanics of his shot, especially close around the rim. He's another guy that you'll see playing with a lot of fire this season."

Aldridge was just getting into a groove when he got hurt in the second half of the Jan. 15 win at Nebraska. In his last three Big 12 games, he led the Longhorns in scoring (12.7) and rebounding (9.0). In those three games versus Baylor, Texas A&M and Nebraska, he made a combined 13-of-16 field goals and 12-of-14 free throws.

He posted his first double double against Baylor on Jan. 9 with a season-high 11 rebounds and 16 points on five-of-six shooting.

Missing the last 15 games of the season was a frustrating experience for the future NBA draft pick.

"People should know that he tried everything he could to come back to try to help the team," Barnes said. "From the time that we knew his year was over with, he became relentless in his approach to rehabilitation and his commitment to do everything he could at that time to improve his skill level."

There wasn't much to improve.

Scouting reports overflow with superlatives for Aldridge and his excellent touch, athleticism and coordination. Fundamentally sound at both ends of the floor, he has the quick feet needed to guard all three frontcourt spots. He is a ferocious shot blocker and an enthusiastic offensive rebounder who gets his share of put-backs and tips.

NBA scouts would like to see him add more muscle to his frame and more post moves to his game.

"He is mature beyond his years and understands the work that he needs to put in to get where he wants to be," Barnes said. "When I think about LaMarcus, I can't help but smile."

A.J. Abrams left McNeil as the program's all-time leading scorer with 2,559 points and the owner of 15 school records. He led the Mavericks to the regional finals twice and was a three-time District MVP.

At the Texas High School Coaches Association's All-Star Game in July, he took MVP honors for the victorious North team with 22 points and three steals in a 117-107 victory. He drained five three-point buckets.

"A.J. is an excellent ball handler and passer and has a great understanding of the game," Barnes said. "His amount of production will depend on his ability to defend. He can create some havoc with his terrific quickness and his vision."

Abrams is one of two players to win All-Central Texas Player of the Year honors from the Austin American-Statesman twice. The other was Buckman.
Barnes said he wasn't worried about Abrams' small stature.

"He's been getting physically stronger," Barnes said, noting that Abrams gained about 10 pounds of muscle during summer conditioning. "He understands what he has to do to get himself ready to play at this level."

His fantastic range could make Abrams a fan favorite in Austin, where his arrival has been anticipated since his early verbal commitment as a junior. He will definitely be in the mix if Barnes goes with a committee approach at shooting guard and could wind up in the starting lineup.

Craig Winder was a first-team NJCAA Division II All-American last season, the first player so honored in school history.

He steered Cecil to a 31-3 record and a berth in the 12-team national tournament, where he earned a spot on the All-Tournament team. Cecil was ranked No. 1 in the nation for eight straight weeks during the regular season and the Seahawks set a school record for victories.

Barnes said Winder has the athleticism and competitive fire to help out right away.

"Craig will find his way out onto the court, simply because he is such a tenacious player who can really guard the ball," Barnes said. "He has the ability to be a great 'lock down' guy for us defensively."

Winder red-shirted in 2003-04. As a freshman in 2002-03, he averaged 14.2 points, 4.7 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.5 steals in 22 minutes per contest. Cecil was 27-7 and reached the NJCAA Division II semifinals.

As a senior at Wicomico High in Maryland, he helped the team post a 28-0 record and capture a Class 2A state championship.

"He gives us more athletic ability than we've had at that position for a while," he said. "He's a guy I think will do whatever role we decide to put him in. He'll embrace it and he'll be a factor because of his energy, work ethic and great lateral quickness."

Last season Kenton Paulino lost his starting spot to Gibson, but he came off the bench to give Barnes plenty of quality minutes in the backcourt.

"Kenton has had some big moments for us," Barnes said. "He really understands the game and what we're trying to get done. He just needs to stay healthy."

He battled a left hamstring injury throughout the preseason and nonconference schedule and was limited in practice through mid-January. He was out of commission for the home game against Centenary.

Paulino then suffered a dislocated left toe against Iowa State on Feb. 5 and missed back-to-back games at Colorado and against Kansas State.

He scored in double digits eight times, including 13 in the season-opening victory against Texas State when he hit three-of-three three-pointers and four-of-four free throws. He set career highs in points (17), three-pointers made (five-of-six) and steals (three) in a 79-60 win against Baylor on Jan. 9. In the Big 12 tourney loss to Colorado, he led UT with 16 points.

Paulino led the Longhorns in three-point shooting (.483), including 20-of-39 (.513) in conference play. The Los Angeles native helped Texas set a school single-season mark for three-point field-goal percentage at .388, eclipsing the old record of .378 established in 1999-2000.

Mike Williams, the two-time Alabama Class 5A Player of the Year and McDonald's All-American, made a smooth adjustment to collegiate hoops after a rough start.

Williams missed the first five games of the year because of an NCAA eligibility issue. Allegations that he received free airline tickets from an AAU coach while he was in high school were investigated by the NCAA. He was cleared to play and made his debut on Dec. 4 against Seton Hall.

Williams didn't take long to get into the flow. He posted his first double-double against Centenary with 13 points and 10 boards in 20 minutes. Other strong efforts included six points and nine rebounds against Oklahoma (Feb. 28) and an eight-point, five-rebound night against Texas Tech (Jan. 25). He made his first start and played 20 minutes at Colorado on Feb. 8.

Williams was an effective rebounder, but he had difficulty getting himself open to take clean shots. He addressed that problem by hitting the weights in the offseason. He'll also have to do a better job at the free-throw line after converting just 22-of-42 free throws during Big 12 action.
"He has added some strength to his game, which he needed a year ago," Barnes said. "He is as valuable as anybody we have on the front line. We're not going to get it done with just two post players."

Injuries kept Dion Dowell from gaining much momentum as a freshman. He hurt his shoulder in practice before the Coppin State game and missed 11 consecutive games. He also suffered a minor knee injury during the win at Oklahoma State that limited his practice time.

He was a prolific scorer and rebounder at Texas City High, averaging 19.6 points and 13.5 rebounds as a junior and 23 points and 14 boards as a senior. He took District MVP honors both seasons. Not bad for someone who grew up in Germany playing soccer and didn't start playing hoops until sixth grade.

"Dion can be a special player," Barnes said. "He's so athletic. As he continues to get more consistent mentally, he's capable of making something happen."

He tallied a career-high nine points and played 24 minutes in the loss against Iowa State on Feb. 5. In a home win against Miissouri on Feb. 26, he hit five-of-six free throws and finished with seven points and three rebounds in 18 minutes.

Like Williams, Dowell benefited from the loss of Aldridge and Tucker by getting more playing time.

"The biggest thing they both found out was that it was tougher than they thought," Barnes said. "They realized how hard minutes are to come by. Both of those guys learned how much they had to improve physically, and they've worked a ton to do just that."

Connor Atchley red-shirted last season and is recovering from a fractured ankle that he suffered during offseason workouts. He is expected to be ready by the time the season tips off.

Atchley reminds many of former UT standout Brian Boddicker, another big man with deep range. He developed his long-distance shot as a shooting guard in high school, before a late growth spurt prompted a position change.

"When he comes on the floor, Connor is a guy who can step out and really shoot the ball and can give us a different look," Barnes said. "He's another guy who has made tremendous strides, and it goes back to how hard he has worked."

In high school, he was a Top 100 national prospect as a senior and a two-time all-district performer in the Houston area.

Rusty parts? Will Aldridge and Tucker show any ill effects after missing the second half of last season?

Shooting guard? Will one player emerge as a starter and dominant player at the position, or will Texas take a committee approach?

Better ball handling? UT ranked 10th in assist-to-turnover ratio and dead last in turnover margin in the Big 12 last season.

Tremendous trio! Gibson, Tucker and Aldridge are all among the best in the nation at their positions.

Big, bad Buckman! The physical forward averaged 16.0 points and 10.5 boards over his final 11 games last season.

Barnes! The fiery coach has built a program in Austin.


Texas doesn't have to toot its own 'Horns.

Everybody else is doing it for them.

"That front line is just scary," Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said. "Aldridge, Buckman, P.J., Williams -- that's as good as it gets. And Gibson, it's time to stop talking about him being one of the best guards in the Big 12. The kid ranks with the best guards in the country hands down."

Added Sampson, "Rick's one of my best friends and I honestly hope they win all their games but two."

"Texas is a Final Four team," Kansas State coach Jim Wooldridge said. "They have that type of talent that you see playing in the Final Four."

Barnes is taking that kind of praise in stride. He says the Big 12 championship and Final Four buzz going around Austin's Forty Acres adds no pressure.

"It doesn't matter what other people's expectations are, because ours will be even higher," he said. "But we're not going to talk about it. Our team is mature enough not to get caught up in preseason hype. It's a great compliment that people think about us in that way, but right now our record is 0-0."

With Gibson, a healthy Aldridge and a motivated Tucker on the floor, an eighth straight NCAA Tournament invitation is already in the mail. If they can avoid academic pitfalls and injury surprises this season, the loaded Longhorns can start sharpening their scissors for a trip to Indianapolis.

For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college basketball, the 25th anniversary edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).