What a difference a year makes. At this point in 2009, Texas was No. 3 in the nation thanks to the returning talent of two All-Big 12 performers and the addition of one of the highest-rated recruiting classes in the country.
Fast-forward 12 months. For the first time in a decade, Texas is unranked in The Associated Press preseason poll and a relatively small freshman class adds to the team’s young roster.
Of course, the 2009-10 Longhorns, after rising to the top of the rankings, stumbled to a 24-10 record and first-round NCAA tournament exit. It happened for a number of reasons, including a lack of leadership.
“Guys didn’t hold each other accountable as a team,” said senior forward Gary Johnson. “Ultimately it affected us in a terrible way. I think all of us have learned from that and we don’t want that to happen again.”
This season’s team hopes to fare better, especially without the weight of great expectations on their shoulders.
“We love it now, we have everything to work for,” Johnson said. “Nothing was given to us. It just makes us more hungry.”
That begins with head coach Rick Barnes, who faces the difficult task of replacing Damion James, the Big 12’s career leader in double-doubles.
Fifth-year senior Matt Hill will play a larger role after struggling with injuries for most of his career, including a foot injury that robbed him of most of the 2006-07 season.
“From the end of last season, the spring, the summer, up to this point, guys have worked really hard. They’ve done what we’ve asked them to do,” Barnes said. “I think you have to re-evaluate every year. I don’t think you can ever just think that you’re there and that you’ve got it figured out.”
To cope with losing James, Dexter Pittman and Avery Bradley to the pros, some Texas players improved their conditioning in the offseason to prepare for increased minutes. Johnson, a 6-foot-6-inch power forward who was mostly a role player last year, was one of them.
Johnson finished with the third-most minutes on the team despite only four starts in 2009-10. The senior became a scoring threat as he improved his low-post game and recorded a career-best 25 points in March versus Baylor.
Without James or Pittman, Johnson will often be the Longhorns’ go-to man in the paint. He’s still listed at 238 pounds but looked noticeably slimmer in the team’s new burnt orange Nike uniforms.
“I’ve been eating better,” Johnson said. “Better eating habits. Lost a little weight. Jump higher,
Johnson is the team’s top returning rebounder but is also the forward with the most offensive experience and will use his increased endurance to cover both ends of the court.
“I’d like to think I’m a better defender because I’m moving quicker,” he said.
J’Covan Brown, the squad’s eccentric guard, didn’t lost any weight but improved his stamina with early morning workouts and more cardio. He’ll move into the shooting guard role after struggling with turnovers at the point.
“I’m in way better shape,” Brown said. “The team moves faster. We’ll be an up-tempo type team this year.”
In addition, the rehabilitation of Dogus Balbay and Shawn Williams appears complete. Both have returned to practicing full-time although there are situations where the two require repetitions off during drills.
With Brown changing positions, Balbay will be the most experienced point guard for Texas. The Turkish national was Barnes’ main ball handler and perimeter defender last season before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee at Texas Tech on Feb. 20.
“I was out for six, seven months, but mentally and physically I’m ready to go,” Balbay said. “At the beginning of the season I’m trying to get used to it and trying to take my time a little bit more, but [the] knee feels great.”
Williams will get another shot at his freshman year after being granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA. He played in seven games, averaging 1.6 points and 1.7 rebounds. He injured his left ankle early on and needed surgery in the offseason.
The squad’s new composition will force some players to contribute more. Hill, who players say has become an on-court leader during practice, had just 15 points and 26 rebounds last season.
Point guard Jai Lucas, a transfer from Florida, averaged 10.3 minutes per game but was good for only 1.4 assists and 2.7 points per game. He’ll need to improve those numbers as Barnes turns to him for depth at that position.
Sophomore swingman Jordan Hamilton, regarded as one of the team’s best shooters, will have to develop a stronger inside game to deal with the roster’s lack of height inside.
Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman, two reserve big men, are likely to get on the court more this season and could boost the team’s untested rebounding capabilities if they play well. Positional questions abound over Texas’ 2010-11 season.