- Andy Katz, ESPN.com Senior Writer
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Talk all you want about how great the Texas freshmen will be this season and how much they'll affect the fate of this squad in March.
The reality is the Longhorns will go as far as Brad Buckman will carry them.
That's right, Mr. Buckman. Alias: "Soft Serve." The one from the silver-spoon background out of the high-rent district near Austin's Westlake High.
He's the one that has to bear the burden of this squad. And, get this ... the one guy the team mocks, the one who never seems to get mad, or angry, or even a tad perturbed -- he's the one that has shown the most improvement on a team that could be as dangerous as any other come March.
That's right, Mr. Buckman has seen his points skyrocket from 5.7 to a second-best-on-the-team 12.1 a game, his rebounds climb from 4.5 to 7.0 an outing and his minutes jump from 15.2 to 23.3 per contest.
The pretty-boy blond even had a career-best seven blocks in a victory against North Texas last week. Those aren't numbers that conjure up thoughts of a player who doesn't work, has no clue about his own potential or is simply going through the motions because he's tall (6-foot-8), has the crutch of being local and the attitude of a dude just hanging out.
No, these numbers scream that this kid became a man, both in the lane and outside of it, between his sophomore and junior seasons.
"His body language used to tell everything. From when we would start practice, he looked like, 'Let's just get through this,' " Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "Now, it's incredible to watch 'Buck' work. He's so efficient with his time. He puts in quality time and gets the most out of what he's doing. He didn't make an investment in his game, so he didn't get a return last year."
So, what's up with this guy? Why didn't he care that his numbers slid after starting 26 games on the Final Four team as a freshman?
Maybe it was his background, which he attributes to making him feel too comfortable.
"I didn't think I needed to improve after my freshman year," Buckman said. "I didn't work as hard as I had to. I didn't put the extra shots up."
So what was he doing? What did he think players like Brandon Mouton and Royal Ivey were doing in the gym late at night?
"I've got a lot of people around here, so there was more for me to do than be in the gym," Buckman said. "Other guys would come from other places and all they had was the dorm room and the gym. I could go home and do stuff rather than stay here and work. That's where I learned my lesson."
What would he do?
Well, to hear his roommate and fifth-year senior Jason Klotz tell it, Buckman and his friends would probably be on the golf course, dressed for the part.
"Westlake is like 'Dazed and Confused,' " Klotz said, referring to the 1993 movie about social cliques at a Texas high school. "They all look like a bunch of frat boys, with their pink shorts and yellow shirts. They're wealthy and talk about golf, corny stuff, and drive Tahoes around."
Buckman's dad, Brent, is the golf pro at Spanish Oaks Golf Club in Austin. He also played alongside Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite on a pair of NCAA champions at Texas in 1971 and '72, so Buckman has reason to love the links. The tranquility of the game, though, doesn't translate into needing to bang on the interior in the rugged Big 12. Barnes implored Buckman to toughen up time after time, practice after practice.
"Coach would tell me to be rough with him, bang him, push him, foul him, get him mad," Klotz said. "But very rarely would you see him get mad or fired up. You never know what you're going to get with him. He might be laughing, who knows? We've tried everything, hit him, everything. When he was a freshman, he would roll his ankle and you looked at his face and he looked like he got shot.
"He's starting to grow out of that, though," Klotz said. "Not sure how to change all of that. Coach has always been in his head to make him tougher, but Brad is one of those kids who always was in his own world ... if he's not playing golf or going to fraternity or sorority functions, then he's playing poker. I'm still waiting for that invite to go play golf at Spanish Oaks, and I've known him for three years. "
Wow, that's a bit harsh, isn't it? Perhaps, but Buckman has spent years trying to shed the image of being the local who doesn't want to get tough.
"It's tough coming from where I'm from since I wasn't raised in a tough place and it wasn't tough to get around," Buckman said. "Everyone in Texas knows Westlake. I'm trying to get rid of that stereotype and be more physical. I've got to keep learning and maybe that North Texas game will help me a lot."
Klotz said Buckman is simply a "big kid" who likes to joke around a bunch and say goofy things to teammates and coaches, especially during tape sessions.
But when he's serious, he's one of the most versatile big men in the Big 12, able to shoot the 3-pointer (4 of 11 through seven games) and can convert on the low block.
P.J. Tucker's presence a year ago challenged Buckman, as did the arrival this season of freshmen LaMarcus Aldridge and Mike Williams, who got eligible five games into the campaign. Rather than become despondent, though, Buckman emerged as a mentor and leader, relishing the role of bringing along the freshmen and ensuring they understood how to play offense under Barnes.
To be a true role model, Buckman also had to shed some rolls. He put on 25 pounds to push his weight to 250 a year ago. Barnes says he takes responsibility for not noticing the added bulk. The weight slowed down Buckman's game and now that he's back to 235, Buckman said he's more energized.
"The guys on the team like his looseness," Barnes said. "He has become one of the leaders on this team."
Freshman point guard Daniel Gibson is the top scorer, and ultimately could be the one who directs this team deep into March. But the player who could be the difference could end up being Buckman.
"He is fearless, and the one thing that we've never questioned is that he competes," Barnes said. "He's always been a big-game player and the bigger the game, the better he's been. Everything had come easy to him in athletics. He was always the best guy in baseball, basketball and golf. And he found out at this level that it's not just going to happen anymore. He had to go out and improve himself."
He did, but Barnes isn't going to let up on the nickname just yet. He's still "soft serve" until further notice, despite Buckman's making the nickname moot so far this season.
We'll see if the tag is gone by the Big 12.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
Texas' most important player this season might be the guy they call "soft serve."