Augustin, Abrams and host of others thrive even without Durant
NEWARK, N.J. -- Dare we say that Texas could finish just as high in the Big 12 and go as far in the NCAA Tournament this season without Kevin Durant?
Does that even make sense? How could the Longhorns lose a superhero player like Durant and actually look like they could still compete with any team in the country?
OK, that sounds a little bit crazy. But, if you were one of few witnesses (the announced crowd of 4,327 may have been a wee bit generous) who watched Texas crush Tennessee 97-78 on Saturday night in the championship game of the Legends Classic, you saw that this Longhorns squad will be one of the best shooting teams in the country.
And maybe, in throttling the seventh-ranked Vols at the new Prudential Center, No. 16 Texas proved once and for all that there is life after Durant.
"We've got a group of unselfish guys," said Texas coach Rick Barnes. "They appreciate what Kevin did and what he did for us, but if you watch the tape of last year's game against Tennessee [a 111-105 loss in overtime in Knoxville on Dec. 23], we're a much better team at this point than we were a year ago.''
Abrams came into the game on a high, having made 17 of 24 3s and averaging a staggering 30.5 points in the previous two games. Augustin had 25 points and 10 assists in the Legends' semifinal win over New Mexico State on Friday night.
And they didn't disappoint in the rout of the Vols. Augustin (23 points), Abrams (21), Justin Mason (21) and big man Connor Atchley (22) all dominated their positions against a team that entered the season as the SEC favorite.
The ironic thing is that Tennessee, with preseason All-American Chris Lofton, was supposed to be the team with the best shooter in the country.
On Saturday night, it wasn't even close. Even Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl admitted that the Volunteers, sans last season's senior lead guard Dane Bradshaw, doesn't match up well with the Longhorns and Augustin.
"The difference would be D.J. Augustin," Pearl said. "We don't have the guy that breaks guys down to get Lofton shots. We do miss Dane Bradshaw."
If this were the NBA, Pearl sounds like someone who would love to package some sort of trade with the Longhorns. But, he's stuck with his crew and a team on which forward Tyler Smith (eight assists) is the best playmaker.
This was a great win for us. At the beginning of the season, I didn't think we could beat the No. 7 team in the country. We're young, still trying to get stuff figured out.
While Vols' the two point guards, Jordan Howell and Ramar Smith, struggled with just two combined assists, Lofton had trouble getting his shots. The senior scored 12 of his 18 points after the game was already a rout. Lofton came in shooting only 31.4 percent (11 of 35) on 3s, before making 4 of 8 on Saturday.
"Chris made more tough shots than Abrams, but he didn't have as many open shots," Pearl said.
That's because of Augustin and the Longhorns' free-flowing system.
The Longhorn players gladly took a backseat to Durant last season. How could they not? Durant was a once-in-a-career type talent.
But, let's not kid ourselves and say that the Longhorns had no one else around Durant en route to a second-round NCAA Tournament appearance. Abrams averaged 15.5 points, and Augustin scored 14.4 points a game. But while Durant attempted 647 shots, Abrams and Augustin took a combined 787.
"Kevin was the man, a great player and we wish him well," Augustin said. "We're playing very, very well. I'm getting shots, and you can't leave A.J. or Mason open. That's opening up the lanes for me to drive and create."
The balance blossomed Saturday, and that means for the other two elite teams in the Big 12 -- Kansas and Texas A&M -- that the Longhorns should be in the thick of the title chase.
The 6-foot-10 Atchley looks like he heeded any advice strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright sent his way, transforming himself over the past two seasons from a skinny, gangly kid to a filled-out big man who can score inside and out (9 of 11 from the field and 2 of 3 on 3s). Barnes also experimented with a huge frontline of Atchley and the beef brothers of Dexter Pittman (6-10 and 299 pounds) and Alexis Wangmene (6-7 and 241 pounds) with Abrams and Augustin on the perimeter.
The result was Texas' domination on the glass (33 to 27). And, if the Longhorns ever get healthy, then the frontcourt will be even deeper. Matt Hill, a 6-10, 243-pound sophomore forward, is out with a foot injury. Gary Johnson, a heralded 6-7 freshman, is out with until the school's cardiologist clears him. Johnson was reported to have a heart condition and was cleared to practice and play in an exhibition game. But the doctors are waiting to observe him in practice for an extended period of time before deciding whether or not to allow him to play in regular-season games.
The Longhorns will have plenty of other barometer games, like at UCLA on Dec. 2 in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series, against Michigan State in Auburn Hills on Dec. 22, against Wisconsin at home on Dec. 29, and an intriguing matchup against Saint Mary's and the Gaels' Australian wonder Patrick Mills on Jan. 5.
But Saturday night proved that the Longhorns probably should be the team that gets early-season chatter much more so than Tennessee, which came into the season as the SEC's marquee program.
"This was a great win for us," Abrams said. "At the beginning of the season, I didn't think we could beat the No. 7 team in the country. We're young, still trying to get stuff figured out."
And what was figured out?
Abrams said, "We're a guard-oriented team that can put it on the deck and shoot from the perimeter."
That's for sure. And while Texas sans Durant may not have the red carpet Hollywood treatment, Abrams, Augustin and Co. are still a headline team that will end up being a factor come March.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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