Commentary

Texas loses frontline stars but defends against a letdown

Originally Published: December 9, 2008
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- Kansas State is lost without Michael Beasley. USC is struggling to find its way now that O.J. Mayo is gone. It's taken Ohio State two years to regain its footing after losing Greg Oden. Even Memphis is searching for an identity without Derrick Rose.

No, not even college basketball is immune to recession.

[+] EnlargeDamion James
Jim O'Connor/US PresswireDamion James (16 points, 5 rebounds) and his teammates have bought into a defense-first approach.

Except in the state of Texas, where the Longhorns are the John Gotti-Teflon kings of recession.

Kevin Durant comes, Kevin Durant goes; D.J. Augustin is here, D.J. Augustin is gone.

And the Longhorns?

"They've been to the tournament 10 years in a row, and it's not just that they've been, it's the level they've been at," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose Wildcats were victimized by the Longhorns 67-58 at the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. "It's a great program, a big-time program."

When water-cooler talk turns to teams that reload without blinking, the conversation tends to hover over the state of North Carolina. The Tar Heels and Duke exchange one Happy Meal worth of McDonald's All-Americans for another, seamlessly trucking along while everyone else endures painful transitions.

Or at least that's the perception.

Here's the recent truth: The Blue Devils stumbled and bumbled through the first weekend of the NCAA tournament the past two years, sent packing in the first round in 2007 and the second round in 2008.

In the meantime, Texas lost Durant as the No. 2 NBA pick in 2007 and went to the Elite Eight in 2008.

And this season, without a true point guard now that Augustin is trying to breathe life into the Charlotte Bobcats, Texas is 7-1. The Longhorns have played three top-25 teams and are one point from perfection.

Texas knows what GM and every bank this side of George Bailey's Savings and Loan has failed to realize: High living might get you quick success, but it doesn't last.

This team is different. It's starting to take on its own identity, and I like it because these guys are buying into what we're trying to do. We're just getting started.

-- Texas coach Rick Barnes

In basketball parlance, players leave, taking their prodigious offensive skills with them. You can't replace Durant. You can't just go grab another point guard like Augustin. What you can do, Texas coach Rick Barnes has realized, is establish something permanent and safe, something to guard against the inevitable recession. In Texas' case, that something is defense.

"We knew we were losing KD, and then last year, D.J. made everybody better," Damion James said. "But we knew we could rely on our defense."

These Longhorns won't be confused any time soon with their football-playing counterparts. There is no run-and-gun fun in this Texas team.

There is, however, is a nasty combination of length and brawn that makes it impossible for opposing teams to see the rim, much less get to it. At 6-foot-7, James looks like a forward but plays like a guard; at 298 pounds, Dexter Pittman looks like a lineman but plays basketball.

Villanova players might have set an NCAA record Tuesday night for most passes attempted from their backsides as they were bumped, knocked and pushed to the floor repeatedly while the trio of Wildcats guards tried futilely to get into the lane.

The Wildcats shot just 38 percent from the floor and committed 19 turnovers, and Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher and Corey Stokes combined for 21 points, only seven of which came in the second half.

For an eight-minute, 36-second period, spanning the first and second halves, Villanova scored just five points.

"They're all so mobile," said Reynolds, who was frustrated into a two-for-seven shooting night. "They're just really hard to maneuver around."

Barnes believes this could be the best defensive team he's had, and considering his teams' success on that end, that's a Texas-sized statement. In his tenure, the Longhorns have held 172 of their 348 opponents to less than 40 percent shooting from the floor.

[+] EnlargeAJ Abrams
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonA.J. Abrams (26 points) is the top offensive option on a team that's becoming known for defense.

But he likes the way this team has so many people who can get in front of the ball and the way they not only play defense but enjoy playing defense.

"This team is different," he said. "It's starting to take on its own identity, and I like it because these guys are buying into what we're trying to do. We're just getting started."

For Texas, defense isn't just to help stem the tide of player recession; it's plugging the hole against offensive recession. The Longhorns' D is playing at a March level.

The offense? Definitely early December.

Part of that, certainly, is because Barnes is still finagling lineups. He finally raised the white flag on the A.J. Abrams-as-point guard experiment, allowing Abrams to do what he does best -- score. But it is taking a while for the Longhorns to find their offensive footing. For all its woes, Villanova remained in the game long past when it should have because Texas simply couldn't score.

"It definitely is letting us bide our time right now," said Abrams, who finished with 26 points after a slow seven-point first half.

Ever since Durant went to Texas, the talk in Austin has turned to the Final Four. But two seasons ago, the Longhorns learned one great player can't get them there alone.

Last season, a Texas crew that was considered a more complete team ran into a buzzsaw against Memphis, mowed over because it simply couldn't stop the Tigers.

No more. If Texas loses, it won't be because of defense.

"We tried to outscore teams before," James said. "Now we feel like we can stop anybody. We believe we're a Final Four team."

That remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: The Longhorns aren't in a recession.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

Dana O'Neil | email

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