Freshmen to have immediate impact at Texas

10/26/2005 - Texas Longhorns

This season's version of the Longhorns might not look too familiar, but they're loaded with talent.

Texas, which lost to Georgia in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season, returns just two starters from last season's 22-9 squad. That leaves plenty of room for the team's seven freshmen -- including 5-foot-10 guard Erika Arriaran, the State Farm/WBCA national high school player of the year who was the nation's No. 1 recruit in 2004-05 by at least two publications -- to make an immediate impact in Austin.

The group gives Texas more versatility than the Longhorns have had in a long time, and helps allow them to run and play pressure defense. Still, while her freshmen -- touted by most experts as the nation's No. 1 recruiting class -- have plenty of potential, coach Jody Conradt remains cautious.

"The fact is, almost half our team has never played a Division I basketball game," said Conradt, the second-winningest women's coach with 869 victories. "I have never been a part of a team with that many newcomers. Going into practice this fall, I almost needed a program."

No one will have trouble recognizing Tiffany Jackson, who led the Longhorns in scoring (18.3 points per game), rebounding (8.0 rpg), blocks (1.9 bpg) and steals (3.3 spg) last season. The 6-foot-3 junior forward was one of only two Big 12 players -- the other was Baylor's Sophia Young, the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player last season -- to rank among the top 10 in league scoring, rebounding and field-goal percentage. Jackson is one of the country's top post players and is largely regarded as one of the top 10 preseason candidates for national player of the year honors.

Texas' only other returner, 5-8 senior Nina Norman, will anchor the backcourt. In 2004-05, the point guard led the Longhorns in assists (98 total, 3.5 per game) for the second consecutive season and was fourth on the team in scoring (7.8 ppg). Coco Reed (six starts, 15.8 mpg, 3.7 ppg, 2.3 rpg), one of just four seniors on the team, is the only other player back who started any games last season or averaged more than nine minutes.

All told, the five players who graduated -- including All-Big 12 first-team pick Jamie Carey, a backup guard for the Connecticut Sun during their WNBA Finals run this past summer -- accounted for 50 percent of Texas' 70 points per game last season.

And that's where Arriaran and her fellow freshmen -- three of whom played in last year's McDonald's All-America game -- come in.

"I don't remember another time at Texas when we had more playing time available to a freshman," Conradt said. "We are not banking on the freshmen to give us help in the future. We need them to play now."

Arriaran, touted for her ball-handling skills, is the best bet to break into Texas' starting five early on, as a shooting guard.

But at least one other freshman could be on the court for tipoff. Also expected to bolster the backcourt is 5-7 guard Carla Cortijo, a member of the Puerto Rican national team who moved to the United States just three years ago. Cortijo might be the best-kept secret among the nation's freshmen because she played just one summer of AAU basketball and was sidelined by an ACL tear all of last season. Still, Conradt has said it wouldn't surprise her if Cortijo emerged as the best passer in Texas history -- and no, Conradt isn't forgetting about Kamie Ethridge. Cortijo is working hard under Norman's tutelage and seems to be a quick learner.

The other freshmen include the Gatorade state players of the year from Oklahoma (6-1 forward Earnesia Williams, who shot 69 percent from the field in high school) and Arkansas (5-11 forward Crystal Boyd, a big-time shooter). Williams is another possible starter, particularly because her quickness and "defense-first" mind-set fit perfectly into Conradt's style, where everything revolves around defensive pressure.

One of Texas' main concerns is getting Jackson help in the post, but Mariana Mergerson, ranked as high as the No. 8 recruit, is a tremendous shooter who can play inside-out. Aubry Cook, who's very strong offensively and on the boards, is also expected to help with rebounding and defense inside. Both players, however, are coming off ACL injuries, though their rehab has progressed very well over the past few months.

Melanie Jackson coordinates ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. She can be reached at melanie.j.jackson.-ND@espn3.com.