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Talk hoops all year long in Luke Winn's blog, a journal of commentary, news and reader-driven discussions about the college game.
11/24/2007 11:19:00 PM

The Early Word On ... Texas

Connor Atchley (32) is emerging for Texas in his junior season.
NEWARK, N.J. -- Four things we learned about No. 15 Texas from its 97-78 win over No. 7 Tennessee in Saturday's Legends Classic Final -- a game in which a fan, with 7:20 left in the second half, yelled, "Bring the girls team next time, Tennessee!" ...

1. It seems crazy saying this, but A.J. Abrams looks like a better two-guard than Chris Lofton.

Remember last year's Texas-Tennessee game? The one where cold-blooded Lofton was on full display, hitting a beyond-NBA-length 3 over Kevin Durant to keep the Vols alive in regulation -- and finishing with 35 points in an overtime win? That Chris Lofton wasn't at the Prudential Center on Saturday. He hasn't been present all year, for that matter, as he's been averaging just 13.8 points through six games.

Lofton put up 18 on Saturday, but many came during garbage time; he was dogged by Abrams and was barely a factor in a game that saw Texas hold a double-digit lead for all but the first 11 seconds of the second half. Longhorns point guard D.J. Augustin said the neutralization of Lofton began on the offensive end, when he was chasing Abrams: "We wanted to get [Lofton] tired and run him off of so many screens with A.J. that, by the time he got on offense, he wasn't as energized."

Vols forward Wayne Chism explained last week that Lofton was merely "chillin'," or biding his time before acting like the marksman that we've come to know over the past two seasons. He would be wise stop chillin' soon, lest his All-America campaign be shut down. Abrams, meanwhile, is on an amazing long-distance shooting tear to start the season: he's hit 55.6 percent of his 3s thus far, including 12-of-20 in Texas' two wins at the Prudential Center. Apropos of the arena name, a harder-than-normal, composite ball called "The Rock" has been used in Legends Classic games. Of Abrams, Texas coach Rick Barnes said, "He might want to invest in that [ball], because he's had a pretty good week with it."

Abrams scored 31 against New Mexico State and 21 against Tennessee, outshining Lofton, who entered the tournament as its biggest name but walked through the handshake line afterwards with his jersey tugged up over his head, as if to shroud himself from the reality of an ugly, 19-point loss. Augustin was named the Legends Classic's MVP, but he was expected to be the best point guard on the floor. Abrams wasn't expected to be the best two-guard in Newark. "I had [outplaying Lofton] in the back of my mind," he said. "He's an All-American, but I didn't want to come out and just say 'I'm going to outplay him.' I wanted to win this tournament." Abrams managed to accomplish both.

2. This is Connor Atchley's breakout year.

Atchley, a redshirt junior, is the only Texas starter from Saturday who does not appear on the front cover of the Longhorns' media guide. There are a few reasons for this: The other four starters -- Augustin, Abrams, Justin Mason and Damion James -- all started last year, too, while the 6-foot-11 Atchley averaged 17.9 minutes and only 3.9 points off the bench. And Atchley, when the season began, was considered by most to be merely keeping the fifth starting spot warm for five-star freshman Gary Johnson, who was waiting for medical clearance for an undisclosed heart condition.

Five games into this season, Johnson is still on the bench in a V-neck sweater and untucked dress shirt, while an ultra-confident Atchley is the team's third-leading scorer. On Saturday, he poured in a career-high 22 points for his fourth straight game in double-digits. In the first 5:09 of the game, he had one layup and one 3-pointer assisted by Augustin, plus another layup and a dunk on fast-breaks. "His conditioning is off the charts," Barnes said of Atchley. "He runs so well and D.J. trusts him, so if he's open, D.J. will get him the ball."

The timing of Atchley's breakout is impeccable, considering Texas otherwise has a sizable void in its frontcourt; this would be LaMarcus Aldridge's senior season, but he's been in the NBA for two years; this would be Mike Williams' junior season, but he transferred to Cincinnati at the same time Aldridge turned pro. Six-foot-10 sophomore Matt Hill is on the bench in a boot, sitting in street clothes alongside Johnson. Atchley waited four years for his turn, and now, in an offense with a speedy, penetrating point guard (Augustin), and a sharpshooter (Abrams), Atchley should continue to get his fair share of open looks against stretched-out and befuddled transition defenses.

3. The Texas fastbreak overwhelmed Tennessee's athletes.

The Vols' vaunted press is still effective when they can set it up after made baskets, but the Longhorns thrived off of misses, when Tennessee's transition defense was often all but helpless. Texas had a massive 23-6 advantage in fast-break points, with everyone from Augustin, to Abrams, to Mason, to Atchley streaking downcourt for open layups and dunks. After putting up 97 on the Vols, the 'Horns are now averaging 99.7 points over their past three games. "We were focusing on our transition offense," said Abrams. "We looked on the film and noticed that [Tennessee] sometimes didn't get back on defense, so we wanted to get down [court] on them."

Augustin and Mason were also extremely adept -- in both fast-break and half-court situations -- at drawing contact and getting to the free-throw line. Between them, they shot 17 free throws, making 13, while Tennessee was 10-of-16 from the stripe combined. At one point late in the first half, after Augustin had drawn yet another whistle, Vols coach Bruce Pearl yelled to his less-aggressive guards, "Drive into them one time! Initiate contact!"

4. The Texas portion of the Big 12 is much scarier than we expected at the beginning of the season.

Baylor took down Notre Dame and Winthrop this week to win the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas. Texas A&M slaughtered unranked Ohio State to win the NIT Season Tip-Off on Friday (that beat-down was covered in yesterday's blog). And Texas one-upped the Aggies by dismantling a top-10 team on a neutral floor on Saturday. "I knew we were going to be a great team," Augustin said on Saturday, after being asked about what he expected from the 'Horns in Year 1 post-Kevin Durant. But did anyone think they'd be this good, even before Johnson was added to the lineup? Neither Texas nor A&M began '07-08 in the top 10 of any polls. And Baylor wasn't even ranked. Less than a month into the season, Texas -- and not California, North Carolina, Tennessee or Washington -- looks like the most powerful state in college basketball.

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posted by Luke Winn | View comments (3) |


Posted: 7:10 AM   by Anonymous AustinDude
Excellent job by the 'Horns. And excellent timing too for Longhorn football fans, who sorely need a distraction and something to feel good about.
Posted: 4:36 PM   by Blogger larrywp
Well said, Luke. A lot of people may be surprised at how good Texas is going to be this year. We have to be. With Baylor and the aggys out there to push us, Texas looks good right now to burst into the Final Four come April. Hook 'Em!
Posted: 10:56 AM   by Anonymous Anonymous
Great job by Texas but as a Vol fan, I want to know if anyone saw the numerous moving picks by Texas as they brought the ball down the floor. Just because your big guy has his hands up doesn't exclude him from being whistled. Texas scored at least 7 points off this, including a 3. Our guys were even trying to take a charge off it but to no avail. Did anyone else see this?? Hopefully the Vols will match up with Texas again in tourney time. Go Vols!