Who's Missing Durant Now?

By Josh Herwitt - November 24, 2007

NEWARK, N.J. -- Maybe Rick Barnes really isn't missing Kevin Durant.

OK, let's not be foolish, but for as much talk as there's been over the last five months about last year's Naismith Player of the Year leaving Austin, Texas, for the bright lights and showtime of the NBA, it's been almost forgotten that Barnes returns four starters, including two of the better guards in the Big 12, this season.

And after the way No. 15 Texas clobbered seventh-ranked Tennessee Saturday night at the brand new Prudential Center with a dominating 97-78 victory in the championship game of the StubHub! Legends Classic, it sure doesn't look like Barnes is missing his former All-American too much right now.

"Tonight we did a lot of good things," the 10th-year Texas coach declared afterward. "Defensively we got a little bit better, and it's about being a team. These guys are very unselfish."

Just look at the Longhorns' box score and Barnes' statement becomes pretty evident.

Four Texas players all tallied 20 points or more, as sophomore point guard D.J. Augustin poured in a game-high 23 points on 7-of-14 shooting, including four field goals from beyond the arc, and recorded eight assists and four rebounds.

Backcourt mate A.J. Abrams, meanwhile, was just as consistent from the perimeter, hitting nine of his 15 attempts for 21 points to go along with six rebounds.

"A.J's a great player," Augustin said of his teammate. "He's one of the best shooters I've ever seen. He opens up things for the rest of the team, so we try to take advantage of that."

While Augustin and Abrams were givens in the Texas equation this season, what's been the biggest difference over the last two days for Barnes' ball club has been the birth of a formidable post game featuring junior Connor Atchley.

"Connor's always worked hard," Barnes asserted. "He's always wanted to do everything, and he's better than he ever gave himself credit for. Connor Atchley does a lot for us."

From last night's career-high 22 points against New Mexico State, an NCAA Tournament team last year, to tonight's exact same output, along with a team-high 11 rebounds for his first career double-double, versus a top-rated team, the 6-foot-10 big man showed just how good he's becoming when given the opportunity to play a significant number of minutes.

"We're further along than we were last year I can tell you that," Barnes said. "I don't think we are where we need to be, but I do think we're further along in terms of understanding details."

That's certainly good news for the Longhorns, who really dominated every facet of Saturday night's title game, outshooting, outrebounding and outhustling the Volunteers down the floor and to loose balls. The disparity in field goal percentage, even more, was telling of the kind of team Barnes has on his hands, as Texas shot 63.6 percent from the floor in comparison to Tennessee's 38.8-percent mark.

Throw in a career-high 21 points for Justin Mason and it's going to be a heck of a ball game next Sunday when the Longhorns head west to Los Angeles to play No. 2 UCLA in front of 97-year-old John Wooden and underneath the 11 banners hanging in Pauley Pavilion. That's certainly something to look forward to with the way both schools have opened the season undefeated so far.

But on the other side, it didn't get much uglier for Bruce Pearl, who suffered his worst loss, along with a 76-57 defeat to Kentucky last January, since coming to Tennessee three years ago.

"Augustin controlled the game, Abrams made those kind of shots that we missed and Atchley was too big and overwhelming on the inside for our big guys," summarized Pearl. "We got really good looks and we came away empty a lot. Nothing went down."

Preseason All-American Chris Lofton was the one Tennessee player who did everything he could to keep the game within reason, hitting five of his 10 field goal attempts, including 4-of-8 from three-point range, for a team-high 18 points, but Pearl's team never had a chance to make a second-half comeback after trailing, 50-41, at halftime.

"I thought there was a lot of times we lacked purpose and focus," Pearl confessed. "We didn't play with the passion that you need to play at to play the way we like to play."

With the poise and toughness that Texas exhibited against the Volunteers, you could see that the Longhorns were playing with every bit of purpose in proving that this team can be even better than it was a year ago without a superstar talent.

Only time will tell whether that possibility turns true, but with a group that's as unselfish as it is, it's certainly quite possible.

"We've never had a problem with these guys worrying about who gets the credit," Barnes offered. "They're a confident group of guys, and they understand their roles right now."

And as crazy as it may sound, maybe Barnes is slowly starting to realize that he's better off without Durant, too.

Posted by Josh Herwitt at 09:51 PM on November 24, 2007

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