The first games of the 2009-10 season will finally tip off just hours from now, marking the start of the greatest five months of the year. And while most first-week games are of the snooze-fest variety, the simple thought of sneakers squeaking on hardwood and student section chants echoing in gyms already has our hearts all aflutter.

The preseason excitement surrounding this year’s Longhorn team is abnormally high in a city that typically lives and breathes Texas Football until early January. And although the hoops squad won’t take the floor for another six days, we can’t wait any longer to take our pre-season look at Rick Barnes’ latest bunch, a team that many pundits predict will be playing in Indianapolis at the Final Four.

Rick Barnes can’t complain about a lack of depth
(Photo credit: Donna McWilliam/Associated Press)

Deeper Than Ever

If there’s one thing the 2009-2010 Longhorns will lack this season, it’s enough of those cushy, padded chairs lining the Texas bench. Rick Barnes has filled up the locker room this year, listing 16 players on his opening day roster. And while walk-ons Andrew Dick and Dean Melchionni likely won’t find many minutes on a team this loaded, there is no doubt that every one of the other fourteen Longhorns would contribute at most D-1 universities.

And not only does Barnes have a bevy of athletes to choose from, but they bring a ton of experience to the table. Dexter Pittman, Damion James, and Justin Mason provide senior leadership and a strong motivation to reach the Final Four after falling just one game short of that goal two seasons ago. In addition, Gary Johnson is set to take another step forward as he begins his junior campaign, while sophomore guard Varez Ward showed flashes of brilliance down the stretch last year.

Shoring up the backcourt

While last year’s Texas guards had their share of issues, some fresh faces will immediately improve that aspect of the team. With J’Covan Brown finally past his NCAA Clearinghouse issues and Florida transfer Jai Lucas eligible in December, the Horns have a pair of guards who can not only handle the rock, but score with ease — something that limited the effectiveness of Mason and Dogus Balbay last year.

Freshman Avery Bradley is already flying high

Freshman Avery Bradley comes to campus as a McDonald’s All-American, and was pegged as the nation’s top recruit by numerous ranking services. He is an excellent shooting guard who will spread out defenses, but also has great handles and can fill in at the one. In fact, Bradley was even in attendance at the DeRon Williams Point Guard Skills Academy this summer, where he was the only freshman.

Lost in the excitement surrounding the incoming guards are the trio of returning ballhandlers — Ward, Mason, and Balbay. While none of the three provide the offensive threat that Brown, Lucas, or Bradley do, all of the returning guards are stingy defenders. And on a team coached by the defensive-minded Rick Barnes, that is sure to earn all three of them a fair share of minutes.

Length on the wings

Texas has often been outsized by opposing guards and wings, which was never more evident than in the aforementioned Elite Eight loss to Memphis in 2008. The longer, more athletic Tigers absolutely manhandled the Longhorns, exploiting their height advantage as the fluid Dribble-Drive Motion offense racked up the points for Coach Cal.

That won’t be a problem anytime soon for Texas, as a pair of freshman swingmen adds about 14 feet of wingspan to the Longhorn roster. The 6-foot, 7-inch Jordan Hamilton has been compared to Paul Pierce by a handful of pundits, and is also being tabbed as an excellent NBA prospect before even playing his first collegiate game. With Hamilton in the mix, senior leader James should be freed up to play more inside, and should prevent opponents from drawing Damion away from the defensive glass with their more-athletic wings.

Shawn Williams was the first member of the freshman class to commit, all the way back in August of 2008. But with both Hamilton and Bradley signing their LOIs later, this solid swingman has earned a lot less ink heading into the season. While Hamilton and James are certainly going to command a bulk of the minutes, we’ve been told that Williams is one of the most natural three-point gunners to step foot on the Forty Acres. That’s quite the compliment at a school that just enjoyed four years of A.J. Abrams’ long-range skills.

Power in the paint

While the Longhorns have playmakers in the backcourt and on the wings, the emergence of Dexter Pittman at the end of last season gives them a legitimate double-double threat every single night. Big Dex will have to keep himself out of foul trouble this year, something that has been a problem in the past. If Dexter is sidelined due to whistles, there is no one else on the roster who can fill his size-18 shoes.

(Photo credit: Harry Cabluck/Associated Press)

Gary Johnson will demand attention from defenses

That’s not to say that Texas doesn’t have a ton of other bigs who can clean the glass and dump in easy buckets. Gary Johnson is another consistent threat to post double-doubles, and if he can stay injury free this season, his tenacious play could earn nationwide attention. Despite his small size, Johnson is still a beast inside, and has no problem drawing slower bigs away from the basket before attacking the rim. The main thing Gary will need to avoid this season is the “black hole” mentality that led to nearly automatic shots once he touched the rock last year. On a team this talented, he can’t afford to steal looks from his teammates by wasting possessions.

Beyond the two playmakers, Barnes also has a handful of guys off the bench who will likely contribute in their short stints on the court. Alexis Wangmene is primed for a breakout season after playing excellent basketball in the Maui Invitational last November. Unfortunately, the big Cameroonian was injured for the year and never had a chance to build on his performance in Hawai’i.

Clint Chapman is also likely to see an increased role this season, with Connor Atchley departing after his senior year. Coach Barnes often talks about Clint’s basketball acumen in interviews, so perhaps this is the year Longhorn fans will see it translate from the practice court to game play. The role of the other Ivory Tower, Matt Hill, is still a huge question mark, as the junior played limited minutes in a majority of the games last season. With even more talent on the roster this year, his already-limited playing time could suffer another hit.

Gunning for Indianapolis

The mark of a Rick Barnes team is one that truly evolves from the start of November until the end of March. Not only is he constantly tinkering with rotations and minutes, but his players almost always improve over the course of a season. With three highly-touted freshmen on the roster and two new faces in the backcourt, the potential for growth is limitless. Combine that with senior leadership and the rigors of a schedule that includes Kansas, Michigan State, North Carolina, Connecticut, and Oklahoma, and you have a team that will be battle-tested and ready to make noise come March.