Playing Through

The Longhorns miss Augustin's leadership skills more than Durant's gaudy numbers

A.J. Abrams
A.J. Abrams (Courtesy of UT)

This will probably be the one time this season I write about the Texas Longhorns men's basketball team. It's nothing personal. It's just that we can safely predict how the rest of the season will play out.

The Longhorns have struggled this season. When the No. 2 Oklahoma Sooners rolled into a sold-out Erwin Center last Saturday, Texas was 17-8 overall, 6-5 in the conference. They'd lost four of their last six games, including an 81-66 embarrassment in College Station. One more loss at this point in the season and they could have kissed the postseason goodbye. But thanks to a brilliant second half from senior A.J. Abrams – and also to OU's standout Blake Griffin getting sidelined for the night with a concussion – the Longhorns came away with what felt like a season-saving win, 73-68. With that, they should get their groove back. Fueled by the speedy Dogus Balbay, from Istanbul, Turkey, they'll manage to slip into the NCAA tournament, their 11th straight appearance under coach Rick Barnes. But they won't get past the second round. Sure, Abrams can shoot the lights out from beyond the arc – in one seven-minute stretch against OU, he racked up 16 straight points – and you can bank on Damion James getting 10-plus rebounds per game. But that won't be enough for Texas to make a serious run, not without a more tenacious defense, not without a scoring point guard capable of spreading the floor.

Now, making it to the big dance ain't bad. But just imagine if Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin had stuck around for what would have been only their junior years. Imagine Augustin and Abrams in the backcourt, Gary Johnson and James tearing down the boards and Durant hauling in 30-plus points a game. Show me a better starting five, and I'll show you an NBA lineup.

But I digress into idle fantasy. Durant and Augustin played their cards exactly right. Forget all the sentimental claptrap about staying in college and getting an education. Anybody who can make a living in the NBA should, just as soon as he is able, because it's either the university cashing in on his talent or himself.

The only problem: What you end up with is a ghost of a team. There's the team on the court and the team that might have been. If absence is the highest form of presence, K.D. and D.J. haven't left the building.

And yet, go figure, the Longhorns somehow had a better run without Durant (averaging 26 points a game – fourth best in the league – with the Oklahoma City Thunder) than they did with him. They averaged 6 fewer points a game yet won six more games. As it turns out, Augustin (averaging 12 points a game with the Charlotte Bobcats) has been a more disorienting loss. Statistically, nothing really leaps out at you this year except more turnovers. But stats don't account for what a levelheaded leader like Augustin provides a team. It's that leadership, that composure and confidence the Longhorns have been sorely missing.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Texas Longhorns men's basketball, A.J. Abrams, Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin, Blake Griffin

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