November 9, 2006

Notebook: New look for Longhorns

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No team may look more different from the end of last season to the start of this one than Texas, which begins the program's 101st season by playing host to Alcorn State tonight in the first round of the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic.

The veteran-laden Longhorns squad that won a share of the 2006 Big 12 title and reached the Elite Eight has been replaced by an enormous amount of youth.

At least three freshmen will likely start and four others are expected to see significant playing time - the ultra-talented group made up the nation's No. 3-ranked recruiting class.

But the changes go deeper than just roster turnover. Some of the newcomers have undergone some significant physical alterations - and one completed a severe transformation.

Prize prospect Kevin Durant (No. 2-ranked recruit in class of 2006), who struggled to gain weight in high school, has added nearly 20 pounds. At 6-foot-10 and 224-pounds, the National-Freshman-of-the-Year candidate is still on the lanky side. However, Durant doesn't look dangerously skinny anymore. He appears to be more prepared for the physical rigors of Big 12 play.

Point guard D.J. Augustin (5-11) dropped around 15 pounds to get down to 177, a key move considering the Longhorns are counting on him to play heavy minutes immediately.

Massive center Dexter Pittman (6-10) isn't so massive anymore. Pittman shed more than 50 pounds to get down to 314 - the lowest he's weighed since his freshman year in high school. Once a redshirt candidate because of weight problems, he appears ready to contribute and give the Longhorns a much-needed inside presence.

Much of the credit goes to the Longhorns' strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright, who followed coach Rick Barnes from Clemson to Austin nine years ago. All the freshmen showed up to campus early this summer and began working with Wright.

"The seven freshmen required a lot of individual attention and we put in a lot of hours," Wright told "We had a lot of guys with different issues. Obviously Kevin needed to put on a lot of weight. Dexter needed to lose a lot and also had to add some mobility to his hips and feet. D.J. needed to lose a little weight."

Wright said Durant, who he calls "probably the most genetically gifted athlete he has ever worked with," had never eaten regularly before. Once he convinced the smooth-shooting forward to put down three meals a day and a couple snacks in between, he steadily started gaining pounds.

"You can see the change in Kevin's body," Pittman said. "Now, when he goes to the hole and gets inside it's a lot tougher to move him."

Pittman was Wright's main project. The initial goal was to lose 30-35 pounds by the end of the summer. Wright was mainly concerned about the extra weight leading to injuries.

The two met five days at week at 6 a.m. Each session started with a 45-minute bike ride, where Wright put the big man through a series of sprints. He got on a treadmill next for some resistance running and finished with lunges. They met again in the afternoon for more of the same.

Pittman dropped 10 pounds in the first 10 days, surprising Wright and himself.

"I had no idea I was going to drop the weight that quickly," Pittman said. "That got me excited and kept me motivated."

Pittman says Augustin created another source of motivation. The guard who moved to Texas from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, biked and ran right alongside Pittman. Augustin continued the regimen even after reaching his weight-loss goal.

The new teammates also hung out a lot off the court. Whenever they were out at restaurants they would routinely call Wright, read him the menu items and ask what they should order.

"D.J. was a huge support system," Wright said. "Dexter could have felt like he was stranded on an island without him.

"Those guys were dedicated. They'd be downtown at a burger joint and they'd call me asking what they could eat. At first I couldn't believe it. They stuck to chicken sandwiches and salads and cut the fried foods out."

If Augustin, Pittman and the rest of the freshmen approach the season with the same type of commitment and attention to detail, the Longhorns could emerge as one of the biggest surprises.

What We Learned
Can you learn anything from all these major programs playing exhibition games over the last couple of weeks? Absolutely.

Many provided insight into possible starting lineups, which freshmen are ready to contribute, who or who hasn't made significant improvements in the offseason and much more important developments.

It looks like Connecticut's 7-foot-2 freshman center HaSheem Thabeet, who became eligible on Oct. 24, will give the Huskies a big defensive presence on the interior - something many of their past teams have featured. The raw big man posted the same impressive state line in two games: 11 points, eight rebounds and seven blocks.

The question of how to get freshman point guard Mike Conley on the court at Ohio State appears to be solved by playing him alongside veteran point guard Jamar Butler. With both floor generals starting OSU's two games and playing heavy minutes together, Conley shined. The newcomer dished out 16 assists with just one turnover.

Wondering how the non-conference schedule is going to go for your team? Want to know why your favorite player is changing roles? college basketball writer Andrew Skwara answers your questions every week in his mailbag. Click here to send him a question.
A new scoring weapon has emerged at Texas A&M, but it's not a member of their top 25 recruiting class. Senior Antanas Kavaliauskas, who worked his way into a solid role player last season, scored 50 points and grabbed 22 rebounds in two games.

It's also clear that Eric Devendorf will be Syracuse's No. 1 offensive option with Gerry McNamara gone. Devendorf scored a game-high 30 points and hit six 3-pointers against Bryant University.

At Texas, much of the talk has centered around their highly-touted freshmen, but sophomore guard A.J. Abrams showed that he will be one of their top scorers. Abrams averaged a team-high 21 points in two games.

UCLA will also get a boost from one of their veterans. Junior small forward Josh Shipp, who missed nearly all of last season with a hip injury, looked like he was healthy against Cal Poly Pomona. Shipp scored 16 points for the Bruins.

At Arizona, freshman Nic Wise appears to have overtaken J.P. Prince for the backup point guard job. In the Wildcats' first exhibition, Wise scored 24 points in 19 minutes while Price finished with seven in 14 minutes of action.

Two of the most impressive freshmen have been Kansas' Darrell Arthur and Washington's Quincy Pondexter. Arthur, whose role will be increased with the loss of power forward C.J. Giles, scored 21 points and collected six steals in his first game. Giles was kicked off team for off-the-court incidents on Tuesday. Pondexter scored 18 points and grabbed 13 boards in his first game.

We also found out just how valuable guard Geary Claxton is to Penn State. With their best player out with a wrist injury, the Nittany Lions fell to Shippensburg 67-61.

Jackets Will Start Three Freshmen
Freshmen Thaddeus Young and Javaris Crittenton, a pair of top-10 prospects, were expected to start immediately for Georgia Tech. Their classmate, Zach Peacock, arrived with little hype at all.

However, it appears Peacock will join Crittenton and Young in the starting lineup for Tech's season opener against visiting Elon on Friday. A three-star center, Peacock beat out junior Ra'Sean Dickey - who averaged 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds last season - for the starting job.

Freshman center Brad Sheehan, another three-star recruit, is heading in the opposite direction. The team recently chose to redshirt the big man for the upcoming season.

Three Questions with UCLA sophomore forward Luc Richard Mbah a Moute
- The Cameroon prince was selected the Pac-10's 2005-06 Freshman of the Year and played a key role on the Bruins' run to the national title game.

The Bruins have one of the toughest season openers of any top 25 team when they play host to BYU on Wednesday. The Cougars are coming off a 20-win season and have been picked to finish second in the Mountain West. Do you wish you were starting off with someone easier?

"To me, it's a good idea to start with a good team. It sets the tone for the rest of the year. We have to go hard from the first day. Also, it will help prepare us better for the Maui Tournament (Nov. 20-23)."

How much will it help having small forward Josh Shipp (missed almost all of last season with hip injury) back? Was he the piece you guys needed to beat Florida last season?

"Josh can do everything on the court. He's so talented, and I think he's back to 100 percent. He is definitely going to help us this year."

You guys lost point guard Jordan Farmar and a couple of valuable big men. How will that change the team?

"It's definitely different. Last year's team had youth and size and a big front line. I think our biggest guy now is 6-foot-9. Also, Jordan was great at running a set offense. Darren (Collison) excels at running the floor and pushing the ball, so the game will be faster."

Quick Hits
The NBA Players camp, which normally features dozens of the nation's top 100 prospects, will be held at the University of Virginia the next three years. It has been held at Virginia Commonwealth in the past.

UCLA freshman Nikola Dragovic has been ruled ineligible for the first 10 games due to playing on a professional team.

Florida State plans to retire the jerseys of Sam Cassell and Bob Sura sometime in January. Sura is the Seminoles' leading scorer with more than 2,000 career points. NBA Hall-of-Famer Dave Cowens is the only other Seminole with his jersey retired.

UNLV retired the jersey of former point guard Greg Anthony at halftime of an exhibition game on Tuesday. Anthony started on the Runnin' Rebels' 1990 national title team, which many consider one of the best teams in NCAA history.

More than 10,700 fans showed up for Florida's exhibition game against Northwood last week. college basketball writer Andrew Skwara answers your questions every week in his Tuesday Mailbag. Click here to send him a question.

Note: All the above mentioned weights for the Texas players are from early October.

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