The relief was palpable in Cooley Pavilion on Monday afternoon as the burden of great expectations was lifted.
For the first time in a decade, Texas did not make The Associated Press preseason Top 25 poll, which was released last week. Media members ranked the Longhorns 27th.
“We love it now, we have everything to work for,” senior Gary Johnson said. “Nothing was given to us. It just makes us more hungry.”
The Longhorns reached No. 1 in the AP poll last season but finished on a losing skid and out of the rankings.
“Being rated that high brings a sense of identity that we weren’t.
Guys were feeling good about it, kinda’ cocky,” Johnson said. “And it didn’t last for very long.”
Texas started the 2000-01 season out of the rankings after losing Gabe Muoneke and All-American Chris Mihm, the No. 4 career rebounder in program history.
“We’re not ever going to ever apologize for where we’ve raised the bar. Ever,” said head coach Rick Barnes. “We’re happy with where we are right now.”
The team is No. 25 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll.
“It’s like a sigh of relief,” Johnson said. “We don’t have to live up to a certain expectation every game and now we can just work for the ranking instead of having it being handed off to us.”
Jump higher, move faster
To cope with losing Damion James, Dexter Pittman and Avery Bradley to the NBA, some Texas players focused on improving their conditioning over the summer as they prepare for increased minutes. Johnson, a 6-foot-6 power forward who mostly saw time as a role player last year, is one of them.
Johnson started only four games in the 2009-10 season but got a large amount of playing time in Big 12 competition, finishing with the third-most minutes on the team.
Johnson became a low-post scoring threat as he improved his jump shot and scored a career-high 25 points in March versus Baylor.
Without James or Pittman, Johnson will often be the Longhorns’ go-to man in the paint. He’s still listed at 238 pounds but looked noticeably thinner in the team’s new burnt orange Nike uniforms.
“I’ve been eating better,” Johnson said. “Better eating habits. Lost a little weight. Jump higher, move faster.”
Johnson is Texas’ top returning rebounder but is also the forward with the most offensive experience and will use his increased endurance to cover both ends of the court.
“I’d like to think I’m a better defender because I’m moving quicker,” he said.
J’Covan Brown, the squad’s eccentric guard, didn’t lost any weight but improved his stamina with early morning workouts and more cardio. He’ll split time in the backcourt with the ever fleet-footed Dogus Balbay and speedy freshman Cory Joseph.
“I’m in way better shape,” Brown said. “The team moves faster. We’ll be an up-tempo type team this year.”
Starting lineup remains uncertain
No matter who head coach Rick Barnes decides to start in next Monday’s season opener against Navy, some things are sure to be different from last year’s record-setting season. With a smaller lineup, both in number and average height, Texas may choose to go small against slower teams. Additionally, sophomore J’Covan Brown is likely to play at the two and has been getting increased minutes in that scoring role.
“The offense fits me,” Brown said. “There’s not too much pressure to bring the ball up like last year so I’m happy with that.”
With the addition of freshman Cory Joseph, the Longhorns have a point guard who demands the attention of opposing defenses for the first time since D.J. Augustin.
“We’re putting guys at their strengths,” said senior Gary Johnson.
Johnson added that this team has a higher basketball IQ than the last one, which should play nicely into Barnes’ emphasis on assists.
Two early birds
Like last year, the incoming freshmen are nationally regarded recruits expected to play immediately and have a large impact. Unlike last year, these two enrolled at the University during the first session of summer school and began practicing with the team in May.
“It’s a tremendous advantage,” Barnes said. “It’s the difference in night and day.”
In 2009, Jordan Hamilton and Avery Bradley enrolled in the second summer session, and then-freshman Brown did not arrive until the fall semester. Because of their early arrival, Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson have adapted much quicker, Barnes said.