Once top-ranked Horns have long off-season ahead of them

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A frustrated Damion James walks off the court during the Longhorns' 69-59 win against Oklahoma State on Feb. 24.

Photo Credit: Bobby Longoria | Daily Texan Staff

Try to think back to a time long, long ago. All the way back to January of this year.

Things were much different then.

A catastrophic earthquake shook Haiti. “Avatar” captured the hearts of millions with its “Fern Gully”-meets-”Pocahontas” charm. Your humble columnist enjoyed his 22nd birthday.

The Texas Longhorns were 17-0 and ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history. Fans were thinking that the Horns could make their first Final Four appearance since 2003, and maybe even a national championship was well within reach.

My, how times have changed.

As you well know, the Longhorns proved to be one of the biggest pretenders in recent history. Convincing wins over Pittsburgh, Michigan State and North Carolina became afterthoughts as Texas dropped eight of its last 14 games. The heartbreaking overtime loss to Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last week just happened to be the last.

It was, all things considered, a merciful end to a season gone very, very wrong. Better to lose an exciting game to Wake Forest than to be destroyed by top-seeded Kentucky two days later. Maybe the players found time to hit up Bourbon Street or the beach to squeeze some enjoyment out of their spring break.

But now that it’s all over, it’s possible to actually reflect on the season that started with so much promise.

Remember how, after the team went all of the 2008-09 season without a true point guard, it was supposed to have a surplus this season?

Even when Varez Ward, Texas’ most complete point guard, went down in November with a ruptured quadriceps, we thought things were OK. There were still Dogus Balbay, J’Covan Brown and Jai Lucas.

Boy, were we fooled.

Despite preseason talk of Balbay actually developing a jump shot, he averaged just 3.8 points per game before tearing his ACL in February. Brown never got into Texas coach Rick Barnes’ good graces, often riding the bench for long stretches despite exploding for 28 points the game before. Lucas, the Florida transfer, was a non-factor and proved that the talent pool in the Big 12 is head-and-shoulders above that of the SEC. This ain’t football, after all.

Now, there’s already talk of Barnes hitting the recruiting trail to try to woo stud high-school point guard Cory Joseph of Findlay Prep, the same Nevada academy that produced Avery Bradley and 2010-11 commit Tristan Thompson.

So much for a surplus.

Remember how the youth injection of freshmen Bradley, Brown, Jordan Hamilton and Shawn Williams was supposed to give Texas an endless supply of offensive weapons?

Bradley never found his rhythm and didn’t back up the talk about him being just as good as, if not better than, Kentucky’s stud freshman John Wall. Hamilton was the team’s streakiest player and biggest hothead. Despite being the Horns’ leading scorer at halftime during Wake, he hardly saw the court in the second half because Barnes thought he broke down mentally. Williams hardly played before getting hurt and missing the season.

Remember how Damion James and Dexter Pittman both said no to NBA millions to return for their senior season and provide a guiding light for a freshman-heavy team’s run to a championship?

To his credit, James did exactly what he should have done. He finished the season averaging 18 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, making him the Big 12’s all-time leading rebounder. But those expecting him to become this team’s Kevin Durant were sorely mistaken.

Pittman, on the other hand, completely regressed. He had a bunch of hype surrounding his coming into the season because of a solid showing in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments. He was lucky to average 10.4 points per game this season and played just 19 minutes per game, despite averaging over 27 during the 2008-09 postseason. He proved to be incapable of shedding double teams.

He was Texas’ biggest disappointment.

So where do the Longhorns go from here? Who knows, but if this season taught us anything, don’t bank on any optimistic predictions.