Team’s chemistry much improved

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It’s hard to compare this year’s team with the one from last season.

For starters, the 2009-10 squad had three eventual NBA draft picks, not to mention a top-5 recruiting class. They reached No. 1 in the nation for the first time in school history.

Somehow, that team imploded — a long, slow self-destruction that ended in a first-round NCAA tournament exit. As more and more comes out, it seems as though some mysterious toxin poisoned the leadership well and gradually sapped the players of motivation.

No one outside the team knows exactly what happened, and most of the coaches and players want to move on, but we do know there was tension in the locker room arising from some unspoken strain. Gary Johnson once compared it to a disease. J’Covan Brown recalled how it felt more like a group of individuals than any sort of cohesive unit.

The chemistry is improved this season, that much is clear. It is hard to extrapolate facts about last season’s team, so let’s look at what we know about this year’s.

Seniors Johnson, Dogus Balbay and Matt Hill are a tight-knit group. During the national anthem, you can find Johnson, head down, standing between the other two with his arms on their shoulders. All three say their greatest bonds on the team are with their fellow seniors.

It translates well onto the court where the team takes its defensive cues from Balbay — the best perimeter defender on the roster — and Johnson. In practice, neither is afraid to get after the younger guys, but they also seem to have the respect of their juniors.

Secondly, a more defined offense means more defined roles. The high pick and roll is an integral part of the offense, and ball movement seems like a real priority rather than an afterthought or a last choice when a play breaks down. Three players have at least 40 assists.

That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for some overlap. Jordan Hamilton, Cory Joseph or even Jai Lucas can handle the perimeter shooting in a game. Tristan Thompson is usually the initial option inside, but in some sets the first look might be Johnson.

Hamilton is the leading scorer, but the picture gets fuzzier after that. Three other players have led the team in scoring this season. Thompson, Johnson and Joseph are all within 1.4 points of each other in points averaged.

It’s hard to decipher the truth when the image presented by the players is all smiles and head coach Rick Barnes focuses so intently on each game he doesn’t have time to compare this team to years past. However, we should have a better idea after Wednesday’s game, the Longhorns’ third in conference play.

Last season, Texas dropped its third league game to Kansas State, went on a 3-6 skid and it was downhill from there.

If the chemistry is fake against No. 11 Texas A&M in the Frank Erwin Center tonight, the team won’t escape with its pristine image intact.