One of the hot topics at Monday's hoops media availability was leadership. More specifically, does this year's team have enough leaders after losing the likes of Damion James and Dexter Pittman off of last year's club?
Rick Barnes and several players praised the pre-season efforts of this year's seniors - Matt Hill, Gary Johnson, Dogus Balbay and Jai Lucas - saying those guys began stepping up their efforts shortly after the 2009-10 season ended.
"I'm been really pleased with our seniors. I think those guys have done a great job, all of them as a collective group. I think it started last spring," Barnes said. "We evaluated what we wanted to do, that being a part of it. I would say right now I'm as pleased with this senior group and this class as any group that we've had here."
Hill said he's stepped outside his comfort zone to become more of a vocal leader, and the seniors have taken it upon themselves since they know this is their last go-round. Johnson, one of the more candid players on the team (and a guy Barnes said is probably in the top five or seven effort guys he's coached at UT), said they don't want this year to have the same feel as last year, which saw Texas stumble to a first-round NCAA Tourney exit after reaching No. 1 in the polls early in the year.
"There wasn't any leadership (last year). I don't think guys held each other accountable and ultimately it affected us in a terrible way," Johnson said. "I think me, Matt Hill, guys like Dogus have learned from that and we don't want that to happen this year."
Johnson hasn't talked to the seniors from last year in recent months, instead picking up most of his leadership advice from guys like T.J. Ford and Royal Ivey, who told him to become more vocal and bring full effort every single day as an example for the younger players.
Every team is optimistic at this stage of the season, but Barnes said repeatedly he likes the way this team has come together in the pre-season, including the work it's done in a couple scrimmages. More than anything, Barnes praised the players' efforts and ability to make consistent progress.
"I've been happy with where we are. I think that from the end of last season, the spring, the summer, up to this point, guys have worked really hard, done what we've asked them to do. Through the two scrimmages, I think we've continued to get better," Barnes said
"The one word that I thought would be important to this team would be that we continue to grow. I would say we've done that. We've had good practices. I don't think we've had a bad practice. I really like the attitude of the team, I like their work ethic, I like their approach."
Last year was tough on so many levels, including injuries. Now-departed Varez Ward suffered a season-ending knee injury. Shawn Williams missed most of the year after undergoing ankle surgery in January. Dogus Balbay tore his ACL in a game at Texas Tech in February. Just a freak year for Texas that compounded the team's problems.
Ward transferred to Auburn, but Williams and Balbay are both ready to go. The coaches are bringing them along slowly in the preseason practices, but both have made great progress.
"Both are going to fight every day in practice," Barnes said. "When they're out there, they're not going to feel sorry for themselves. They try to push through what they have to push through.
"We're happy with where they are right now. Those are two young men that have done everything and above what we've asked them to do. So there's no doubt that the health issues they have to deal with, they'll get that fixed."
Williams, who was granted a medical redshirt after appearing in seven games, drew praise from Barnes for his work and he's a guy that people inside the team want to see succeed.
Williams said he's about 95 percent healthy and still has some occasional soreness, but he's ready to get back into the action. Missing nearly the entire season was tough, he said, but the 6-6 forward was able to find a silver lining.
"I was able to learn different aspects of the game, where people get most of their shots from, how to rebound, and also just getting physically better," Williams said. "So that was a great opportunity for me."
The coaches feel Williams can help on the perimeter and in time, they think he can develop into a post player who can step out and knock down big shots.
With Balbay, Texas gets back a fantastic on bal defender who will team with freshman Cory Joseph to handle the point guard duties. Balbay's biggest weakness is his ability to hit (or willingness to take) open shots and free throws, but he put in a lot of work this off-season to improve his shot. Included in the work was a lot of focus on his mechanics, concentration, rhythm, how he's holding the ball, finding a sweet spot … anything and everything that could give Balbay some consistency.
"I feel better. I've done a lot of form shooting, a lot of free throws," Balbay said. "Sometimes I feel much better, sometimes it's like back in the old days. But I improved it a lot. All I need to do is take my time and take my shots when I'm open in the game."
Plenty of praise for true freshmen Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph from both Barnes and the players …
"Tristan has worked extremely hard. He and Cory Joseph, from time they stepped on campus, one thing they've done where they've earned total respect from their teammates, they're the first guys in gym every day and they're the last guys to leave," Barnes said.
"Tristan has worked really hard to improve parts of his game. He's young, he knows he has a lot of work to do in a lot of areas, as any young player would. But those guys, both of them have embraced that. They want to be good basketball players. They're excellent teammates. Tristan has a talent, he seems like he can play all day without getting tired. He's got to be ready."
Joseph was described as a guy who plays with great passion and is a terrific defender. Dogus Balbay cited Joseph's speed (while being able to play under control) as one of the biggest surprises, while Barnes listed Joseph's desire to be great.
"Probably as much as anything, he really wants to be coached. He really wants to keep growing as a player," Barnes said. "We love the fact that we get through a scrimmage, we're heading back to the airport, the first thing he asks is 'I want to watch the tape.' He's constantly trying to get better at what he does."
Both freshmen have some pretty big expectations placed on their shoulders despite never having played a game. Thompson seems unfazed by the pressure, saying he expects to surpass what people are hoping to see.
"I'm just not even worried about that. If I just go hard and play my game, I think the fans, I'll exceed their expectations," Thompson said. "I'm just seeing it as motivation to come in and work hard and do whatever it takes."
I asked Thompson about the work ethic that Barnes noted, if it was something he'd amped up since arriving at Texas or if he'd always been that way.
"That just comes from within, the motivation of getting better. When I was younger, someone was telling me that if you take time out, someone else is going to be working," Thompson said. "The kid in England, it's still daytime for him, he's still working. So I'm trying to get the most advantages I can get."
One of the most frustrating elements of last year's Texas team was its struggles at the free throw line (actually, that's been a multi-year point of frustration). Barnes said he wants, and expects, his team to get to the free throw line a bunch, and making shots from the charity stripe is something that's been a point of focus in the off-season.
"That's another part of what we talk about that we have to improve. It's just as important a part of the game as anything else," Barnes said. "We've talked to guys, we continue every day to work on that. That's something we have to do.
"As long as we can make free throws than our opponents shoot, I'll be happy with whatever percentage it would be. I would like for it to be a high percentage, but if we can simply make more than the other team shoots, we'll be happy with it."
With Texas' struggles down the stretch last year, there were a number of areas on which the critics could focus. Topic that was discussed quite a bit include chemistry, leadership and whether or not Barnes had lost his team over the last two months of the season.
Barnes has always been a guy that demands maximum effort from his guys and he expects his players to do things his way. That wasn't always the case last year, it cost guys playing time, and there were times when Barnes was openly critical of some players. Consider it a lesson learned.
"To be quite blunt, I probably was a little too transparent in talking about our team last year. Maybe by doing that, opened up some issues that didn't need to be discussed publicly," Barnes said. "The fact is, we have a group of guys this year, last year and every year I've been here that have worked very, very hard. I know everybody wants an answer when things aren't going the way they want them to go. The fact is, they're young guys, and as long as they're trying I'm going to protect them."
Texas is never going to be a team that's going to play a ton of zone, but Barnes said they've played no zone at all in the pre-season. That will change, but this will once again be a predominantly man team.
With the loss of Damion James, Dexter Pittman and Avery Bradley, this is going to be a team that's going to have to find ways each night to score points. Jordan Hamilton is expected to fill it up in his second year in the program, but this could be a team that sees different guys stepping up from night to night. Barnes expects this to be a "pretty balanced" team with its scoring, but he's not worried about the overall production.
"I told the guys, the biggest statistic I want us to be concerned with is assists," Barnes said. "In terms of how we score points, we'll score points. Not really concerned with that."