AUSTIN, Texas (AP)—The last time Texas reached the Final Four, small but spectacular point guard T.J. Ford led the way.
D.J. Augustin could be just the ball-handling wizard to get the Longhorns back there again.
Finally out from under the long and skinny shadow of Kevin Durant, Augustin has had a breakout year, leading the Longhorns to the Big 12 regular-season title. The sophomore led the team in scoring (19.2 points) and the Big 12 in assists (5.9) per game.
And he’s pretty smart, earning Academic All-American honors with a 3.64 grade-point average as an education major.
“We told him he’s a guy who should want it all,” coach Rick Barnes said as his No. 2 seed Longhorns (30-6) prepare to play No. 3 Stanford (28-7) Friday night in Houston in a South Regional semifinal.
“And he’s worked hard for it.”
Durant’s departure for the NBA after one season left many questions about the Longhorns. Augustin and his teammates have answered every one with a season better than most expected.
The Longhorns spent much of the season ranked in the top 10, notched a pair of convincing wins over NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds Kansas and UCLA, and have tied the school record for wins in a season.
Augustin has been at the middle of it all, hurtling his strong 5-foot-11 frame on dizzying drives through the lane for tough layups or zipping lightning passes to find wide-open 3-point shooters.
“I control the offense,” Augustin said.
Augustin’s ball handling and passing rival that of Ford, who won national player of the year honors in 2003 after leading Texas to its first Final Four since 1947. His jersey was retired after the season and hangs from the rafters in the arena where the Longhorns play.
Barnes knew Augustin had the talent to approach Ford’s level of play, but what the coach needed was for him to develop Ford’s court leadership. Barnes urged Augustin to come out of his quiet personality and be more vocal with his teammates.
It happened last summer when Ford, who plays for the Toronto Raptors, returned to campus for school and the two players spent a month together working out and dogging each other in pickup games. Ford showed Augustin the finer points of being not just a good player, but a leader. The tutoring quickly spilled onto the court once the season began.
“They both have a burning desire to win,” Barnes said. “I think D.J. would tell you the time with T.J. was the single-most important thing he has done as a basketball player.”
Ford couldn’t match Augustin’s abililty to score. Augustin is a better shooter—although he’s been in a slump lately—and when he’s not spotting up for 3-pointers behind screens or dishing to teammates for layups, he’ll probe defenses for an opening to drive to the basket
One of his best shots this season has been a drive toward the baseline for what looks like a wild and off-balance 10-footer that seems to swish in more often than not.
“T.J. said I needed to come up with a go-to shot,” Augustin said.
Augustin’s emergence this season is a surprise only to those who paid sole attention to Durant’s brilliance last year.
One of the most highly recruited point guards in the country, he started playing basketball at age 4 when his grandmother bought him a Michael Jordan ball. Augustin honors her inspiration with a “Thanks for the Rock” tattoo on his back.
He grew up in New Orleans, where he led his high school team to two state championships before his family fled to Houston in advance of Hurricane Katrina. The storm destroyed his home.
While Durant put up eye-popping shots and numbers last season, Augustin quietly averaged 14.4 points, and his 6.7 assists per game ranked fourth in the country. His 44 percent shooting on 3-pointers was even better than Durant, and he quietly shared team MVP honors with his taller, skinnier, more famous teammate.
Augustin is Texas’ leading scorer this season, but it was his ability to pass that helped push the Longhorns through the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. He scored 15 points in the two games but also had 16 assists, many of them when he’d drive the lane before passing to A.J. Abrams for one of his 12 3-pointers.
“He didn’t affect us that much in terms of offensive point production, but he did so much for his team in playmaking and getting the ball where he needed to get it,” Miami coach Frank Haith said after Texas hung on to beat the Hurricanes 75-72.