LITTLE ROCK, Ark. –Texas coach Rick Barnes insists he never talked to his team before the season specifically about how the Longhorns would survive the loss of Kevin Durant.
There was no need.
The loss of Durant – not to mention the 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds he averaged last season – already had provided ample motivation for everyone who remained from last season.
"We wanted to go out and prove to ourselves that we can win without Kevin Durant," junior guard A.J. Abrams said.
That's exactly what they've done.
The Longhorns (28-6) put a Texas-sized hole in the idea that a team can't improve after losing the nation's best player. Texas set a school record with 26 regular-season wins and enters Friday's first-round game with Austin Peay (24-10) as the No. 2 seed in the South Regional.
Texas found a way to replace the production of Durant, who ranked fourth in the nation in scoring and rebounding during his lone season of college basketball. Only eight other players – and no underclassmen – had ranked in the top five in the nation in both categories over the past 25 years.
"We never once sat down with our team and talked about how we were going to play without Kevin Durant," Barnes said. "We didn't."
Even after losing Durant, the Longhorns weren't exactly starting over from scratch. Durant led a starting lineup that included four freshmen and one sophomore last season. Even without Durant, the Longhorns still returned players who accounted for almost 80 percent of their minutes and nearly two-thirds of their points and rebounds last season.
The list of returnees was headlined by sophomore D.J. Augustin, who makes few mistakes on the court and even fewer errors in the classroom. He posted a perfect 4.0 GPA in the fall semester and also has developed into one of the nation's top point guards. He ranked first in the Big 12 in assists (5.8) and second in scoring (19.8) this season. Augustin helped Texas commit the fewest turnovers per game (9.4) in the nation this year.
"I don't think there's any question he works hard every day to get better with his basketball IQ, just like he worked academically," Barnes said. "He's never ever stopped trying to improve, not only physically but mentally. And he really has gotten better all year long in terms of understanding not only the role and the (responsibilities) of a point guard, but supporting his teammates and how best he can get those guys involved and help those guys."
Augustin isn't the only Longhorn who has taken a giant step forward. Abrams, the most prolific 3-point shooter in school history, has averaged a career high 16.1 points per game in his junior season. One year after averaging 7.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, sophomore Damion James has increased those averages to 13.2 points and a team-high 10.5 rebounds.
Texas still watched its scoring average drop from 81.7 points per game with Durant last season to 75.6 without him, but the Longhorns have made up for that with their defense. The Longhorns have allowed 64.5 points per game this season – down from 72.2 in 2006-07.
During Texas' past 14 games, opponents have scored just 63.9 points per game and have shot 37.2 percent overall and 29.2 percent from 3-point range. Texas is 12-2 during that stretch, which included nine games against NCAA Tournament teams.
"There's no question that's what flipped it for us," Barnes said. "When we were able to get through February, it went right back to our defense. It was our ball pressure. It was our ability to help each other when we were getting beat from pressuring the ball. And probably more importantly, it was the fact that when we came over to help, we were really making some plays, blocking some shots."
Texas also enters this tournament as battle-tested as anyone in the field. UT is the only team in the nation that has beaten three programs ranked in the top five in the final Associated Press poll: No. 3 UCLA, No. 4 Kansas and No. 5 Tennessee.
All those factors have made Texas a popular pick to go far in this tournament, particularly since the Longhorns won't have to leave their home state after this weekend. The South Regional semifinals and finals are in Houston. If Texas wins the regional, it would play in front of a friendly Final Four crowd in San Antonio.
Texas refuses to look that far ahead. The Longhorns were a trendy sleeper selection last year, but they lost 87-68 to USC in the second round. Augustin shot 1-for-8 and had as many turnovers (six) as points in that game before fouling out.
"Last year we were kind of just in the tournament and just happy to be there," Augustin said. "This year we feel like we're here, (and) now we've got to take advantage of it."
The Longhorns aren't about to take anything for granted. They've already proved the folly in assuming anything about this game.