"I'm coming back another year," Thompson said repeatedly in the Texas locker room at BOK Center, where the team was going to practice in preparation for its Sunday round-of-32 game against Arizona. "I've already signed up for summer classes."
"I'm coming back next year," Hamilton told the Austin American-Statesman. "I think we will have a great team."
Texas officials cautioned that one or both of the players could change their minds and opt to enter the draft.
The Longhorns are looking to Myck Kabong, the No. 2 point guard in the 2011 class, to help replace players who left early for the NBA.
Those Texas officials sure were prescient. When Thompson found himself rocketing up draft boards, he quietly reversed his decision and entered the NBA draft. When Hamilton saw that a handful of highly ranked players -- Harrison Barnes, Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones would all have been selected well ahead of the Longhorns sophomore -- decided to stay in school, Hamilton leapt at the chance to boost his draft stock.
In retrospect, these decisions weren't shocking. Players say what they say during the season, but when the NBA comes calling, you have to listen. Fair enough.
No, the true shocker came when guard Corey Joseph -- a solid but unspectacular point guard who had a solid but unspectacular freshman season -- declared his intentions to join Thompson and Hamilton in the NBA draft. Even more shocking? It worked out. (Which is to say, it worked out until the NBA lockout got so serious. Sigh.) Joseph was drafted by the best franchise in the NBA, the San Antonio Spurs, and Texas coach Rick Barnes added another three first-round picks to his long résumé of Texas-borne pro talent.
(One quick fun fact: Hamilton and Joseph's selections marked the first time two Canadians had been selected in the first round of the same NBA draft.)
But happy as he surely was to see his three players achieve their lifelong dreams, Barnes couldn't celebrate for long. Hamilton was right: If everyone came back, the Longhorns would have had a great team. But everyone didn't come back. Basically, everyone left. And that has made life suddenly quite difficult for Barnes and his staff.
Of course, it's not as if the Longhorns won't be talented. Texas is a recruiting powerhouse, and the arrival of Myck Kabongo, the No. 2-ranked point guard in the class of 2011, will immediately make up for (and perhaps eclipse) the loss of Joseph to the NBA. J'Covan Brown will be an excellent scoring two-guard, and incoming freshman shooting guard Sheldon McClellan should be able to contribute minutes right away. In other words, the Longhorns' backcourt should be just fine.
Making matters worse, there are no clear replacements -- or even a replacement -- waiting in the wings. Alex Wangmene, a 6-foot-7 senior, is the only returning forward in the Longhorns' lineup, and he averaged a mere 9.6 minutes per game in 2011. The recruiting class has a couple of promising prospects -- especially No. 10-ranked power forward Jonathan Holmes -- but no one in the class has the sort of dominating one-and-done potential it would take to fully replace Thompson, Johnson and even Hamilton.
That means Texas will almost certainly have to switch things up. The Longhorns have been heavily reliant on the post in the past two seasons; that won't work in 2011. Kabongo and Brown will have to take the majority of the scoring load while Barnes brings along Wangmene, Holmes, and the host of other movable parts that could earn time in various lineup configurations. Picking up the pace and spreading the floor couldn't hurt, either.
But this isn't just about offense. Defense was where the Longhorns truly excelled in 2011; were it not for a late-season slide, they could have gone down as one of the best defensive teams in modern hoops history. It's unclear whether this new batch of talent can come anywhere close to matching that performance. The loss of senior guard Dogus Balbay -- one of the true perimeter defensive stoppers in all of college hoops -- especially hurts.
That doesn't mean the Longhorns are in for a truly "down" season. They should remain competitive in the Big 12, and the Kabongo-Brown combination might just be enough to keep them in the hunt for a conference title.
But unless Wangmene and the rest of the untested frontcourt surprises everyone in 2011, the Longhorns are going to have some holes. Usually, Barnes' personnel challenges come from having too much talent and too few roster spots. For the first time in years, the opposite may be true.