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March 28, 2008

James makes presence felt on the boards

MORE: NCAA Tournament Central | Sweet 16 Viewer's Guide

Which player in the Sweet 16 pulled down the most rebounds in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament? The answer may surprise you.

It's not UCLA's Kevin Love, North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough, Memphis' Joey Dorsey or any other post player.

The most prolific rebounder remaining in the NCAA Tournament isn't a post player at all. He's Damion James, a 6-foot-7 sophomore swingman from Texas who recorded 26 rebounds in his first two South Regional games. "I just have the mentality that anything that comes off the glass is my ball," James said. "That's the way you have to look at it if you want to be successful."

James opened the tournament by collecting 10 points and 10 rebounds in the Longhorns' 74-54 first-round victory over Austin Peay. He followed that up with 16 points and 16 rebounds in a 75-72 triumph over Miami.

No other player remaining in the tournament has averaged more than 10.5 rebounds per game.

"He's been doing that all year, so I'm not surprised at all," Texas guard D.J. Augustin said. "I expect that from him. I go out every night knowing he's going to be getting us at least 10 rebounds."

Augustin usually has been right.

James ranks 11th in the nation this season with 10.7 rebounds per game. Kansas State's Michael Beasley, Washington's Jon Brockman and South Florida's Kentrell Gransberry are the only players from the so-called "Big Six" conferences with higher rebounding averages. Nobody ahead of him remains in the NCAA Tournament.

James needs another big effort on the boards Friday for the Longhorns to beat Stanford, which is ranked fifth in the nation in rebound margin. Stanford features 7-foot twins Brook and Robin Lopez. By contrast, Austin Peay's tallest starter was 6 feet 6.

Then again, James already has proved time and time again he can outrebound taller foes. He has seven more rebounds in the first two rounds than the combined total of the Lopez twins, though it's worth noting that neither Lopez played more than 23 minutes in a first-round blowout of Cornell.

James has benefited from the leadership of Augustin and A.J. Abrams, who continually have reminded him he's athletic enough to compensate for his relative lack of height.

"With his athletic ability and jumping ability, he should get every rebound," Abrams said. "We tell him that, and he's buying into it right now."

How does he regularly outrebound guys who are four or five inches taller than him? "Sometimes they're bigger, but I can outquick them,'' James said. "I jump, and by the time they try to get the rebound, I already have it."

James' rebounding has garnered plenty of attention in the first two rounds, but he's no one-dimensional player. His versatility is a major reason Texas has managed to overcome the loss of Kevin Durant, who left for the NBA after averaging 25.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game in his lone season in college.

Texas swingman Damion James is far from the tallest person in the NCAA Tournament, but he's still the top rebounder remaining in the field. Here's a look at the top tournament rebounding averages through the first two rounds of players in the Sweet 16, along with their heights.
Damion James Texas6-713.0
Joey Dorsey Memphis6-910.5
Kevin Love UCLA6-1010.0
Joe Alexander West Virginia6-89.5
Aron BaynesWashington State6-109.5
Goran Suton Michigan State6-109.0
Andrew Lovedale Davidson6-89.0
Kyle Weaver Washington State6-68.0
Courtney Lee Western Kentucky6-58.0
Tyler Hansbrough North Carolina6-98.0
Terrence Williams Louisville6-68.0
Dexter Pittman Texas6-108.0
During his freshman season, James primarily focused on rebounding while allowing Durant, Augustin and Abrams to do most of the scoring. He averaged 7.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game and finished the season with the third-highest rebounding total ever by a Big 12 freshman.

He developed into more of a scorer and a perimeter player this year. James has averaged 13.2 points per game and has gone 37 for 83 from 3-point range while also improving his rebounding totals.

"I feel like I can play anywhere Coach (Rick Barnes) puts me," James said. "If he puts me on the bench, I'll play that. It's whatever it takes to help my team win. It's not about Damion James. It's about the Texas Longhorns."

That attitude reflects the mentality of a player who didn't always expect to get this far.

James said he started believing in his ability to play college basketball only after Mark Richardson, who coached him at Nacogdoches (Texas) High, clued him in on his extraordinary potential.

"He always told me one day I had a chance to do things that people in Nacogdoches don't do, and that's go to college," James said. "Not too many people where I'm from go to college, especially to the University of Texas, one of the best schools in the country.

"I really didn't start believing him until I started getting offers."

Not only did James start getting offers, he was rated by Rivals.com as the No. 17 prospect in the nation when he signed with Texas in the spring of 2006. James originally signed with Oklahoma, but he was released from his letter-of-intent after then-Sooners coach Kelvin Sampson moved to Indiana.

Even though he arrived in college as an elite recruit, James didn't arrive on campus with any sense of entitlement, which was apparent from his willingness to take a subordinate role to Durant and Augustin as a freshman. He instead has adopted the attitude of a walk-on who always must work hard to prove he belongs.

"These past two games, I did OK," James said. "There's a lot more left. I'm just putting it all together, but I have a lot more to offer. I could get a lot, let better on defense.''

Consider that a warning to Texas' future opponents.

MORE: NCAA Tournament Central | Sweet 16 Viewer's Guide

Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at smegargee@rivals.com.

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