Little Longhorn Ford has Texas-sized talent

College basketball: Point guard T.J. Ford, just 5 feet 10, imposes his will on the court with his speed, passing and all-around skills.

Final Four

April 04, 2003|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

A day before the Texas Longhorns disposed of his team in the South Regional championship game, Michigan State guard Alan Anderson sized up possibly college basketball's most compelling force - pound for diminutive pound.

"Whenever you see him on film, he's lightning fast. But he has so many different gears," said Anderson, referring to Texas sophomore point guard T.J. Ford.

"You have to throw different people at him and try to get him tired, because he never seems to get tired. He might jog up the floor, then hit another gear real fast. He's going to the basket a hundred miles an hour, then stops, then speeds it up. He finds a way to get a layup or get somebody else one. He is the head of their team."

Nobody drives like this Ford.

At 5 feet 10, 165 pounds, Terrance Jerod Ford is strikingly small for a guy who is carrying the hopes of the Longhorns and the state of Texas upon his back and in those soft, sure hands.

The Longhorns, the only No. 1 seed still standing in the NCAA tournament, have never been to a Final Four in the game's modern era. The last time Texas made it to the semifinals was in 1947, when the national tournament consisted of only eight teams.

Over the past two seasons, the expectations in Austin have skyrocketed. A year ago, the Longhorns were bidding for their first Elite Eight trip since 1990, before losing a thriller to Oregon. A year later, a more savvy Texas squad is alive and well heading into the season's final weekend.

And the buzz that has followed Texas throughout its run starts with the playmaker from Houston, who decided that staying near home and helping to build something would be a good idea. Ford weighed offers from the University of Houston, Cincinnati and Louisville before settling on his home state's capital.

To listen to Ford is to hear a soft-spoken man barely 20 who knows how good he is, but just wants to make his teammates play better and enjoy the party that comes with winning together and winning often.

"During the course of a game, you have to know how to adapt and how to give everyone else on your team confidence. I just want to make everyone better," said Ford, who confronts his share of zones and other junk defenses designed to counter his explosive first step and acceleration. "You can fight me a number of ways, but at some point I'm going to find a way to make something happen."

What a splash Ford already has made. A year after he was voted the nation's top freshman after leading the country in assists - the first freshman in NCAA history to do so - Ford has won the Naismith Player of the Year Award. He leads the team in scoring (15.1), assists (7.5), steals (1.9), free-throw attempts (188), free-throw shooting percentage (.819) and minutes (33.7 a game).

Ford always could exploit defenses and feed the open man, going back to when he led Willowridge High School to 62 consecutive victories and back-to-back Class 5A titles, and to his recreation ball days, when his father always signed him up to compete against bigger, older kids.

"T.J. Ford is like a 32-year-old point guard. It's very difficult to pressure him," Missouri coach Quin Snyder said. "He's just too good with the ball. You've got to make him work, but you take one thing away and he finds the next. He makes such good decisions."

As a sophomore, Ford has improved his scoring ability, added 15 pounds, increased his strength and attained a vertical leap of 44 inches. He treasures being the heart of Texas, where he wants to keep playing instead of jumping into the NBA draft waters early.

"It's always a dream to go to the next level, but I'm not even thinking about it now. Why do you have to rush it? My whole focus is on trying to win a national championship," Ford said. "I look at [his teammates] like my brothers. I want to come back for another run with them."

Rick Barnes, the fifth-year coach at Texas, who is going to his first Final Four, looks at No. 11 and sees a turning point in Longhorns history.

"This has been a pretty good program, but we're talking about making this a program that, when you talk about the great programs in America, Texas gets mentioned," Barnes said.

"T.J. Ford could have gone anywhere in the country, but when he looked at what we're doing and the fact that it's 2 1/2 hours from home, he realized it's all here. And he came here with the attitude that he wanted to change the way people look at this program."

Texas is a composite of varying parts, combining quickness and brute force. The Longhorns boast a rebounding machine in forward James Thomas, a streaky scorer in shooting guard Brandon Mouton, a bullish freshman in forward Brad Buckman and a big man with a guard's shooting touch in reserve forward Brian Boddicker.

And the toughest, most dangerous one in the bunch is the little man who dictates the action at both ends of the floor.

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