Texas plays NCAA hand with the cards it holds

Losing Ford didn't mean Longhorns had to fold

Ncaa Tournament

March 23, 2004|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,SUN STAFF

The Texas Longhorns are not ashamed to admit that, occasionally, they do miss departed point guard T.J. Ford.

They just never understood why Ford's leaving early for the NBA meant they had to throw in the towel for this season.

"We miss T.J. He was a great player, and we're really proud of him," said Texas senior Brandon Mouton. "But we had to leave him behind and concentrate on our season. The guys we do have, we're going to go to battle and go to war with."

"When T.J. left, a lot of people were saying things like, `Just get through this year, because you've got a great recruiting class coming in next season,' " said senior Brian Boddicker. "We took that as kind of a shot at our senior class and what we've done."

What Texas (25-7) has done this season is prove it is capable of adapting. Certainly individual brilliance in the NCAA tournament is nice - see Syracuse last year with Carmelo Anthony - but in the absence of that, the next best thing might be strength in numbers. Instead of blowing past teams with Ford's speed, the Longhorns are pounding opponents into submission.

Texas might be the only lineup in the country that goes 11 players deep, and after watching them squeeze the life - and the oxygen - out of North Carolina in Saturday's 78-75 victory, it was not such a stretch to envision the Longhorns bullying their way back to the Final Four for the second straight year.

"We rely on our depth," said Texas point guard Royal Ivey. "On any given day, somebody has to be the one to step up and fill the shoes of someone who's not playing well."

Mouton and Ivey are the two mainstays for Texas coach Rick Barnes, starting every game they've played in this season. But Barnes tinkers with the other three spots in his lineup like a mad chemist, mixing different formulas and changing his mind on a daily - and sometimes minute-to-minute - basis. During the regular season, 11 Texas players averaged at least 11 minutes per game, and four players (Boddicker, James Thomas, Jason Klotz and Brad Buckman) go at least 6 feet 8, 230 pounds.

"We have depth and guys who can do different things," Barnes said. "It's hard when you have as many guys as we do to get them all out there."

Against the Tar Heels, Barnes turned to P.J. Tucker, a 6-5 freshman who went to high school in North Carolina but wasn't recruited by a single Atlantic Coast Conference school. Tucker got his revenge by coming off the bench to score 10 points and grab six rebounds, helping Texas' reserves outscore the Tar Heels' bench, 34-7.

Barnes also sent waves of big bodies at North Carolina center Sean May, getting him into early foul trouble and wearing him down in the thin Denver air. The significance of May's struggles were not lost on North Carolina coach Roy Williams.

"It would be nice to be able to play people and not have to worry about fouls or about stamina," Williams said.

Or, for that matter, egos. Easily overlooked in Texas' success this season is that Barnes has gotten his players to buy into his version of basketball socialism without complaint.

"That's how we're able to wear teams down," Tucker said. "Nobody expects to get 30-plus minutes, so we're always fresh."

No one embodies the Texas philosophy more than Thomas, a 6-8 demon on the glass who was 10th in the country in rebounding last season (11.1 per game) as a junior. This season, Thomas has seen his minutes and statistics drop drastically, but his willingness to share playing time has allowed Buckman and Klotz to develop, giving the Longhorns the toughest, deepest front line in the country.

"[Against North Carolina,] our players were taking themselves out of the game," Barnes said with a slight smile. "I told our coaches that if we've got guys taking themselves out at that pace, I knew they had to be a little bit tired. ... That's been our style all year long."

NCAA line

Regional semifinals

Thursday

Favorite Line Underdog

At East Rutherford, N.J.

Saint Joseph's 2 1/2 Wake Forest

Oklahoma St. 2 Pittsburgh At Phoenix

Syracuse 1 1/2 Alabama

Connecticut 9 Vanderbilt

Friday

At Atlanta

Duke 7 1/2 Illinois

Texas 2 Xavier At St. Louis

Georgia Tech 4 Nevada

Kansas 4 UAB

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