Longhorns not just football

Traditional football school Texas now serving notice in basketball, also ranked No. 2

National Notebook

College Basketball


Texas has an identity problem.

The state that contributed Friday Night Lights to the culture is sending its namesake university to the Rose Bowl, where it will play Southern California for the national championship in college football.

It won't be the first No. 1 vs. No. 2 meeting of the school year for the Longhorns. The Texas basketball team takes on top-ranked Duke tomorrow at Continental Airlines Arena, aka The Meadowlands.

The biggest state in the lower 48 has three of the NBA's most vibrant franchises and a prep pipeline that has turned out, among others, Shaquille O'Neal and reigning Rookie of the Year Emeka Okafor. They played their college ball elsewhere, however, perpetuating a puny record in the NCAA tournament.

The not-so-great state of Texas has one national championship to show for the first 67 years of March Madness. It has produced just one Final Four team in the past two decades, but T.J. Ford taking Texas there in 2003, when the current Longhorns were in high school, was a watershed.

"It all goes back to T.J.," sophomore center LaMarcus Aldridge said. "He showed us it's OK to stay in the house."

When Ford was a senior at Willowridge High School in the Houston suburbs, he gave up 25 points to a freshman named Daniel Gibson, the Longhorns sophomore who is regarded as perhaps the nation's top point guard. Gibson's recruiting class included Aldridge, the Longhorns' top scorer and rebounder, who cut his teeth in Dallas going up against the likes of Chris Bosh.

Five of the first eight players for Texas, including veteran big man Brad Buckman, remained home, but they get their direction from two men who came from a state with a huge legacy in the college game.

Coach Rick Barnes is a native of Hickory, N.C., and leading scorer P.J. Tucker is from Raleigh. None of the state's four Atlantic Coast Conference schools offered a scholarship to the 6-5 Tucker, who grew up a North Carolina fan. When he coached Clemson, Barnes spit in the direction of the Tar Heels. Does their connection to the state give them a keener interest in beating Duke?

"To be honest," Barnes said, "I don't think anybody here gives a damn about that."

That's understandable, unlike Barnes' take on conference play.

"Believe it or not," he said, "Big 12 basketball is bigger than the ACC."

For the record, the current membership of the Big 12, combined, has one NCAA title since 1952. The ACC, meanwhile, has produced an unprecedented three different champions in the past five years.

Houston rebounds

The Longhorns aren't the only team in Texas making noise.

When Houston beat LSU and Arizona last week, it marked its first back-to-back wins over ranked teams since 1984, when Hakeem Olajuwon took the Cougars to their third straight Final Four.

Houston's second-year coach is Tom Penders, who took Texas to eight NCAA tournaments before he was replaced by Barnes in 1998. He returned to the state last season, after wearing out his welcome at George Washington. Houston hasn't been to the NCAAs since 1992, and Penders must make the Cougars fashionable again.

"This is a basketball school, first," Penders said. "There aren't many colleges in Texas that can say that."

Penders has given the green light to Oliver Lafayette, a junior college transfer from Baton Rouge who's taking nearly nine three-pointers a game and averaging 22.5 points. His mother is working in Iraq, as a civilian employee of the Department of Defense.

Houston should ensure that Memphis doesn't make a mockery of Conference USA, one season after five of its powers jumped to the Big East.

Texas taps

The state's only NCAA title was more significant for sociology than strategy. The coming film Glory Days will dramatize how the team now known as UTEP used an all-black rotation in 1966 to beat all-white Kentucky. ... Craig Winder, who played at Wicomico High in Salisbury and then at Cecil Community College, plays eight minutes a game as a backup guard for Texas. ... Barnes hasn't won a conference title since 1999, his first year in Austin, one reason he may be pumping up the Big 12. ... Texas A&M is 5-0. Tulane, the other team practicing in College Station while its campus in New Orleans remains closed, got its second win for first-year coach Dave Dickerson on Wednesday.




Nevada -- Over an 11-day span, the Wolf Pack won at Vermont, UNLV, Kansas and Pacific. Adam Morrison isn't the only long junior out West who won't get much prime time once conference play picks up in January, as 6-foot-11 Nick Fazekas can play with his back to the basket and hit the three. The Western Athletic Conference Player of the Year will put unbeaten Nevada up against UCLA in Anaheim, Calif., tomorrow.


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