A battle of the underachievers

NEW ORLEANS – The morning sun was just peeking through the curtains in Wake Forest guard Ishmael Smith’s New Orleans hotel room on Wednesday morning when he awoke to the sound of ESPN’s Hubert Davis evaluating his team’s chances against Texas on TV.

“He was talking about how Texas and us are similar talent-wise but we’re sliding, and everyone is trying to figure out what the problem is,” Smith said. “Obviously you’re going to hear it, but you’ve just got to forget it and concentrate on the task at hand.”

Damion James and Texas are focused on a fresh start in the tournament.
(Patrick Semansky / AP)

If either eighth-seeded Texas or ninth-seeded Wake Forest is lacking confidence as a result of the avalanche of criticism they’ve received for their dismal finishes, they did a masterful job hiding it on the eve of their first-round NCAA tournament matchup. The Demon Deacons finished Wednesday’s practice at New Orleans Arena by leading their fans in a rendition of their fight song, and the Longhorns threw T-shirts into the crowd and tried to one-up each other in an impromptu alley-oop contest.

Since Wake has dropped five of six after cracking the top 25 in mid-February and Texas has gone 7-9 since riding a 17-0 start to the top of the polls, both have chosen to approach the NCAA tournament as a fresh start and an opportunity for redemption. A win almost certainly means a shot at top-seeded Kentucky in a marquee second-round game, but a loss would condemn either team to an offseason of criticism and questions about what went wrong.

“This is a new season,” Texas forward Damion James said. “We’re looking forward to going out and playing because it’s a new 40 minutes. If we go out and win these games, people are going to forget all about what happened in the past.”

It would have been nearly impossible to predict the Longhorns’ slide two months ago, when they eked out an overtime victory over Texas A&M to remain undefeated entering road games against Kansas State and Connecticut. That’s when the bottom fell out, new problems popping up seemingly each week, highlighted by injuries and stiff competition in the Big 12.

Big man Dexter Pittman, one of the most dominant low-post scorers in the country during the non-conference portion of the schedule, fizzled in conference play, failing to score in double figures in 11 of 13 games against physical Big 12 defenses during one stretch. The youthful backcourt struggled as well, Avery Bradley not emerging as the dominant scorer he showed glimpses of in December, Jordan Hamilton displaying poor shot selection and J’Covan Brown and Jai Lucas making too many poor decisions to earn consistent playing time at point guard.

Aside from James’ rock-solid 18 points and 10 rebounds, there was nothing the Longhorns could count on from night to night.

“It’s not easy in the Big 12,” Pittman offered as an explanation. “Especially if you have a young team.”

Although Wake Forest’s lack of 3-point shooting has been an issue, the Deacons’ woes appear to be more mental than anything. They beat Clemson and took Virginia Tech and Florida State to the wire late in the season, but double-digit losses to ACC bottom-feeders North Carolina State and Miami raised eyebrows considering the talent on Wake’s roster.

“I think our energy was lacking in some of those games,” junior forward Al-Farouq Aminu said. “If we come out with a lot of energy, it improves our defense and then that helps us on the offensive end as well. And then when we come together, we’re a really great team.”

Both coaches are more focused on preaching positivity than preparing for any particular matchups Thursday night, Wake Forest’s Dino Gaudio demanding “energy and emotion” from his squad and Texas’ Rick Barnes complimenting players individually during practice to build their confidence.

Twice this week, Barnes has used a metaphor to describe his team, comparing it to a plant that he keeps watering and watering in hopes that it will sprout.

Said Barnes with a weary laugh, “This would be a good time for it to sprout.”

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Updated Wednesday, Mar 17, 2010