Texas is true No. 1
AUSTIN, Texas – Shortly after his team’s game against defending national runner-up Michigan State on Tuesday night, Texas coach Rick Barnes marched into the Longhorns’ locker room and addressed the players.
“If this is as good as we’re going to be,” Barnes said, “then we’re in trouble.”
The Longhorns managed to keep a straight face, but freshman guard Avery Bradley couldn’t help but chuckle as he recalled Barnes’ speech about a half-hour later.
“That’s Coach for you,” Bradley said. “We win the game, and he acts like we lost. I understand why he’s doing it, though. He wants to keep us grounded.”
That may end up being Barnes’ biggest challenge.
Complacency, after all, tends to set in when you’re on the No. 1 squad in America. And make no mistake: Despite their No. 2 national ranking, there is no better team than the Longhorns, who improved to 11-0 with a 79-68 victory over the Spartans.
Kansas may sit atop the Associated Press poll. Kentucky has comparable talent and Syracuse is extremely balanced and well-coached. Still, none of them have been as impressive as Texas. At least not yet.
“We’ve got a long road ahead of us,” forward Damion James said. “No matter how good people are saying we are, we’ve got to keep getting better.”
That may be a difficult chore – especially if James continues to turn in performances like the one he gave in Tuesday’s win. Three days after a 25-point, 15-rebound performance in a victory over defending national champion North Carolina, James posted another double-double with 23 points and 13 boards against the Spartans.
James became Texas’ all-time leading rebounder late in the first half, but when Barnes tried to congratulate him during his postgame speech, James asked him to stop.
“We don’t need to talk about that,” James said. “Let’s don’t talk about me. Let’s talk about the team.”
It’s that kind of selflessness – not just from James, but from all the Longhorns – that gives this Texas squad a different look than it’s had in the past.
Barnes has always been able to recruit good players to Austin. Over the past seven years alone, Barnes has coached four Top 10 NBA draft picks. Only Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun can claim such a feat.
Still, even though they’ve had talent, it’s been a long time since the Longhorns have had such a cohesive unit. It’s been a long time since they’ve had this kind of team.
“Damion James, Dexter Pittman and Justin Mason – they’re why we keep winning,” said Bradley, referring to Texas’ seniors. “They’re making everyone around them better. Even when they’re not on the court, they’re talking to us and keeping our minds in the right place.”
Indeed, this kind of leadership has been foreign at Texas for quite awhile now. Kevin Durant, D.J. Augustin, LaMarcus Aldridge and Daniel Gibson were all good players. None of them, though, stayed in school longer than two years.
James thought about leaving after his junior season and entered the NBA draft, but he pulled out shortly before the deadline and opted to return to school. James has always been a top-notch player, but he’s clearly taken his game to another level after hearing some motivating words from Barnes.
“Coach said, ‘Damion James, this is your team,’” James said. “He said, ‘You have a chance to lead the No. 1 team in the country. We have a chance to be the best team in the country. You lead them.’
“He gave me that role and I took it on. Point blank. I embraced it. You don’t understand how much this team means to me, personally. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
Crucial as his presence may be, James is far from the only reason Texas is the No. 1 team in the country. Bradley, freshman wing Jordan Hamilton and Pittman, a center, are all future pros, and the Longhorns’ depth is unrivaled in college basketball, with players such as point guards Jai Lucas (a former starter at Florida) and J’Covan Brown (who had 21 points against North Carolina) coming off the bench.
Ten Texas players saw more than six minutes of action Tuesday.
Also impressive is that freshmen such as Bradley and Hamilton – both Top 10 recruits – are exhibiting so much poise this early their careers. The threesome combined for 30 points against Michigan State and 46 against North Carolina. Barnes said one of the main reasons his newcomers are playing so well this quickly is because of the experienced players around them.
These Longhorns can beat you in so many ways. The 290-pound Pittman, who averages 14.6 points, has been dominant at times. Foul trouble limited Pittman four points and one rebound in 12 minutes Tuesday – and it didn’t even matter, because Texas’ depth allowed it to switch to a smaller lineup, with the more agile Gary Johnson filling in for Pittman off the bench.
Johnson only scored seven points, but he came up with three huge steals down the stretch, when Texas used its defense to turn a tight game into a double-digit victory. The Longhorns, who were trailing with about 13 minutes remaining, ended the game on an 11-5 run.
Texas – which has won all of its games by double-digits – forced 22 turnovers against MSU. Barnes said it’s been a long time since he’s had a group of guards take this much pride in playing defense. Spartans coach Tom Izzo called Texas sophomore Dogus Balbay one of the top on-ball defenders in the country. Bradley, Brown and Hamilton give Texas the length on the perimeter it’s been missing for years.
“Every year I take a look at teams and say who I think has a chance to be a Final Four team,” Izzo said. “In my mind, Texas is definitely one of those teams.”
Right now, the Longhorns are the team – although maintaining that status won’t be easy.
Kansas has yet to face a high-quality opponent. The Jayhawks barely escaped Memphis back in November and struggled to beat unranked Cal on Tuesday. Still, if Kansas has any edge on Texas, it’s in the experience department. The Jayhawks will be a much better team by the time they face the Longhorns on Feb. 8 in Austin, where they haven’t won since 2002.
Scary thing is, the Longhorns will be better by then, too.
At least that’s what Barnes says.
To everyone else, it hardly seems possible.
Atlantic 10 – Forget the term “mid-major.” This might be the fifth-best conference in college basketball this season. Charlotte and Rhode Island are both 9-1 with wins over Louisville and Boston College, respectively. Richmond owns wins over Mississippi State, Missouri and Florida. Temple has defeated Villanova and Seton Hall – and under-the-radar Dayton may be better than any of them.
Jerry World – That’s the nickname for the $1.3 billion, 80,000-seat stadium built by Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in Arlington, Texas. The venue played host to last weekend’s Texas-North Carolina basketball game, and the environment couldn’t have been any better. This will be an excellent site for the 2014 Final Four.
Andy Kennedy One year after a Cincinnati cab driver sued him for assault and ethnic intimidation, the Ole Miss coach seems to have put his troubles behind him. Kennedy is doing an excellent job with the Rebels, who are 10-1 and ranked No. 15 in this week’s Associated Press poll.
USC – Can the Trojans actually contend for the Pac-10 title? Sure. The addition of Charlotte transfer Mike Gerrity, who became eligible less than a week ago, gave Kevin O’Neill’s squad a huge boost over the weekend. USC now has three star-quality players in Gerrity, Dwight Lewis and Alex Stepheson, which is more than most Pac-10 teams can say.
Darington Hobson – You’d be hard-pressed to find a junior college transfer playing at well as New Mexico’s versatile junior forward. Hobson, a Las Vegas native who attended the College of Eastern Utah, is averaging team-highs in points (16.9), rebounds (8.1) and assists (4.6) for the undefeated Lobos.
Todd Wright, Texas strength coach – Longhorns coach Rick Barnes gets most of the credit for the development of standout center Dexter Pittman – and rightfully so. Wright, however, is the person who pushed Pittman the hardest during a period that saw the pivot player lose more than 100 pounds. Now a svelte 285 pounds, “Sexy Dexy,” as Pittman is known, has developed into one of the most dominant forces – and one of the best stories – in college basketball.
Arizona – The Wildcats avoided disaster Monday when Nic Wise’s desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer lifted Arizona to an 83-82 overtime victory against Lipscomb. Don’t let the win fool you. Lipscomb (4-7) is not a good team – and neither are the Wildcats. Everyone knew Arizona (5-5) would struggle in the first season of Sean Miller’s rebuilding project. But no one thought the Wildcats would need a buzzer-beater to top Lipscomb at home.
Cole Aldrich – Dubbed as a national player of the year candidate prior to the season, Kansas’ star center continues to struggle – often because his teammates can’t get him the ball. Aldrich attempted just three field goals in Saturday’s victory over Michigan. He’s also been battling bronchitis while worrying about his terminally-ill grandmother, who has lung cancer. Aldrich’s numbers (11.3 points, 9.7 rebounds and 3.5 blocks) are decent. But he can do a lot better.
Illinois – So much for the preseason hype surrounding the Illini. Saturday’s loss to SEC bottom feeder Georgia was the low point in a season that has also included setbacks against Bradley and Utah, which is currently last in the Mountain West Conference.
Players who don’t acknowledge children – I know it’s impossible to sign every autograph. Heck, sometimes, because of prior commitments or in the rush to catch a team bus, it’s tough to sign any autographs. But instead of putting on your earphones on and looking at the ground, you can at least wave – or at the very least, smile – at the little kids who have waited an hour after a game to try to score some face time. It’s common courtesy.
Georgia Tech – Even with Iman Shumpert out of the lineup, the Yellow Jackets should’ve beaten Florida State. Seriously, with two first-round NBA draft picks in the frontcourt, Paul Hewitt’s squad has too much talent to be losing home games against middle-of-the-pack ACC teams. Don’t be surprised if fans’ patience begins to wear thin.
Willie Warren – The Oklahoma guard – picked by some as a preseason All-American – continues to struggle right along with his team, which fell to 8-4 after being annihilated by Texas-El Paso. Warren has made just 22 of his last 60 field goals (36.7 percent). In a one-point win over Northern Colorado last week he took just six shots, which seemed strange for a player who usually doesn’t hesitate to fire it up. Warren probably would’ve been better served by entering last summer’s NBA draft.
Which team is ranked too high?
It’s certainly no crime that New Mexico is No. 13 in this week’s Associated Press rankings. The Lobos are 12-0 heading into Wednesday night’s game at Oral Roberts. They’re undefeated, and for that they should be rewarded. Still, it may be a stretch to say Steve Alford’s squad is truly the country’s 13th-best team. Other than Cal (at home) and Texas A&M (on a neutral site) the Lobos don’t have any head-turning wins. If they emerge without a blemish from an upcoming stretch that includes games against Texas Tech, Dayton and at San Diego State, I’ll change my tune.
As non-conference play nears its end, how would you rank the leagues?
Some folks are arguing for the Big 12, but I still think the Big East is the best conference in college basketball. Syracuse, West Virginia and Villanova are all very strong, and Connecticut is right on their heels. Setting the conference apart, though, is depth. Former bottom teams such as St. John’s, Seton Hall and South Florida continue to make strides. Even Rutgers and DePaul are becoming formidable opponents. The Big 12 – which boasts the top two teams in the country in Kansas and Texas – is an easy pick at No. 2. After that, the Big Ten gets a slight edge over the ACC, which is experiencing a down year. The SEC and the Pac-10 round out my Big Six conference power rankings.
What should we watch for in first week of Big East play?
One of the biggest stories early will be Seton Hall. The Pirates have been one of the league’s more pleasant surprises at 9-1, but the schedule-makers didn’t do them any favors by pitting them against No. 6 West Virginia and No. 5 Syracuse in the first week of conference action. Both teams are undefeated, meaning Bobby Gonzalez’s team could really help its NCAA tournament stock by pulling an upset in at least one of the games, both of which are at home. Still, that may be tough for a squad that continues to work on improving cohesion after blending a handful of transfers into its rotation.
Two teams received terrible news this week on the injury front. South Carolina announced that Dominique Archie, who had been out since November with a knee injury, will not return this season. Neither will standout Rutgers forward Gregory Echenique, who recently had eye surgery … Georgetown’s Nikita Mescheriakov has left the team and will transfer, making him the fifth Hoya to do so in the past three years … North Carolina State’s Tracy Smith has been suspended for one game for criticizing the officiating in the Wolfpack’s loss to Wake Forest. He’ll sit out Wednesday’s game at Arizona … Iowa guard Anthony Tucker, the Hawkeyes’ second-leading scorer, has been suspended indefinitely following his arrest for public intoxication … UCLA forward Nikola Dragovic has pleaded not guilty to a felony assault charge stemming from a fight outside a concert in Hollywood on Oct. 24.
Ole Miss at West Virginia – Rebels coach Andy Kennedy was an assistant under Bob Huggins at Cincinnati. Years later, he has an excellent shot at upsetting his mentor thanks to a backcourt that features two of the nation’s top guards in Chris Warren and Terrico White.
USC vs. St. Mary’s in Honolulu – Still riding high off the momentum it gained from throttling Tennessee, USC can add another bullet point to its profile by beating a well-coached St. Mary’s squad that has just one loss.
Missouri vs. Illinois in St. Louis – They call this the Braggin’ Rights game, but neither team has much of a reason to boast, as the Tigers and Illini have been huge disappointments. Missouri is toting losses to Richmond and Oral Roberts. Illinois lost to Georgia last week.
N.C. State at Arizona – Tracy Smith, who is averaging close to a double-double, will be serving a one-game suspension for the Wolfpack. Arizona needs to capitalize.
West Virginia at Seton Hall – The Pirates are 9-1, but winning won’t be easy for a Seton Hall squad full of transfers who aren’t as battle-tested as the Mountaineers.
Texas Tech at New Mexico – The Red Raiders suffered their first defeat, a two-point setback at Wichita State last week. That environment, though, was nothing compared to the one they’ll face against the undefeated Lobos in The Pit. Pat Knight’s squad better be ready.
Greg Gard, Wisconsin – Gard has worked with Bo Ryan for 16 seasons, the past nine in Madison. He was named the Badgers’ associate head coach in July of 2008.
KOTC: You’ve basically been with Bo Ryan your entire career? Any good stories about how you two ended up together?
GARD: I was a camper of his when he was a Wisconsin assistant in the early 1980s. Then he became the head coach at Wisconsin-Platteville and I was a camper there through high school. After I graduated, I enrolled in school there and started helping him with some of his camps in the summer. After two or three years he said, ‘Hey, I want you to think about helping me out with the team during the season.’ I did that and had a part-time job as a high school coach at the same time. After two or three years he said, ‘Enough of this high school stuff. I want you with me all the time.’
KOTC: Wow, so you were a part-time assistant while you were still an undergrad?
GARD: Yeah, I was coaching guys that were the same age or older than I was. It was a unique situation. After I graduated he convinced me to stay on the staff. I kind of pieced a bunch of jobs together to earn money. I was helping coach, I was managing a fitness center, I was a counselor in the education department. After two years he gave me a full-time position in 1998-99. There were always opportunities for me to leave but he convinced me I’d be better served by staying. He was obviously right.
KOTC: What’s the thing about him that you like the most?
GARD: Even before I started coaching with him, I always watched his teams play. In the mid-1980s his games at Platteville were the hot ticket in town. Every Friday night they were drawing 2,500 fans. I always admired the way his teams played and I started taking on the same philosophies. There are 100 different ways to play the game but, in my opinion, they were playing the game the way it’s supposed to be played. He was getting the most out of his kids. They were diving on the floor and taking charges and playing team basketball. It was that blue-collar, Midwestern work ethic that fans appreciate.
KOTC: Bo is generally regarded as one of the top Xs and Os coaches in the country. What’s the method to his madness? What’s something about him that no one knows?
GARD: He’s a lot more simplistic than the average fan would think. He keeps it simple. He’s played one defense in 20 years: Man-to-man. We’ve basically been running the same offense, too, although we tweak some stuff every now and then.
KOTC: Doesn’t sound too complicated.
GARD: The casual fan thinks he’s this mad scientist behind closed doors. But he’s very black and white. There are no mind games. There are no gray areas where the players wonder what the coach is thinking. That’s why players like playing for him. He’s very big on sticking to the routine. He’s also not one of those guys that gets in the locker room and gives a Knute Rockne speech. People think he’s so cerebral – and he is. But he’s not a mad scientist who pulls out his beakers and Bunsen burners once the doors are closed.
KOTC: Do you two spend much of your off time together?
GARD: He loves to golf during the offseason. I like to golf but don’t love it. I love to hunt and fish but he’s not patient enough. So we have a little discrepancy in terms of our hobbies. I’d golf with him more but he’s ultra-competitive on the golf course. Usually if I’m on the golf course, I want to relax. If he was playing his mom in a Skins game he’d be trying his best to win. I used to play him in racquetball. He’d spot me a 12-0 lead and beat me 15-12. He’ll hit you in the calf with the ball or in the back. He doesn’t care. He’s that competitive.
KOTC: You’re known around the country as a top-notch recruiter. Give me your best recruiting story.
GARD: I’ve totaled two cars on recruiting and scouting trips. When we were still at Wisconsin-Platteville we used to be able to do live scouting (of a future opponent). One night around Thanksgiving we were driving back from LaCrosse, and the drive was all backroads. We were going through a lot of wooded areas where there is a high population of deer. Right around midnight we went over a hill going about 60 miles per hour and came up on about six deer. One of them decided to take a charge on me. It totaled the car. We drove back with one headlight pointing toward the sky and the other pointing straight down. The grill was all crunched in.
KOTC: Sounds like a scary deal.
GARD: Very scary. But Bo turned the situation into a position. He used that wreck to get a rule passed in the conference where we couldn’t do live scouting anymore. We were allowed to do tape exchanges to prevent that kind of risky travel in the winter.
KOTC: You mentioned hunting and fishing. What else do you like to do off the court?
GARD: I’ve got an 8-year-old, a 6-year-old and a 19-month-old, so they take up most of my time when I’m not at the Kohl Center or on the road recruiting. And that’s how I want it. I love spending time with my kids and my wife. They probably don’t get as much time as they deserve. But they’re very understanding.
KOTC: Any future athletes in the family?
GARD: Maybe. My 8-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, came up to me over the summer and said, ‘Dad, I think I need to start playing basketball. It looks kinda funny for the coach’s daughter not to be a basketball player.’ I told her it didn’t matter. She’s into swimming and gymnastics and she plays the piano. I’m not going to be a control freak and force my kids to do something they don’t want to do just so I can live vicariously through them.
KOTC: How much would you like to be a head coach some day?
GARD: I talked to some other schools. There have been some inquiries. For me it’s going to have to be a special situation, the right situation. There are a lot of head coaching positions in Division I that aren’t as good as some assistant positions. I’m lucky enough to have one of those jobs. I can definitely afford to be choosy.
Heitmiller’s Steakhouse, Waco, Texas – The only problem with moving from Texas to Kansas City is that folks in the Midwest aren’t big on chicken fried steak. And when they do try to make it, well – it just isn’t the same. That’s why I always stop at Heitmiller’s during any trip through the Lone Star State. The catfish is good and the sirloins are popular, too. But nothing beats the gargantuan chicken fried steak, breaded just right and topped with cream gravy.
Chicken sandwiches, White Castle – As good as the tiny burgers may be, I recently discovered the hidden gem on White Castle’s menu. Topped with a half-slice of American cheese, I’d put these bad boys up against any fast-food chicken sandwich on the market. Granted, you need to order three of them to get full, but that’s certainly fine with me.
Christmas food – My yearly vices, in no particular order: Chex mix, sour cream coffee cake, onion dip, deviled eggs, chewy peppermints, fudge, diet ginger ale, turkey, guacamole, Wavy Lays.
Dreamland BBQ, Birmingham, Ala. – This legendary rib joint makes a killing around Christmas time, and it’s easy to see why. Folks around the country have Dreamland’s ribs sent to them on dry ice so they can serve them during the holidays. Then there are people like me who send them as gifts, knowing full well that I’ll be invited over for dinner when it’s time to feast. Not sure I’ve ever had better ribs, even in Kansas City.