Texas wants to prove its No. 2 ranking wasn’t a mistake.
Though that might be tough to do for the rest of 2005, the sixth-ranked Longhorns can take a step in that direction on Saturday when they try to hand Tennessee its first loss of the season.
In a matchup of the nation’s highest ranked teams, Texas looked overmatched against No. 1 Duke last Saturday in a 97-66 defeat at East Rutherford, N.J. The Blue Devils took control with a 21-3 run in the second half and the Longhorns had no answer for J.J. Redick, who had nine 3-pointers and scored 41 points.
“We hit them, they hit back and we didn’t respond,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. “We were not as aggressive as we needed to be, and allowed them to dictate to us our style of basketball.”
Before that loss, the Longhorns had been outscoring opponents by an average of 35.6 points, though their two wins over ranked teams (West Virginia and Iowa) were both by single digits.
Last Saturday’s defeat marked the first time Texas allowed the opposition to shoot at least 50 percent from the field. The Longhorns are holding teams to an average of 38.2 percent this season.
“Duke was good but we helped them be really good because of our poor shot selection, the fact that we didn’t play with the type of defensive intensity we have to, the fact that we didn’t have the kind of overall leadership we’ve got to have,” Barnes said.
Knocking off Tennessee (5-0) would be a good way to get back on track, but the Volunteers are not yet considered a very good team—they didn’t get any votes in this week’s AP poll despite being unbeaten.
The Longhorns’ only other two games in 2005 are against lowly Texas State and Prarie View A&M. However, their first game of 2006 will be Jan. 2 at No. 5 Memphis.
Texas, still off to its best start since 1988-89, has won 33 consecutive nonconference home games and is 5-0 at the Frank Erwin Center this season.
The Volunteers haven’t faced a ranked opponent this season and have played only one team with a winning record. First-year coach Bruce Pearl knows a win in Austin would make people take notice of his program.
“It doesn’t get much tougher than going to Texas,” Pearl said. “Let’s see where we are right now and how far we have to go. How we respond will be important.”
It’s also very important to Barnes to see how the Longhorns respond.
Texas, which had a double-digit rebounding advantage in six of its first eight games, was outrebounded 29-26 by the Blue Devils. The Longhorns had nine offensive boards, about seven below their season average.
One of Texas’ top rebounders might not be available for this game. Senior forward Brad Buckman, averaging 11.9 points and 7.4 boards, injured his right calf in the first half against Duke and is listed as questionable.
Buckman is part of an outstanding Texas frontcourt. LaMarcus Aldridge led the Longhorns with 21 points last Saturday, and tops the team with 17.9 points and 9.9 rebounds per game this season. P.J. Tucker averages 16.4 points, 7.9 boards and a team-high 2.3 steals.
Tennessee’s strength is in the backcourt with Chris Lofton and C.J. Watson, who average 17.2 and 17.0 points, respectively.
Watson, who averages a team-leading 5.6 assists, had a season-high 23 points in the Volunteers’ most recent win, 89-81 over Appalachian State on Dec. 6.
“I like the schedule, and I just wish we didn’t have quite that long a layoff,” said Pearl, whose Vols have yet to play a true road game. “I look at the glass as half full, and I like to think of the positive side. Yeah, we might be a little sluggish starting out, but I’m okay with the schedule.”
Tennesse’s only game outside of Knoxville this season was a win in nearby Nashville over Murray State. The Vols were 2-8 on the road last season.
The Longhorns lead this series 2-1, including a 95-70 win over the Vols in last year’s Maui Invitational.