ARLINGTON, Texas – For nearly a year now, Texas' Dexter Pittman and Rick Barnes have gone through the same routine.
Pittman, the Longhorns' 290-pound center, will corner Barnes in the locker room or pull him aside on the practice court and ask for tips on how to improve his game.
"Coach," Pittman has said countless times, "how can I get better?"
Barnes was always ready with an answer – until last week, when the normally poised coach unexpectedly snapped.
"Do you want me to tell you or do you want me to show you?" Barnes said when Pittman asked the question. "Because I've been telling you for three years, and it hasn't worked."
Moments later – on what was supposed to be an off-day – Barnes was putting Pittman through an individual workout in the Longhorns' practice gym. Sprints, defensive drills, more sprints and free-throw shooting. Barnes pushed Pittman until he found the inner toughness that seemed to have been lacking all those times when he asked for a substitute late in games or missed foul shots because of fatigue.
"You've got to flip the switch," Barnes said. "You've got to flip the switch. Until you learn to do that, I can't help you any more."
Barnes apparently got his point across.
In what was Texas' biggest test of the young season, Pittman scored 23 points and grabbed 15 rebounds to lead the No. 2 Longhorns to a 103-90 victory against 10th-ranked North Carolina on Saturday at Dallas Cowboys Stadium.
With 12 offensive boards in just 26 minutes, Pittman elevated his play against one of the top frontcourts in America – and, as a result, the rest of the Longhorns did, too. Three other players (Avery Bradley, Damion James and J'Covan Brown) surpassed the 20-point barrier for a Texas squad that more than lived up to its national ranking.
By the time it was all said and done, North Carolina coach Roy Williams was opining that the 2009-10 Longhorns may be the best team Barnes has had in his 12 years at the school.
"Could it be? Yeah, maybe, possibly," Barnes said. "We've still got a lot of room to grow. It's only December."
That's why Saturday's performance was so impressive. The Longhorns (10-0) dropped 103 points on a North Carolina squad that has already faced some of the country's top teams in Syracuse, Ohio State, Michigan State and Kentucky – and they did it with a rotation that features three freshmen who had never played on a big stage.
Before Saturday, Texas' best victory was against rebuilding Pittsburgh.
"People kept talking about how we hadn't played anyone yet," said James, who had 25 points and 15 rebounds. "But the whole world was watching today. We just proved to the world that the Texas Longhorns are a team that's going to compete with anybody."
T.J. Ford led Texas to the Final Four in 2003, and the Longhorns went to the Elite Eight three years later with LaMarcus Aldridge and Daniel Gibson. Those teams, though, only went about seven deep, which is nothing compared to the current squad, which had 12 players log at least six minutes Saturday.
And remember, forward Shawn Williams missed the game with an ankle sprain, and guard Varez Ward was a regular in the rotation until an injury ended his season prematurely last month.
"I'm not sure we've ever had 14 guys that can influence a game the way this group can," Barnes said.
Asked if he planned to "shorten the rotation" later in the season, Barnes said: "Why? They'll shorten it up – I won't. If they go in the game and don't do what they're supposed to do, they'll shorten it up. It's a great luxury. I'd love to play every guy. I'd love to keep wearing and wearing on people."
Texas wore down the Tar Heels on Saturday – and it's not as if North Carolina has a shallow bench, either. Other than Texas, no other school in the country has a frontcourt as talented as the North Carolina unit that features Deon Thompson, Ed Davis, Tyler Zeller and The Wear Twins.
The difference is that, while the Tar Heels forwards are long and skilled and rather frail, Texas' big men are wide and tough. That proved to be beneficial Saturday, when the Longhorns won the rebounding battle 60-41 while outscoring North Carolina by 10 in the paint.
At one point Pittman was battling 189-pound North Carolina freshman John Henson for a rebound.
"I'd like for John Henson to wake up tomorrow and be Dexter's size," Williams said. "But that's not going to happen."
Williams also took note of the expression on Pittman's face after he swatted a shot by the 225-pound Davis, a likely future NBA lottery pick.
"He blocked one of Eddie's shots and just laughed," Williams said. "I don't think he meant it maliciously. He was just having fun out there."
Indeed, with 38,052 mostly-orange-clad fans in attendance in one of the swankiest venues in America, it would've been impossible not to have fun. A day before the game Barnes took his team to Cowboys Stadium for a tour so they wouldn't be overwhelmed at tipoff. Barnes watched as some of his freshmen pulled out their cameras and took pictures and worried that they'd be “starry-eyed” the following afternoon.
Not only were Bradley and Brown not starry-eyed, they were as poised as any player on the court for most of the game. The two freshmen combined for 41 points while making five of their 11 3-point attempts. Brown was particularly impressive down the stretch, when he continued to come up with big assists and answer shots to thwart North Carolina's comeback attempt.
The Tar Heels trailed by as many as 17 points the second half before shaving the deficit to four, 82-78, with seven minutes remaining.
"It was time to put up or shut up," Brown said. "[Before tipoff] Coach told me, 'Are you going to step up in a big game? Or am I going to have to sit you back down on the bench?' I knew what I had to do."
Brown was supposed to make his debut for Texas last season but had to sit out after being deemed academically ineligible. That he and Bradley could maintain their poise and perform so well in the first "real" test of their college careers bodes well for Texas' future.
For Barnes, though, the most encouraging sign Saturday occurred near the Longhorns' bench with about five minutes remaining and North Carolina still in the game.
Pittman – who still has fatigue issues despite losing more than 100 pounds over the last few years – approached the sideline and signaled for reserve Alex Wangmene to replace him. Wangmene didn't budge.
"Then Damion James and J'Covan Brown walked up to him and said, 'It's winning time. You're staying in the game, '" Barnes said. "I looked at him and said, 'Can you do it?' And they said, 'He's gonna do it.'"
Pittman ended up with nine points over the game's final five minutes.
"I've been playing OK," Pittman said. "But Coach wants me to be dominant a player. Not just here and there – but on every possession."
Pittman became that kind of player Saturday.
And the Longhorns became that kind of team.
- Rick Barnes
- the Longhorns
- North Carolina
- Dexter Pittman