Former No. 1 Texas seeks new start in NCAA
By JIM VERTUNO, AP Sports Writer
AUSTIN, Texas (AP)—With his team reeling as it heads into the NCAA tournament, Texas coach Rick Barnes sounds like a gardener trying to coax life out of a dying plant.
“Sometimes you keep watering it and watering it and hope that it sprouts,” Barnes said.
Then again, sometimes it drowns.
Texas isn’t dead yet, but it’s a long, long way from being the team that was once considered a favorite to win the national championship.
Everything looked great when Texas was 17-0. But after earning the first No. 1 ranking in school history back on Jan. 11, Texas lost nine of its next 16 games and was given the No. 8 seed in the East Region. The Longhorns (24-9) play No. 9 Wake Forest (19-10) on Thursday night in New Orleans.
Despite two months of struggles, Barnes and his players are trying to sound optimistic about the tournament.
“It’s been difficult at times, but they have never wavered pulling for each other,” Barnes said. “The point is, we’re part of 65 teams right now that are still playing. We all start out 0-0 and even our players have seen enough of this to know that anything can happen on any given night.”
Senior guard Justin Mason noted that every team faces the same challenge: win six in a row to win the national championship.
“It’s a new season for every team,” Mason said.
The old one started so well for Texas.
Texas was 15-0 when it hit No. 1 and then won its first two games on top. At the time, the players seemed to understand the ranking was nice but might not last. Senior forward Dexter Pittman said it was more important to get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
“If you would have asked me who the No. 1 team was in the second week of January last year, I couldn’t tell you. But I do know who won the national championship,” Barnes said at the time.
Then the spiral started. Texas tumbled further down the rankings every week. On March 1, they became just the fifth team in the history of the AP rankings to fall all the way out after reaching No. 1.
The problems are everywhere.
Poor free throw shooting (last in the Big 12) cost them in close games. Erratic guard play hurt them in others. Two guards, Varez Ward and Dogus Balbay, were lost for the season with injuries. Pittman, a 6-foot-10, 290-pound forward who was a force when Texas was undefeated, saw his game drop off dramatically after Christmas.
Barnes himself has seemed inconsistent as he tried to mix and match his lineup and the on-again, off-again status of freshman guard J’Covan Brown is a prime example.
Brown started several early games, then went to the bench. He scored 28 points against No. 1 Kansas in a reserve role and the performance earned him a return to the starting lineup. He had 12 points, six assists and pushed the tempo in a 40-point win over Nebraska.
But it didn’t last.
After playing 32 minutes with eight points and a team-high six assists in a season-ending loss to Baylor, Brown played three minutes in a win over Iowa State in the Big 12 tournament. When Texas played Baylor again, another loss, Brown played 16 minutes.
The only constant has been senior forward Damion James, an all-Big 12 selection averaging 18 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. He is the career rebounds leader in the Big 12.
James flirted with going to the NBA after his junior season then decided to stay for one more year, taking aim at Texas’ first Final Four since 2003.
It will take four wins to get there, six to win it all. The Longhorns haven’t won three in a row since Jan. 9-16. Even if they get by Wake Forest, a likely game against No. 1 seed Kentucky awaits on Saturday.
“I have at least 40 more minutes of college basketball left, so I am just happy to be in that situation and be able to play,” James said. “Anyone can win it.”