Rising Texas wants to avoid last season’s collapse
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) – The fast-rising Texas Longhorns remember just how far and hard they fell last season – and how the collapse started in early January.
They promise it won’t happen again. The chemistry and talent on the team are too good to let another good start dissolve into another epic meltdown.
“The guys pull for each other and we have fun on the court,” forward Gary Johnson said this week, before the No. 12 Longhorns (12-2) face eighth-ranked Connecticut (11-2) on Saturday.
“It’s too early to tell if we’re a Final Four team at this point,” Johnson said, “but we’re in a pretty good situation right now.”
It was a loss to UConn last season that seemed to start a nasty tumble from No. 1 all the way out of The Associated Press rankings in just a few weeks.
The Longhorns began the year 17-0 and was No. 1 for the first time in school history. The unbeaten streak ended with a loss to Kansas State, and the season began getting ugly a few days later when they were humbled by a Huskies team that didn’t even have Jim Calhoun on the bench.
Texas finished 24-10 and with a first-round loss in the NCAA tournament.
“We didn’t expect to lose to UConn,” senior guard Dogus Balbay said simply. “And after that, we started losing games.”
Sophomore Jordan Hamilton, Texas’ leading scorer this season at 19.6 points per game, said better chemistry off the court has led to better play on it.
“We play harder,” Hamilton said. “We do everything together off the court. We all hang out. We never individualize ourselves with anything.”
Texas has won six in a row. And just like last season, the Longhorns already have impressive wins over schools like North Carolina, Michigan State and Arkansas.
But beyond similar schedules, coach Rick Barnes dismisses any comparisons to last year.
“It’s a new season,” Barnes said, “a new team.”
But Barnes made a point of praising a group of seniors on a squad getting the bulk of its flash from freshmen and sophomores.
Johnson, Balbay, forward Matt Hill and guard Jai Lucas are largely role players on a team dominated by Hamilton and freshmen Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph, but they lead by example with the work they put in practice, Barnes said.
“They’ve learned they all need each other,” Barnes said.
Balbay said the seniors have made a point of making sure the younger players give the same effort every day.
“What we do in practice, we take the same intensity to the game. We didn’t do that last year,” Balbay said.
Balbay will have a tough job Saturday trying to guard Connecticut’s Kemba Walker, the nation’s leading scorer at 26.1 points per game. Walker had 19 points and 10 assists against Texas last season.
“He’s really fast with the ball and he’s really tough,” Balbay said. “That’s my job. I’ve got to guard him somehow … I’ll get help from other guys. We’ll try to shrink the court and keep him out of the paint.”
Johnson said everyone must be willing to help stop Walker. Texas’ 6-6 small forward says he’s been playing good defense this season and wants to test himself against one of the most explosive offensive players in the country.
“We’ll have a lot of guys on him,” Johnson said. “I’m up for the challenge.”