Superbowl Monday?

One of the Big 12's most hotly contested rivalries will be renewed in Austin tonight. Has the game lost some of its luster because of the Horns recent slide? Phog.net doesn't think so and has a preview.

You can be sure of one thing when the name says "Texas" across the front of the jersey and on the other end of the court the name says "Kansas" it will be a 40-minute war. The games between the Horns and the Jayhawks over the last few years have been some of the most hotly contested in college basketball, frequently deciding championships. So don't worry about Texas' recent slide – it's irrelevant.

Texas is one of the most talented teams in country but its recent slide has been well-chronicled. Maybe no game was more shocking than Saturday's contest at Oklahoma. The Sooners busted open a tight first half with an amazing 18-1 run. Maybe even more surprising was the fact OU did it all without much of a contribution from Willie Warren. Maybe the Horns were looking ahead, maybe they couldn't match the emotional inspiration provided for the Sooners when the late Wayman Tisdale was honored prior to opening tip. Or maybe Texas is just struggling.

"We'll watch that tape tonight," KU head coach Bill Self said referring to the 80-71 loss Texas suffered at OU. "They'll play so hard against us on Monday. They'll play hard because this is a game that can kind of right their ship. I think our guys will compete too, but I'm not real happy leaving the locker room today; but I'm excited about Monday."

The Longhorns are not playing up to their capability they've lost four of their last six after vaulting to their very first number one ranking. A big Achilles Heel for Texas appears to be free throw shooting. Texas ranks 317th in Division I and on Saturday went 10-27 from the line. Head coach Rick Barnes commented after that he had to believe there were "junior high school teams that could do that", there is clearly frustration in Austin.

On Monday you could hear that frustration in Barnes' voice in a meeting with the media. He was concerned about the shot selection of his team, its defense, and how Dexter Pittman was playing. But he also spoke with great conviction that Texas could and would fix its woes.

"I wasn't surprised that they started so fast," said Self when asked to reflect on the Longhorns start vs. their recent slide. "When you play good teams on the road you're going to lose some. That's what I can't get from my vantage point that is lost in all this. Heck our national championship team lost three games in league. That happens when you play good teams especially away from home."

Texas is 12-1 with the lone blemish coming at home in overtime to Baylor, a team Self reminded us nearly beat KU in Lawrence this season. It appeared Texas began to turn a corner in the second half against Okie State. Turns out it was not the pole vault the Horns needed. But no time like the present for Texas to get it together and find a way to stop the bleeding. The Longhorns almost surely need a win on Monday against KU to get help them get back in the race for a Big 12 title.  

"I'm sure they're thinking with our road schedule - they think that maybe they can get some help just like we've gotten a little help from some teams that have played Texas. K-State is right there. If I'm not mistaken Missouri is right there too with all three losses. It's kind of jumbled around right now and this thing is a long ways from being over. They'll be hungry to play not just because of the league race but because its Kansas-Texas just like we will be too," said Self.

Like Self, when Barnes looks down the bench there is no shortage of options. Depth is one of the many strengths of this Texas team. Eight players on Barnes' roster average 17 minutes or more.

"I think their team speed is great. I think (Dogus) Balbay is probably the best athlete in our league and he doesn't get the credit he deserves from an athletic standpoint," said Self praising the Horns. "They can throw bigs at you, they have a perimeter. They've got guys that can score, and they've got guys that are really fast."

"They've got a heck of a team. It's going to be one of those games where you look back and say it was a hard fought, fun, just kind of a normal Kansas-Texas game," said junior Cole Aldrich.

When Phog.net asked KU head coach Bill Self about the keys to Monday's matchup he answered quickly and succinctly, "handling pressure and board play." Those keys were probably heard just prior to playing K-State who also excels in those categories. But KU will have its hands full keeping a hungry Texas team that leads the league in rebounding off the glass.

"Handling pressure and rebounding the ball," said Marcus Morris echoing his coach's keys. "They're going to eat us up. They're going to try and get the ball out of Sherron's hands and make our other guys be players. They're going to try and eat us up. We'll hopefully be prepared for that and when the ball is on the glass, you've got to go get it."

They just happen to be two areas where KU has shown weakness at times. The Jayhawks are coming off Saturday's closer-than-they-wanted win against Nebraska and out-rebounded the Cornhuskers by just one (36-35). If KU fails to compete on the boards and does not value the basketball Monday it will be a long trip to Austin.  

"That was a pitiful performance today rebounding the ball playing against a team that played bigger today, but certainly for 15 to 20 minutes of the game played with four guards. So we've got to be much better in those areas," Marcus analyzed.

KU has won five of the last six meetings with Texas but the Horns have taken the last three in Austin. In 2004, Texas won 82-67, in 2006, it was no contest when the Horns won 80-55, in 2008 KU had a chance to tie it at the buzzer but lost by three, 72-69.  

"Two of them were real bad I think they beat us 15 and 25," Self said remembering the last three in Austin. "One of them the year we won it (2008) we screwed up the last play that ended up being the play we ran against Memphis to get the three and we lost by three. We didn't play great the second half of that game, (but) played really well the first half. They haven't beat us at our place in some good games and we haven't beat them down there and to be honest they've controlled us quite handily in two of those three games."

To help control Texas better Kansas will have to contain Damion James who thus far looks like a solid Player of the Year candidate in this league. James now leads Texas in scoring at 17.8 ppg and also tops the conference in rebounds per game at 11.0.

"It remains to be seen," Self answered after Phog.net asked if James was the Player of the Year in the Big 12 thus far. "I think there's way to much time left to determine who the player of the year in the league is. I would say statistically and what he's done so far, I would certainly say he would be the leading candidate."

Damian is still a difficult matchup for any team but for KU, Marcus Morris will likely begin the game with the honors.

"I hope so," said Self when asked if Marcus was up for the challenge. "But we won't shut him out by any means but hopefully we can limit his touches and do a decent job on the glass. He's such an athlete and can make plays that you can't coach."

"Definitely, I like all the challenges," said Marcus with a smile. "He and Craig Brackins are the two top guys that I enjoy guarding. I'm just going to go out and give him my best shot; I will try and contain him."

"He's a tough matchup but of all the teams in the league we have a guy as quick as any anybody trying to guard him," Self added. "Because Marcus is a premier four-man just like Damian is."

KU and Texas do have one thing in common – neither has played its best recently. The difference is that Kansas is finding ways to win. Saturday's game against Nebraska ended up being tougher than the pundits anticipated. Did KU get caught looking ahead or were the Hawks weary after a couple of road trips with overtime games and a late return from Colorado?

"I'm not really excited," Self said commenting about his team's play against Colorado and Nebraska, "but when you really look at it, did I expect us to play great this week? I probably didn't expect to play great coming off last week (wins over Missouri and Kansas State), and our guys are tired. I thought they played tired today."

"Well I have had people that didn't even know we played today; most people are just telling us good luck on Monday," said senior Sherron Collins. "I just tell them that we have a game today. We have to focus on this game first. Just talking to people, everyone looks past (the Nebraska game); but of course, we look forward to the Texas game, too. It is one of those games that we circle on the schedule."

As a result while Texas tries to figure some things out Kansas will practice for 40 minutes Sunday and attempt to travel to Austin for this Big Monday matchup with "fresh legs and fresh mind".

"That's what we talked about in the locker room afterward," Self said. "I don't want to take anything away from Nebraska, but this is one of those games, ‘Let's get through this game so we can get to that game.' I think we'll go down there very excited to play.

Thursday Self told Phog.net that everything is preparation. Everything you do in conference and this time of they year gets you ready for the games that matter most. The short Saturday-Monday turnaround preps his team for the NCAA Thursday-Saturday or Friday-Sunday first and second round.

Self is also hoping the tough, raucous road environments KU has faced over the last week or more will help his Jayhawks understand what they will face in Austin on Monday.  

"Everything is preparation. And trust me, the Colorado crowd was about as, next to K-state, was about as good an atmosphere as we've played in. We played in two good atmospheres the last two (road games)."

While this is a game the world of college basketball has had circled on its calendar all year. Self is careful not too put too much emphasis on this one.

"In the conference (race) I don't think you should get too hung up on one game. I really don't, because if something doesn't go well it can deflate you for the next one. If something goes good you can be too high. I think you kind of have to be pretty steady on how you approach it.

"It's going to be one of those games I assume that Rick won't have to say anything to his kids and I won't' have to say anything to mine to get them excited to play," Self added. "I think going into the season the hype was Texas – Kansas and the game's in Austin and we know we'll have to play probably our best game we've played so far this year to win but we expect to go down there and play well."

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