Hoops: Season On The Brink...Of Greatness

What does top-seeded Texas have to do to silence the critics (particularly those predicting a second round loss to LSU) and advance to the Final Four? Hint: it doesn&#146;t have as much to do with All-American point guard <B>T. J. Ford </B>as you might think.

That’s only because guard play is a given for a successful NCAA road trip -- and no one drives a team better than Texas’ late-model Ford. It’s just that the consensus player-of-the-year can light up the scoreboard and Texas can still lose (32 points in the loss at Oklahoma State; 25 points in the loss at Kansas).

With a 22-6 record, a No. 5 national ranking and arguably college basketball‘s deepest bench, it’s hard to nit-pick. Yet, a closer look indicates Texas has a couple of Achilles Heels. In four of those six setbacks, Texas either failed to win the battle of the boards or was shot out of the water from three-point range.

The Horns were outrebounded in losses to Colorado, Arizona and Texas Tech. Of course, the Red Raiders also doomed Texas from the start with its three-pointing shooting (10-of-14), as did Oklahoma State (at Stillwater). In the 98-92 December loss to Notre Dame, the Irish connected on more free throws (19) than Texas even attempted (10).

Last year, the ‘X Factor’ in the Tournament was Deginald Erskin, who doubled his regular season scoring average (to 12.8 ppg) during the final five games of post-season play.

Besides Ford being Ford, who needs to step up the next three weeks to ensure Texas doesn’t stumble?

"We have definitely played our best basketball when (junior F) Brian Boddicker and (Junior G) Brandon Mouton are on top of their game," head coach Rick Barnes said.

Granted, but the argument here is that Texas needs C James Thomas to be the difference-maker. Texas needs his tenacious rebounding and formidable inside presence. Thomas led the team in double-doubles and led the Big 12 in rebounding. However, he scored zero points in the loss to Tech and registered just single-digits in three of the past four contests.

"He has been such a model of consistency," Barnes said, "that when he doesn’t do as well as he’s capable of, it obviously stands out. This past weekend showed we need him. We need him to be playing the best he can play."

There is a world of difference in this year’s team compared to the one-and-done squad that fell in the First Round to Temple two years ago.

"They know what it’s about," Barnes said. "They know how quickly it can be over with. They’ve witnessed it. They’ve been tough-minded. They’ve bounced back from setbacks this year. They’ll be eager to play Friday."

It’s not Friday that concerns us. At 15-16, UNC-Asheville is the only club in the Tournament with a losing record. The Bulldogs ended the regular season on a four-game skid before claiming the Big South tournament title and knocking off Texas Southern, 92-84, in overtime Tuesday.

Already several hoops pundits predict Texas won’t make it past the anticipated Second Round contest against LSU, one of the hottest teams in the country.

"We’ll go down with the understanding that we can only look at what's in front of you, and then worry about the next one," Barnes said.

Little need to worry, I think, if Texas controls the boards and guards against the treys.

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