Horns, Huskies Vie To Be Top Dog In South Regional

When the NCAA South Regional tips off 6:27 p.m., Friday, at the Alamodome in San Antonio, a national audience will get to see a young but outrageously talented basketball team without a senior in the starting lineup, the deepest bench the head coach has ever had, and one whose aggressive style of play carried it through a physical league to a second consecutive Sweet Sixteen berth. Oh, and Texas will be there, too.

The Huskies have an outstanding sophomore G who leads his team in scoring and, at times, has carried his club on his shoulders. They have a premiere post player ranked among the elite in rebounding. Head coach Jim Calhoun has never had 10 players averaging double-digit minutes in his 17 years with the Connecticut program.

Has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it?

Fortunately, head coach Rick Barnes is probably more familiar with the Huskies than any opponent Calhoun’s club could face in this year’s NCAAs. Barnes squared off twice each season against the Dogs while head coach at Providence (1988-94). At Texas, Barnes has split the last two encounters (falling 77-67 at No. 5 UConn in January, 2000; upending the No. 15 Huskies one year later in Austin, 60-56 in what was one of the most thrilling final 60 seconds in Texas hoops history).

"I was up there when (Calhoun) was at the beginning stages of building his program," Barnes recalled. "He’s done one of the great coaching jobs. When I think of his teams, they are very tough-minded, rebounding teams. They’re a really good transition team that can beat you off the dribble. They get it down the floor in transition as well as anybody we’ve played."

The keys for sending the Huskies home early will be defensive transition and rebounding, Barnes said.

"They are an extremely fast team who really look to get up and down the floor with it," Barnes said. "They’ve got a number of players who are very good at taking you off the dribble."

Added Barnes, "Any time you play Connecticut, team rebounding is always a big key.

Most hoops pundits point to first-team All-Big East sophomore F Emeka Okafor (6-9) as the difference-maker in the Huskies 21-9 season and Tournament run. The big man led the nation in blocked shots (4.7) and averaged a team-leading 11 boards. The Big East Defensive Player of the Year was also good for 15.5 points per outing. He already holds the school record for career blocks.

But it was sophomore G Ben Gordon (6-2) who propelled UConn past Stanford in the tourney's second round, 85-74, with his game-high 29 points. Gordon is averaging 19.5 ppg and five assists. He connects on 41 percent of his treys and is 80 percent from the free throw line.

Both Gordon and Okafor give Connecticut what is arguably college basketball’s best inside-outside game.

Junior G Taliek Brown (6-1) is the oldest dog in the pack, averaging eight ppg and five assists. The Huskies start a pair of freshman: C Hilton Armstrong (6-10, just 3 ppg, 3 rpg) and F Denham Brown (6-5). Senior G Tony Robertson is good for 10.3 points of the bench.

Texas, of course, boasts college basketball’s player of the year in point guard T. J. Ford.

"He’s a winner," Barnes said of the 2003 Naismith Award winner who also bagged top player honors from both Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News magazines. "He doesn’t care if he leads the nation in assists, he doesn’t care if he scores the most baskets, he doesn’t care if he ever does an interview. He loves the game. The most important thing to him is winning. Whatever it takes, from his vantage point, it’s what he’s wanting to do."

The winner will face the Michigan State-Maryland victor on Sunday for the right to advance to the Final Four in New Orleans.

Horns Digest Top Stories