"There's no doubt that we need him, not just what he gives us on the floor but all that he brings us with his attitude," head coach Rick Barnes said. "He plays so hard. The way he runs the floor and gives everything he's got is what guys most appreciate about him."
That, along with the painful journey the senior has endured since his post-season in the sun. Erskin returned last fall as the sole senior in the starting lineup despite playing with pain and a wrapped shoulder following off-season surgery. But the autumn was a breeze compared to winter break.
Erskin's mother died during the latter part of the Christmas break. Then, on his first day back at practice following the funeral, his season was shut down when he suffered a high left ankle sprain. Now, Erskin is showing signs of picking up right where he left off during last year's post-season. In 15 minutes of play during the grinding 77-67 win over Purdue, Erskin provided 11 points (4-of-6 FG, 5-of-6 FT). But his greatest contribution, Barnes believes, can not be seen on a stat sheet.
"When he plays the way he played the other night," Barnes said, "it gives our team a great deal of confidence. The players feel so good for him because they know how hard he worked for his senior year."
At 6-5, Erskin gives up four inches to Okafor but will be instrumental (along with forwards Brad Buckman and Brian Boddicker) in coming at the big man in waves. Okafor led the nation in blocked shots (4.7) and averaged a team-leading 11 boards. He also averaged 15.5 points per outing.
Along with pounding Okafor and trying to get him into foul trouble, Erskin brings the kind of speed and fluidity to the hardwood that is necessary to get past a Connecticut team that is every bit as deep and physical as Texas and thrives on pushing the ball up the court. Despite the lingering pain in the left ankle, Erskin has the speed to keep up with the big dogs.
"Deg gives us a different type of game than the other post players," Barnes said. "Deg is totally different mainly because of his quickness. He‘s still not back all the way, but he's close."
Boddicker, sometimes criticized for drifting out to the wing, led the team with three-point accuracy (nearly 42 percent) for the second year in a row. The junior from Duncanville may provide the outside threat to compensate for Connecticut G Ben Gordon who averaged 19.5 ppg during the regular season and is good on 41 percent of his attempts from beyond the arch.
Texas also needs C James Thomas to come up big. Although the junior led the Big 12 in rebounding and the team in double-doubles, Thomas has a tendency to disappear from the offense for excruciating stretches. Erskin, however, may be a significant ‘X Factor' in Thomas' play as well.
"Deg has a great influence on James," Barnes said. "He can look James right in eye and not beat around the bush. Deg can go right at him, telling him what we need. James will hear that because he has a great deal of respect for him."