The 'Promise' Still Drives Ford, Fuels Horns

The fact that Texas is a top-seeded NCAA Tournament team now within hours of a very attainable Final Four appearance began with a promise that sensational sophomore point guard <B>T.J. Ford </B>made one year ago on the opposite end of the country.

The euphoria of an unexpected Sweet Sixteen appearance last season diminished just as quickly (in 2.7 seconds actually) when Texas fell to second-seed Oregon in the Midwest Regional last March. Although the Tournament run exceeded expectations, Ford was crushed in the aftermath of the Ducks’ 72-70 win.

Ford and head coach Rick Barnes were walking down the corridor following the post-game press conference in Madison, Wisconsin, when Ford made the promise.

"He said, ‘Coach, I promise you that I will come back better next year than I was this year,’" Barnes recalled.

The rest, as they say, is history. And the best may be yet to come.

Ford is the rarest of athletes who not only lived up to his considerable hype, he exceeded expectations -- leading the nation in assists as a freshman and winning the Naismith College Player of the Year award as a sophomore.

"He certainly has done more than anyone could expect in a short two year period," Barnes said.

Yet anyone who knows Ford understands that he did not want to improve simply for individual honors. His borderline obsessive desire to win the national title is what fuels his motivation and elevates a squad that still boasts two other high school All-Americans.

"What do you think I need to work on?" Ford asked Barnes on that chilly Wisconsin night.

Other than improving his shot, the diminutive Ford needed to get stronger and healthier, Barnes responded.

"Let’s start Monday," Ford said.

He wasn’t joking.

"He really and truly went right at it," Barnes said. "He didn’t take any time off. He’s all about basketball. He’s got great passion for the game. He loves being in the gym. But I told him that he did not need to mistake going into the gym and playing as much as working on his game. He loves to play but I told him he had to spend some time doing what you need to work on, and he did that."

Tonight, at approximately 6:27 p.m. (CST), nearly 365 days of overtime that Ford logged in gyms and weight rooms will either be rewarded or deferred another year. Winning precisely this game and getting beyond the Sweet Sixteen was the basis for Ford’s promise.

"I cannot tell you how much time he put in, the hours spent in the summer shooting the ball," Barnes said. "He’s matured in a lot of different ways, and one thing I can tell you is that he does learn from his mistakes."

If there is a criticism, it is that Ford still prefers to pass the ball to teammates who have a tendency to look to him to carry them on his back. Texas can play down to the level of its opponent and, against less heralded programs, Ford admits to becoming bored.

"Our team knows there’s another step that needs to be taken," Barnes said. "They would tell you that they felt very disappointed a year ago when we lost to Oregon. I believe they will remember that and reflect back on how fine the line is between winning and losing."

Case-in-point: with Texas trailing at Oklahoma on March 8, Ford simply announced: "I’m taking over." He responded with 18 points (14 in the second half), 10 assists, five rebounds and just one turnover, in leading Texas past OU on Senior Day in Norman, 76-71.

If I were a betting man, I’d wager that the Ford that motored his team to victory at OU will go into overdrive against Connecticut tonight. This game, you see, is the one for which he began preparing one year ago when he made his coach a promise.

"He remembers last year," Barnes said, "and for that reason alone, there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s going to be ready to go."

Gentleman, start your engine.

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