T.J., Horns Loose; Anthony, 'Cuse Confident

NEW ORLEANS -- <B>T.J. Ford</b> tossed the ball high in the air, waited for the bounce and then leapt skyward for the dunk. Meanwhile, <B>Jason Klotz</b> hung around near the three-point line, launching long range bombs, connecting on more threes than T.J. did dunks. <B>James Thomas</b> shot free throws.

Later Ford and Royal Ivey squared off in a playful game of one-on-one before the Texas point guard worked on his halfcourt heave. Brian Boddicker and Sydmill Harris engaged in some sort of shooting competition from downtown that included quite a bit of smack talk. And, to a man, the guys in the Burnt Orange had smiles on their faces. Not the smiles of the content, but of the relaxed.

Texas and its coach Rick Barnes, as recently as two seasons ago a team and a coach that seemed to tighten up at tourney time, looked loose during Friday's Final Four press conference and shoot around. The head coach did say that once the team stepped on the plane for the Big Easy, it shed possible distractions by refocusing on the "circle" of teammates and coaches, and then not letting anyone penetrate that circle.

Brandon Mouton's focus is quite simple: "This team talked about becoming a national championship team since I stepped foot on campus," the junior swingman said, a cautionary note against interpreting UT's attitude as satisfaction in simply making it to college hoops final weekend.

With a Superdome win Saturday evening over Syracuse, the Horns can move to within one win of that title goal. But a 'W' over the 'Cuse certainly will not come easily, particularly with an all-everything opponent like true freshman Carmelo Anthony, who on Friday looked and acted as confident as the Horns did loose.

Anthony talked the talk of a player that is already NBA material and knows it (and who probably will be in the league, rather than in the NCAA, next year). The 6-8, 220-pound frosh said he knows that Ivey (who despite giving up five inches and 28 pounds is slated for the challenging defensive assignment) "is going to come out and try to play me tough," but, he added, "Even though I have the height advantage, it's just a matter of who else they're going to send at me when I get the ball."

Sounds as if the kid expects to be double-teamed. Ivey confirmed that he will guard Anthony (who, in Ivey's words, "is athletic, long, can shoot the shot and handles the ball well") but no word if Texas will employ any unique defensive schemes to limit Anthony's effectiveness at not only scoring but creating opportunities for his teammates, three of whom average in double figures (G Kueth Duany at 11.2 ppg, G Gerry McNamara at 13 ppg and F Hakim Warrick at 15 ppg). UT's harassing, help defense has been a factor all season in its stop success, and Barnes alluded to the fact that he is counting on that playing a role in the Anthony-Ivey matchup. "Royal Ivey is a guy we always try to put on their best player," the Texas head coach said, "but we let him know that he's got help in certain situations."

A key to the game could be Ivey's early success in defending Anthony. The true freshman said, "I don't put any pressure on myself," but added, "When I play bad, my team plays bad." Sounds like pressure to me.

Speaking of pressure, Syracuse, with its 2-3 zone, presents Texas with perhaps its most stout defensive challenge of the year.

"(Jim Boeheim's) got a team that right now he would probably tell you is the perfect zone team because of the length and the reach they have, plus the quickness and athletic ability," Barnes said.

Mouton said offensive execution, which sets up opens looks in the paint, mid-range and downtown, is key to breaking down the Orangemen's zone. And that execution starts with a kid named T.J.

"He's good against a zone," Barnes said. "T.J. is good against pretty much any defense. People asked me all week about what he'll do (against the zone). I can only tell you this, at some point in time he'll figure out himself where he can be more effective."

Which goes to the point that Barnes tries to make with his team: it's about us, not them.

"It goes back to what we do," the UT head coach said. "We've got to do what we've done all year and not get so caught up in what Syracuse does. That pretty much has been our philosophy all year."

That seems to be the wise choice. One game away from playing for the title, why change it up now?

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