Hoops: '04 Goal Is The National Championship

So, how do the Horns go about duplicating or even bettering their success of last season despite losing NBA lottery pick <B>T.J. Ford</B>? As a team, according to <B>Rick Barnes</B>.

"My thoughts have always been every year is a new year," Barnes said. "This is the 10 or 12 guys that we've got, now let's make this team the best that it can be. We're going to find the style that's best for this team but we're not going to make any excuses."

In other words, enough of the talk about T.J. This group will have its own identity, its own style and its own goals. Or, more accurately, its own goal.

"Our goal is to win the national championship," senior G Brandon Mouton said. "It was a heartbreaker that we lost to Syracuse but we looked at that as something we would continue to learn from and continue to grow as a team to get back in that situation and win games."

"(The Final Four) is a great atmosphere and we got a taste of it but I don't think this team is satisfied," senior G Royal Ivey said. "That's not what we wanted. We wanted to win the whole thing and we didn't get to do that last year and now this is a new year and we're focused on getting there, but not just getting there, but winning the whole thing. That's what we want."

"From the time we got back from New Orleans," Barnes added, "they started working. We went to New Orleans to win a national championship and we didn't get it done... I can only tell you that when we lost that game, in the lockerroom afterwards, I knew we had something special because our guys knew that they wanted more. They didn't just start working this summer or this fall, they started back in the spring.

"There's still more work to do and I think they know that but I really think they are mature enough that they know how hard it is to get there and they know that every day they have to get better. For that reason, they've worked hard and they continue to work hard."

Obviously, there will be a new man at the wheel of the Longhorn O on its drive to San Antonio, the location of this season's Final Four. A new 'old' man.

Three years ago as a true freshman, two-guard Ivey took over at point and directed the Horns to an NCAA Tournament berth. With the arrival of Ford the following fall, Ivey returned to his natural position of shooting guard for his sophomore and junior campaigns. This year, the senior's Texas career will come full circle, back to the point.

As you would expect, Texas will be a different team with Ivey at the point. But the difference may surprise you.

The Texas head coach said that this team may run more than last year when Ford drove the offense.

"We've worked very hard on being a transition team but not relying on one guy to bring the ball down the floor," Barnes said. "We've tried to get more guys involved doing that. We've got post players that we feel can run. I think this team has versatility. Last year we used the bench; we would go 9 or 10 deep and I don't think there's any question that we're going to play 9 or 10 guys this year."

Those nine or 10 guys Barnes referenced are actually 11: four fourth-year seniors (Mouton, James Thomas, Ivey and Brian Boddicker), four juniors (returners Sydmill Harris and Jason Klotz, plus transfers Kenny Taylor and Edgar Moreno), two sophomores (Brad Buckman and Kenton Paulino) and a true freshman (P.J. Tucker).

In UT's two exhibition games, all but Paulino (who logged seven minutes in the opener before being sidelined with a hamstring injury for the second game) played double-digit minutes.

Perhaps the most surprising name in the bunch may be Tucker, who is stepping into a lineup of proven big men.

"P.J. Tucker is going to play, which I think is a tremendous compliment to him with who we have coming back," Barnes said. "Everybody talked about our frontline of James Thomas and Brad Buckman and Jason Klotz and Brian Boddicker, and P.J. Tucker is going to play significant minutes because he knows how to play. He's 6-5 with a 7-1 wingspan and very competitive and just has what it takes."

Tucker averaged 17 minutes, 10 points (on eight-of-10 shooting) and five rebounds in the Horns' two exhibition wins.

A newcomer and a little-used sophomore returner will provide depth behind Ivey at the point.

"Edgar Moreno's going to take on a role very similar to what Fredie Williams did for us," said Barnes, referring to former scorer/tenacious defender Williams. "Edgar shoots the ball better than I thought initially... (He's) very tough-minded. He tells me over and over, 'Just tell me what to do, coach, and I'll do it.' And Kenton's going to help us. He's gotten better from a year ago, he's stronger. He's got a couple of guys in front of him that have been through it, but he'll find a way to get himself on the floor."

But Barnes' sixth and perhaps best all-around Texas team is built around its veterans, and particularly its four seniors.

"All through the Tournament last year, I spoke about it, as good as T.J. was and what he did for our program, the backbone of the team has been this senior class," Barnes said. Last season, Mouton (14.8), Thomas (11.1), Boddicker (8.3) and Ivey (7.9) finished second, third, fourth and fifth, respectively, on the team in scoring behind team-leader Ford (15). During the Horns' five-game Tourney run, Mouton upped his scoring average to a team-best 17.8.

"I think we'll have a really balanced scoring team," Barnes said. "I think Brandon will lead us in scoring this year and I would think Sydmill could be close to it."

Harris averaged 6.2 points per game last season and finished third on the team in three-pointers made with 49. Mouton knocked down the most threes (57) while Boddicker led the team in three-point field goal percentage (43.9). Add to that mix Baylor transfer Taylor, who hit almost 40-percent of his treys for the Bears last fall, and Barnes has a team that should be solid scoring from the perimeter.

The head coach, though, would like to see a bit more in the bottom of the net from his big men.

"We have post guys that we probably need to get a little bit more involved than we did a year ago," the head coach added. "We're working to that, trying to get those guys involved more, and I think we've got a chance to be a better defensive team. I thought last year at times we were OK defensively. I didn't think it was one of our better defensive teams. This year I think we have a chance, if we work at it, we can be a really good defensive team."

Although T.J. led the team in steals last year with two per game, both Mouton and Ivey averaged right at one a game. Thomas, of course, paced Texas in rebounding with 11 per game as a junior and is expected to do the same this season as a senior. Buckman finished No. 2 on the team last year with 5.3 boards per game and earned a team-high 29 blocks for the season, just out-distancing Thomas (24) and Klotz (21). Boddicker stepped up his rebounding in the post-season, averaging seven per game, almost three above his 4.3 average for the season.

"Over time, we'll prove if we're good enough or not," Barnes said. "You can talk about it this time of year all you want but... I can tell you we're ready to play... because these guys have been together, they know what we need to get done and they're going to continue to work but they also know we're going to play one of the most challenging schedules in the country again with the thought that it's going to give us the chance to be the best team we can be come March."

And it all begins tonight at 7 p.m. vs. Brown at the Erwin Center.

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