Hoops: Texas Tests Mettle Against No. 3 Duke

Texas has Duke right where head basketball coach <B>Rick Barnes </B>wants them. When<B> </B>Barnes goes looking for a fight, he prefers to enter the ring against the heavyweights with the whole country watching. For Texas (5-1), it doesn&#146;t get much more high profile than Saturday&#146;s (11 a.m. CST) contest against the No. 3 Blue Devils (7-1) at New York&#146;s Madison Square Garden in an ESPN national broadcast.

"What we’ve always tried to do since we’ve been here is to get ourselves in the biggest games and the biggest fight we can on the biggest stage," Barnes said. "The only way you can find out where you are, and certainly to let people know where you want to go, is to be in that arena. I think our program has built to that point, but we’ve got to continue to do it."

Texas’ remarkable basketball resurgence continues against a program that is synonymous with college basketball. The very fact that Duke would condescend to play a football school is indicative of the caliber of Barnes’ program in his sixth season (Tom Penders doesn’t get this game.) Saturday’s affair marks just the second meeting between Texas and Duke, with the Blue Devils easily handling the Horns 95-69 in the 2000 Preseason NIT semifinals.

The Horns look not only for a better showing against the hoops powerhouse but also to atone for their recent setback at the Garden against No. 5 Arizona two weeks ago. Then, Barnes was clearly miffed that his seniors uncharacteristically gripped in the national spotlight, and the nine-point loss would have been a lot uglier had not freshman F P.J. Tucker, junior G Kenny Taylor and senior F Brian Boddicker combined for 41 bench points.

Texas will not face a team with a stronger inside presence than Duke all season. Senior C James Thomas has been the invisible man this season (just four rebounds against Arizona) but needs to go postal against one of college basketball’s most revered big men. Sophomore C Sheldon Williams (6-9) is the reason why the Blue Devils are averaging 7.8 blocks per game (the school record is 6.3) and have limited opponents to a .401 FG percentage.

"That guy has blocked more shots than our team combined," Barnes said. "I think Sheldon Williams understands where he wants to play. He gets locked into the lane and he doesn’t stray too far from it. Once he gets the ball, he really understands what he needs to do with it."

The Devils also counter with arguably the nation’s top freshman in F/G Luol Deng. The 6-8, 220-pounder was a 2003 Parade All-American and considered second only to LeBron James among high schoolers. The Sporting News preseason selection as the top small forward in the country, Deng is a member of the Dinka tribe that produces many of the tallest people in the world. His father was a member of the Sudanese parliament and became Sudan’s Minister of Transportation before the family fled to Egypt when Deng was four years old to avoid his country’s civil war. After his family was granted political asylum in England, Deng landed at Blair Academy in New Jersey where he played for one season with Texas senior G Royal Ivey.

"They’ll use Luol Deng inside and he’s basically a perimeter player, or a big guard," Barnes said. "That will put pressure on our post guys but it will also maybe make us have to go with P.J. Tucker and us size-down a little bit. I think with our team we can play a couple of different ways. Whatever the game calls for, that’s what we’ll have to do."

Look for Tucker, a Raleigh product, to log more playing time than his usual 20 minutes against a North Carolina school that did not even hint at a scholarship. The freshman has come off the bench to lead Texas in scoring in four of the first six games this season. He averages 14.8 ppg, second only to senior G Brandon Mouton’s (15.1 ppg), who is listed as ‘doubtful’ for the game.

Point guard Chris Duhon (6-1) is the only senior in Duke’s starting lineup and one of two players on the Blue Devil roster that saw action against Texas three years ago. Duhon is known for relentless pressure in pushing the ball but also for his spotty play from beyond the arch. Sophomore G J.J. Reddick has connected on all 27 of his foul shots this season and holds the Duke record with 43 straight free throws made.

Yet, the key to the Blue Devils success is their transition offense predicated by solid defense.

"What makes Duke as effective as they are is the way they do a great job with their defense in turning people over and converting those opportunities into baskets," Barnes said.

The Blue Devils forced 20 turnovers in their win over Princeton Wednesday, but Texas will counter with its assortment of pickpockets. The Horns are averaging 11.3 steals per game this season.

So, does Texas have a fighting chance against a heavyweight Saturday? Consider this: in his first season at Clemson, Barnes took a Tigers team picked last in the ACC and beat mighty Duke not once but twice. Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski-led teams hold a slim 6-4 lead over Barnes in which eight of the last ten meetings between the coaches have been decided by seven points or less.


Saturday’s game will not be a reunion for just Ivey and Deng. Kenny Taylor and junior G Daniel Ewing were teammates (along with T. J. Ford) at Sugar Land Willowridge. Tucker and sophomore F Shavlik Randolph were high school opponents in Raleigh while, Mouton and Duhon were teammates on the New Orleans Jazz AAU team.

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