<i>Shoot!</i> Horns Misfiring As Tourney Looms

Most hoops pundits concur that the Atlanta Regional, where Texas is a No. 3 seed, is the toughest bracket in this year's NCAA Tournament. But the team Texas needs to worry about most, head coach <B>Rick Barnes</B> said Monday... is Texas.

UT's seed is the second-highest in program history as the Horns prepare to face Princeton at 6:20 p.m. (CST) Thursday in Denver. Yet, the gut-level feeling is Texas enters its school-record sixth consecutive NCAA appearance (22nd overall) on a bit of a downswing.

"We can't get caught up worrying about our opponent," Barnes said. "We've got things about ourselves to be more worried about right now."

For a team from the Lone Star State about to head west, it is imperative that Texas regain its shooter's touch. Indeed, the very squad that led the Big 12 in scoring has been firing blanks as of late.

In Sunday's loss to Oklahoma State, a three-point deficit early in the second half was turned into a blowout as Texas missed sixteen straight from the field in a shooting drought that stretched to nearly 14 minutes. The day before against Kansas, Texas misfired on nine of its first ten FG attempts to stare down the barrel of a double-digit deficit. The Horns also went more than seven minutes without a FG in the second half against Oklahoma Friday but still overcame (barely) another double-digit deficit in a 63-60 squeaker that was not decided until the final seconds. And as far as the season-ending loss at Kansas State? Well, let's not go there.

"One of the big things is we have not shot the ball well the last couple of weeks," Barnes said. "That always presents problems. Shooting the ball well makes up for a multitude of sins."

Cardinal Sin No. 1: Turnovers.

Texas committed 18 turnovers against Oklahoma and 10 in the first half against Oklahoma State. And all those misses on the front end of the one-and-ones are, in effect, the same as a turnover.

Cardinal Sin No. 2: Poor free throw shooting.

Texas isn't getting to the charity stripe enough (just 9-of-16 FTs against Oklahoma State) and, when it does, it hasn't shot particularly well (just 21-of-34, or 61.8 percent, against OU on Friday). UT's best hope for advancing to the Sweet Sixteen is (assuming the Horns get past Princeton and the seeding holds true) is to tag-team North Carolina's post players with its superior (but erratic) front court depth. It means Texas will foul early and often, rotating in its big buys and coming at the Heels in waves. More important, it means Texas will try to pound the ball inside. Texas will foul; Texas will get fouled. Texas must shoot closer to 70 percent from the line (unless its shots start falling from the field).

For Barnes, it still boils down to shot selection.

"The reason we're not shooting the ball better is because we're not taking the shots we should be taking," Barnes said. "We should not have taken some of those shots there (against OSU) early in our possession. I do think we rebounded better up there (Dallas). We had the effort but we haven't made wise decisions with the ball."

Added Barnes, "Shot selection is always important whether you're playing Princeton or anyone else. That's the one area that we've got to be better in."

Despite entering the field with the nucleus of last year's Final Four squad intact, the current Burnt Orange edition is "a totally different team from a year ago." The departure of a certain National Player of the Year will have that effect on a program. Nagging injuries haven't helped, either.

"This group has worked hard to maximize what we have," Barnes said. "It's a different situation with this team. We've had to deal with injuries, and consistency with key players has been a problem that we've had to deal with."

Senior G Brandon Mouton (ankle), point guard Kenton Paulino (hamstring), C James Thomas (back) and sophomore F Brad Buckman (bruised psyche, but back in the starting lineup during the Big 12 Tournament) have had their highs-and-lows during what was an otherwise solid 23-7 campaign. While most anticipated inconsistent play at point guard this year, Texas has mainly been beset with spotty play in its front court. UT just simply has not been consistently effective in either its mid-range game or scoring from the low post. Many Orangebloods have pointed fingers at the point guards, but it ain't their fault if the big boys blow a lay-up, brick their free throws or mask their surprise as the assist passes through their hands.

Where Texas has been primarily hampered by the departure of one Mister T. J. Ford is in its transition game by not having a floor general who can aggressively push the ball. Paulino is as hardworking as anyone on the team, and the point is simply not senior G Royal Ivey's natural position. (Pushing the ball should not be an issue next year. All-American Daniel Gibson is all that and lived up to billing at the recent UIL Texas State High School Championships in Austin where his Jones team took home the state title.)

For now, it adds up to a team that must do a job of taking the higher-percentage shots -- and making them. The Horns are still the league's top rebounding team and there is no one in Denver with a deeper bench (other than, perhaps, the Nuggets). To his credit, Barnes has put together a team that set a new school record for most wins (7) against Top 25 programs. And the fact that he has taken a program that was in such disarray six years ago and forged a team that is now a No. 3 seed (and, of course, the top seed last year) is nothing less than remarkable.

"I just think our team has gotten to a point where we not only want to be in the Tournament every year but have a chance like the other great programs to, year in and year out, play for the whole thing," Barnes said.

MUST SEE TV: The Madness of March will dominate the national television landscape the next two weeks and, on a regional basis, so will a certain Longhorn. Texas enters the Tournament as one of the featured teams on TV Guide's regional covers this week. The UT coverboy is senior G Brandon Mouton, the squad's scoring leader at 13.4 ppg. The cover is the first by a Texas hoopster and the second in UT history. Former QB James Brown graced the cover of the television weekly in 1995.

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