Texas vs. Princeton: How <I>Slow</I> Can You Go?

Texas opens NCAA Tournament play, 6:20 p.m. (CST, CBS) Thursday against Ivy League champ Princeton, which should be about as pleasant as a trip to the dentist. The Tigers stay within striking distance of opponents with their patented slow-it-down offense characterized by milk-the-clock ball movement, backdoor cuts, multiple screens and the occasional dagger from beyond the arc.

"They make you play the whole possession," head coach Rick Barnes said. "The theory being that somebody is going to break down at some point at some time."

In short, it's a tempo game in which the final scores often resemble the outcome of football games. A five-point win counts as a rout. And nearly every season, the method allows Princeton to spring the upset over a highly ranked foe that plays into their hands. Princeton actually held a halftime lead at Duke this season before falling, 69-51.

"We know what kind of game's it's going to be," Barnes said. "We're just going to try to work it and be as sound as we can be. I think our guys know from playing them what kind of game its going to be."

Princeton actually holds a 4-3 series lead over Texas. The Horns came from behind to win the last meeting, 57-54, in December, 2002 in Austin. The previous meeting in December 1998, a Longhorn loss during Barnes first season, is considered a turning point for the Texas program. Following that setback during a pre-conference tournament in Hawaii, the Horns dropped to 3-8 on the season. During the long, soul-searching flight back to Austin, the team held an extended meeting aboard the aircraft and regrouped. Texas went on to win 16 of its final 21 contests and its first Big 12 Conference regular season title.

Princeton is led by 6-10 junior C Judson Wallace (15.4 ppg) and 6-3 junior Will Venable (10 ppg).

The Tigers also try to control the pace defensively with their match-up zone. They intentionally surrender the offensive boards sending three players back to protect their basket and impede an opponent's transition game.

"Everybody talks about their offense but I always thought they are just as sound on their other end," Barnes said. "Their defense is just as sound as their offense."

Princeton head coach is John Thompson, son of the former Georgetown coach.

"There's probably not a more respected person in the business than John's father," Barnes said, "so you know he's been around a long time. I'm impressed with John (Jr.). He's done well at Princeton. I'm impressed with him because I love his demeanor and he gets the most out of his players."

Overall on the season, Princeton shot 48.6 percent from the field and 34.6 from three-point range. By comparison, Texas shot 44.1 percent (including games this past weekend at the Big 12 Tournament) and 39.7 percent from beyond the arc.

What's the best way to attack Princeton? One way is to do effectively just what they invite you to do: play a perimeter game and try to shoot over their zone. If your three-point shots are falling, it forces Princeton to play a more hurry-up style of offense. That usually doesn't happen. Look for Texas to use it's front court depth against Princeton and what will likely be a match-up against North Carolina for a spot in the Sweet Sixteen.

The fact that Barnes reinserted sophomore F Brad Buckman into the starting lineup for the Big 12 Tournament reveals just how important the low post is this weekend -- especially in an anticipated matchup with North Carolina Saturday. Let's face it: beyond the opening round, Texas is not going to advance deep into the field of 64 with its backcourt. Barnes has been emphasizing his front court all season and bemoaning its inconsistency. The flipside, however, has been the emergence of freshman F P.J. Tucker and junior C Jason Klotz.

Heading into Thursday's game, Tucker leads the team in FG percentage (55.6 percent, 125-225) and is Texas' top rebounder (6.8 rpg). He is the Horns' second-leading scorer with 10.7 ppg while averaging 22.4 minutes.

"P.J. gives us a player who can play power forward," Barnes said of the 6-8, 220-pounder. "If you want to go small, he can help you do that. He can pretty much guard just about anybody on the floor."

Klotz has also been one of Texas' most dependable scorers (52.8 percent field goal percentage on 85-161 shooting). The 6-9, 240-pounder averaged a team-best 14.0 ppg while hitting 59.3 percent of his field goals during three games at the Big 12 Tournament. Not coincidentally, Klotz's touches decreased Sunday as Texas went nearly 14 minutes without a FG in the second half against Oklahoma State.

"The biggest key is we've got to respect the fact that this is what they do," Barnes said of Princeton. "They run this offense all the time. They might get some backdoor lay-ups on you because this is what they do."

Already, basketball pundits ranging from ESPN commentator Dick Vitale to Austin American-Statesmen columnist Kirk Bohls are predicting an early exit for the Longhorns. Barnes, meanwhile, is concerned only with getting a Tiger by the tail this Thursday.

"All you need to worry about is the championship game you're playing right now," Barnes said. "It's a championship game (Thursday). If you don't win it, you go home. Players have to stay relaxed. The couple of rounds are very intense and you just try to survive it and move on."

To do that, the Horns may be forced to move slow.

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