Xavier May Be 'Hottest Team' In Tourney

For the Texas basketball team, the hard part is behind them. Now, bring on the hottest team in the country. That, in essence, was Longhorn head coach <B>Rick Barnes</B> sentiment Monday as Texas (25-7) prepares for Xavier (25-10) in the Atlanta Regional of the NCAA Tournament.

Texas tips off a school-record third consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance at 6:27 p.m. (CST, CBS) Friday at the Georgia Dome. The Musketeers have not advanced to the second round in the Big Dance since they were eliminated, 102-89, at the 1990 Midwest Regional in Dallas by, yup, the Longhorns. This time, however, Texas faces a red-hot Xavier team that has posted a 15-1 mark in February and March. The Horns are 12-4 during the same span. The only teams still dancing that can compare with Xavier's hot streak would be Oklahoma State (which beat Texas three times this year) and St. Joseph's (who Xavier shellacked, 87-67, en route to an Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament championship).

"The way they're playing right now, I'm not sure if they're not the hottest team in the country," Barnes said. "They won four games in their tournament and had a 36-point lead at one time on a team that was ranked number one in the country and a number one seed in this tournament. They then come out of that tournament and they don't look back and they keep right on playing. They get great play from their guards but you don't do what they've done, and win as many gams as they've won, if you don't get great play and great contributions from a lot of different people."

Xavier overcame double-digit deficits against Louisville and No. 2 seed Mississippi State to set up the showdown with Texas. The seventh-seeded Musketeers, led by Lionel Chalmer's career-best 31 points, blew past the Bulldogs, 89-74. Yet as formidable an opponent as is Xavier, pulling out a win Friday won't be as pressure-packed as say, beating Princeton. The Horns, of course, came back from a three-point halftime deficit to dispatch the Tigers, 66-49 in the opening round Friday.

"There's no question that the first game is the hardest game to play in this Tournament," Barnes said. "Everybody from here on out can play. Everybody in the Tournament can play, so don't get me wrong. Now, you're getting down to where you're still playing after a week. You're obviously playing good basketball. Things are obviously going well for you. Seeds mean nothing right now. I mean, they mean absolutely nothing. I'm not sure if they mean that much when you start. You go back and look at Stanford and Gonzaga. Those are guys that had great years. They got to play close to home, but they go up against two teams that got hot at the right time. You've got to seed the Tournament to obviously get it going but, at this point in time, seeds don't mean anything."

So, does Texas have an 'X' factor to x-tinguish the x-tra hot Xavier squad (i.e., an unheralded player to step off the bench and step up in a big way)?

How about junior G Sydmill Harris? The forgotten man on college hoops deepest bench (just 10.8 minutes per game, lowest of all UT scholarship players) with nearly three-fourths of his attempts from beyond the arc (35.1 percent percentage). After posting a season-high 23 points against Sam Houston State last November, Harris has averaged just 4 ppg. His three-pointers can be daggers, just as his defensive lapses and suspect ballhandling skills can be deadly. Yet, in a Tournament that places a premium on guard play, Harris knocked down a key trey early in the second half in Texas' 78-75 win over North Carolina.

"Syd and I spent 10 minutes together the night before the game and I told him, 'You're gonna play tomorrow. You're gonna have to play,'" Barnes said. "I thought he went in relaxed and I thought he played hard. And I think he will be important in terms of preparing himself for this game because the play that their (Xavier) guards have right now, we're going to have to work hard on them defensively to contain them."

Continued Barnes: "I asked Syd, 'Where is the guy that we saw in his first game on the court when he walked in here as a freshman against Arizona?' I asked what he was looking at when he sees himself. He told me, 'I'll be ready.' I liked the way he walked out on the floor (against North Carolina). You could tell he was poised and not overly-excited about it. He made a great pass into the post, got it back and knocked down the shot... I can sit here and tell you that the three-point difference in that ball game was the one that Syd made. We won the game by three, and every possession is important."

The 'X' factor in the Princeton game, of course, was F Brian Boddicker. The senior finished with 14 points -- his first double-digit outing since Feb. 8 -- to account for half of Texas' meager 22 points at the break.

"I've said all along that I don't know, from game to game, who's going to do what," Barnes said. "In the Princeton game, Boddicker was the last post guy I put in because he struggled the last two weeks of the regular season. He was having his best year ever. He hasn't had a slump all year and then, all at once the last two weeks, he was having a tough time. He was the last post player to get in the game against Princeton, and he was the difference. If it wasn't for him, we would have been so far behind in the first half that we probably wouldn't have recovered. That's kind of been the way it's gone with this team. Just like Syd. He went a couple of games where he didn't play but we knew we had to have him for what he does."

And as far as advancing to the Sweet Sixteen? Well, that's pretty much what Texas does these days as well.

The team departs for Atlanta Wednesday morning.

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