Preview: It's Texas Bench vs. Three Musketeers

Atlanta, Ga. -- In this corner, the challenger: Xavier's hotshot backcourt that has hoop-hoods salivating following recent wins over St. Joseph's and Mississippi State. In the other corner: a Texas team that boasts the Tournament's deepest -- but least heralded -- bench. The programs square off 6:27 p.m. (CST) Friday in the Atlanta Regional of the Sweet Sixteen.

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When the Associated Press All-American team was announced this week, there wasn't a single Longhorn listed among the nation's elite (not even a token nod as Honorable Mention). Yet the no-name Horns are poised to return to the Elite Eight for an unprecedented second consecutive year in no small part because head Coach Rick Barnes has the luxury of calling on college basketball's longest bench (this side of Duke, at least) to find a winning formula when the shots aren't falling.

"It's not that these guys haven't worked hard and tried to be consistent," Barnes said. "Sometimes things aren't working for you. For that reason, and because we've used our bench, we can go to those guys and see if they can bring something to the table."

Every Longhorn on scholarship is averaging at least 10 minutes per game, while no fewer than nine members of Barnes' bench sees at least 15 minutes of action. In short, the long bench has been very, very good to Texas. But old-schoolers contend that the single most important ingredient to bring to the Tournament Table is guard play. That's why several hoops pundits are predicting that Xavier's backcourt will feast on a Texas team that is experienced in every facet except point guard.

"They're playing extremely well right now," junior G Kenny Taylor said. "They shoot the ball excellent. Their guards are really hot. One of their guards is averaging 20-plus points-per-game."

Not quite, but it seems that way.

G Lionel Chalmers tallied a career-high 31 points in the Musketeers win over Mississippi State Sunday. He leads the team in scoring (16.7 ppg), just ahead of backcourt mate Romain Sato's 16.2 ppg. The 6-5 Sato is his team's leading rebounder (8.1 rpg) and the one guy Orangebloods don't want to see at the charity stripe (a team-leading 83.8 percent from the line). Center Anthony Myles leads his team in FG percentage (53.7%, 160-298) while averaging 10.5 ppg and 8.1 rpg. Together, the three Musketeers have combined to average 50.8 points and 20.5 rebounds in six Tournament games (including the Atlantic 10 tourney).

Senior G Royal Ivey said, in essence, bring it on.

"I think we match up well against them," Ivey said. "They've got an athletic guard in Chalmers and an athletic guard in Sato. I'm gonna be guarding one and somebody else is going to have to guard the other. It doesn't matter who I'm guarding. We're gonna play them straight up, pressuring them. We'll just throw a whole bunch of things at them to keep them on their toes."

Xavier will come at Texas with ball screens and multiple offensive sets. Barnes will continue to mix his defense to give the Musketeers different looks. Although he personally favors man defense, Barnes will likely throw in a zone press to try to slow down the transition game. He concedes, however, the zone may not be as reliable against Xavier's solid backcourt and outside shooting game.

"They're a very tough team to zone because they shoot the ball so well from the perimeter," Barnes said. "They can create problems but there's no doubt that we're going to use that zone. Just how much depends on how the game is going."

Added Barnes, "One of the mistakes I always made in the past was if someone was making the threes on us early, if we were in zone I would get out of it. This year, I've been more patient."

Xavier fans booed the Musketeers on their own court during a three-game losing stretch in January. The turning point came with Xavier's 71-69 upset of arch-rival Cincinnati on Feb. 3. Since then, the Musketeers have won 15-of-16, including dishing out a historic 87-67 loss to then No. 1 St. Joseph's in the quarters of the A-10 Tournament. The March 11 thrashing ranks as the most lopsided for a top-ranked team in NCAA history.

"They're on a major roll," Barnes said. "It will go back to fundamentals and it will take great effort. It's going to be a really hard-fought basketball game because we're playing against a team that is extremely confident. You can tell by the way they've been playing lately."

Yet for all that Xavier brings "to the table," this is a Texas team that is still hungry, according to junior C Jason Klotz.

"We're not satisfied with the Sweet Sixteen because this is the third time we've gotten here," he said.

Klotz's statement underscores just how far the Texas program has come under Barnes' watch. These days, a Sweet Sixteen appearance is considered par for the course in Austin. Time was when Texas considered itself fortunate just to qualify for the field of 64. Still...

"I hope people understand how hard it is to make it to the Sweet Sixteen," Barnes said. "It's hard to win even one game in this Tournament because of what it means, or the matchups, or whatever it may be. We all want to win this time of year. When this is over with, every team will think they could have won the game that they lost. Believe me, that's the way coaches think: 'If we would have done this, if we would have done that.' When this thing started, there were 25 teams out there that believed they could win this whole thing. But it's a one shot deal. We all know that anything can happen in a 40-minute game."

Despite Texas' recent success, Barnes works to ensure that his bunch maintains a 'sense of urgency' throughout the season.

"The one thing we start out with every year is not taking for granted that we're going to get into the Tournament," he said. "There has to be a sense of urgency from the very beginning. They're a low-key group of guys. They're a fun group amongst themselves but they're not an overly-emotional group of guys. I don't see much difference in them (this time of year) because I've always thought they had a great way about themselves."

As a team, Xavier is averaging 71.2 ppg while shooting 44.6 percent from the field. They drain 38.1 percent of their shots from beyond the arc,

averaging 7.8 treys per game.

"They can shoot the rock," sophomore F Brad Buckman said. "They can shoot from any angle and from any corner, from anywhere basically."

The Musketeers hold opponents to 62.9 ppg and a 41.4 FG percentage. Meanwhile Texas has held 11 of its last 17 opponents to below 40 percent FG shooting while limiting Princeton and North Carolina to a combined 37.1 percent.

For what it's worth, Texas has recent history on its side. Friday's matchup will be the fourth between the two schools and the first since Texas' Sweet Sixteen win over the Musketeers in 1990. Then, the Horns erased a 16-point second-half deficit and rallied for a 102-89 win in Dallas. For Barnes, now 9-5 in NCAA Tournament games as UT coach, it isn't rocket science.

"You're either ready," Barnes said, "or you go home."

The table is set.

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