Season Dies Hard, But 'Dream' Lives For UT Hoops

Evidence of the remarkable job that head coach <B>Rick Barnes</B> has done in six seasons at Texas is the disappointment that Longhorn players and fans experienced this past weekend after <I>only</I> advancing to the Sweet Sixteen for a third straight year.

As Barnes said last week, there will always be approximately 20 Tournament teams that believe there's no way they should have lost the last game they played. Count Texas among the 20. There's no way they should have lost Friday in Atlanta.

Still, for every Digger Phelps who forecasted another Final Four appearance for the Horns, there was another so-called expert who said Texas would not even advance beyond the First Round. Four months ago, Burnt Orange optimism brimmed with talk of four starters returning from last year's Final Four but, truth be known, just two of those veterans (Brandon Mouton, Royal Ivey) were constants in the starting lineup this season. This was a Texas team that was typically ranked anywhere from No. 9 to No. 16 throughout the regular season. This year's squad met expectations, but it did not exceed them. The bottom line: the 2003-04 Longhorns proved there is life after T.J. Ford and that the Texas program has staying power.

Texas finished at 25-8, with half of its setbacks coming at the hands of two Final Four teams (Duke, plus three losses to Oklahoma State).

In the NCAA Second Round, outcomes have less to do with seedings than with matchups and momentum. The Cowboys and the Musketeers were hoops' hottest teams since January, and Texas played them both during a stretch of 12 days. Xavier took Duke to the wire and wins that game if C Anthony Myles doesn't get whistled for his fifth personal with 12 minutes remaining. Meanwhile, Texas went toe-to-toe during the regular season (dropping two games in the final minute) against a Cowboy team that will likely face Connecticut in the national championship game on April 5.

It's trite but true: peaking at the right time usually has more to do with a loooong Tournament run than who you've got coming back from last year's team, or what conference you're in, or what your previous tradition has been. Texas peaked in January. Beginning with college basketball's most fantastic finish of 2004 (P.J. Tucker driving the length of the court, splitting the defense with his behind the back dribble, his finger roll as time expired in overtime to lead Texas past nationally-ranked Providence), and including UT's throttling of both Wake Forest and Oklahoma, followed by overtime road wins at Texas Tech and Missouri, the Horns were playing the kind of ball in January that you hoped they would play in March. And, to some extent, they did.

In February, Mouton went on a tear by averaging 22 points during a four-game stretch. But some of the luster (and perhaps confidence) seemed to fade on March 1 at Oklahoma State. That night, it was a one-possession game with less than two minutes remaining, and the Cowboys pulled out a win in what was considered the biggest event at Gallagher-Iba Arena in decades. The listless Horns stunk it up the following Saturday at Kansas State before rallying (although unimpressively) for wins against OU and Kansas to reach the finals of the Big 12 Tournament. However, a 14-minute scoring drought (indicative of the shooting woes that Texas endured at season's end) turned a furious Longhorn rally and a suddenly tight ballgame into another OSU win.

Even without Ford, Texas' backcourt-by-committee played well enough most of the season and Ivey played well enough to win Friday in Atlanta if (if!) Texas' post players had been able to overcome their consistent inconsistency that hurt the team at times throughout the 2003-04 campaign.

Senior C James Thomas could never shake a season-long back injury and, sadly, was a non-factor against Xavier (1-of-0 FG, 0 rebounds). F Brad Buckman endured an aggravating sophomore slump and was pulled from the starting rotation in mid-February. His return this month was more pronounced on the defensive end (four blocks against Xavier, for example) but Buckman never regained his offensive presence in low post that saw him lead the team in FG percentage last season.

Nobody feels worse right now than C Jason Klotz. He was Texas' most improved player this season and, as you may recall, was the one Longhorn that Texas Tech coach Bobby Knight said he wanted on his team because of his toughness. What's more, Texas probably doesn't beat Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament without Klotz. Problem was, Klotz became a klutz in the madness of March. Other than his 10 points and five boards against North Carolina, Klotz was 1-of-16 from the field against Xavier and Princeton. If I'm Barnes, however, I'm telling Klotz: "You did not lose the game in Atlanta. But I want you to practice and play next season as if you had."

Guards Kenton Paulino, Kenny Taylor and Edgar Moreno appeared skittish during their initial immersion into March Madness (Taylor and Moreno are, of course, transfers while Paulino basically saw last year's run from the bench; Taylor and Moreno combined for zero points Friday). Tucker was just as hesitant against Princeton but, as he has done all season, grew up in a hurry and played like a veteran against North Carolina and Xavier. Tucker produced the only double-double in Friday's contest with his 10 points and 10 boards.

The Texas defense did its part, holding Xavier to 39.7 percent from the field and without a FG during the final five minutes of play. Defensively, Longhorn guards held their own against a Xavier backcourt -- Lionel Chalmers (4-of-15 FG, 4-5 FT) and Romain Sato (5-of-13 FG, 14-of-17 FT) -- that was streaky from the field but clutch at the charity stripe.

In fact, the discrepancy at the free throw line (Xavier outshot Texas 35-17) was (from a Burnt Orange perspective) the difference in the game and fueled Barnes' tongue-lashing at game officials. It resulted in his first-ever ejection as UT coach. A teed-off Barnes was teed-up twice in the final four seconds for informing officials (in so many words) of what he said was inconsistency in calls made inside the lane relative to those on the perimeter. The numbers don't lie: Xavier attempted 17 FT in the final four minutes of play while Texas went to the charity stripe just four times during the entire second half. A ticky-tack call against Mouton with just more than two minutes remaining ended his career in a Burnt Orange uniform.

To be honest, a win Friday probably only delayed the inevitable. In all likelihood, Texas was not going to get past a Duke team that shellacked it by 28 points last December. You would like to have at least seen what a healthy Mouton would have done against the Blue Devils (he turned an ankle the week of the earlier matchup) but, for now, hats off to the seniors who not only laid the foundation but raised the bar for Longhorn hoops. The seniors came to Austin when consecutive Sweet Sixteens were unprecedented at Texas because, to a man, Barnes sold them on "the dream."

The dream was that The University of Texas would become a Final Four team during their tenure.

Next year, Texas returns four starters with Sweet Sixteen experience (sound familiar?). Surround them with what many consider the top recruiting class in the nation -- already inked Daniel Gibson, Mike Williams, Dion Dowell and Connor Atchley and commit but possible high school-to-NBA prospect Lamarcus Aldridge -- and you've got a program that has a legitimate shot at the national championship for at least the next few seasons.

Barnes said that even when he was recruiting T. J. Ford, he was already "looking for the next T.J. Ford." The "next T.J.", according to hoops pundits, comes in the form of one Daniel Gibson who just led his Houston Jones team to the Texas 5-A basketball title. Barnes said it is unfair to compare Gibson to Ford. He's right; Gibson has a jump shot. And you can believe Barnes is already looking for the next Daniel Gibson. (He actually may already have him in Round Rock McNeil junior A.J. Abrams.) You can also believe that the kid, whoever and wherever he is, will give a serious look to Texas, in addition to the likes of Duke and Kentucky.

You see, it isn't every day that a coach delivers on "the dream." Can there be any doubt that the dream at Texas is just beginning?

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