Got Game? Horns Test Mettle At Wake Forest

Small forward and Raleigh-native P.J. Tucker knows all about North Carolina basketball, and he knows how to get inside teammates' heads when Texas travels to No. 5/6 Wake Forest Saturday. He simply reminds them that East Coast hoopsters are convinced they are the only ones who "got game."

"He's just trying to get us motivated by throwing the 'east coast' word out there," freshman G Daniel Gibson said.

As if motivation was necessary. Consider this: half of the teams currently ranked in the Associated Press Top 10 are from the ACC and Wake Forest is the pre-season pick to win it all (as in league title and national champs). The Demon Deacons boast what is widely considered the best backcourt in college hoops with sophomore G Chris Paul and junior G Justin Gray.

Need additional motivation? Gray and Paul gave Tucker an earful about Saturday's matchup last summer as teammates on the USA Basketball World Championship for Young Men qualifying team, even though Texas upset No. 4 Wake Forest 94-81 in Austin last January.

"They were talking a lot of trash," Tucker grinned, "but it was friendly stuff."

The "friendly stuff" will take a temporary hiatus when the two nationally ranked teams (Texas is No. 12/14 this week) tip-off at 1 p.m. (CST) on an ESPN national broadcast.

Winston-Salem is about an hour's drive from Rick Barnes' hometown of Hickory, but the Texas coach is more concerned with throwing his young team into the kind of hostile hoops environment that Texas will face on nearly every Big 12 road game starting next month.

"I don't think there's going to be a better game to get us ready for the Big 12 than what we're going to see Saturday," Barnes said. "It's going to be a great atmosphere and it's a great arena. It's loud. They've got a great student support section there. It's going to be sold out. It'll be as good of a contest that we can get in to get us ready for the Big 12."

Until now, Texas has not played in front of a truly hostile crowd in forging a 7-1 mark. But Gibson said part of the reason he signed with Texas is to play in a game like this.

"I think that's the reason a lot of us chose to come to Texas because they know we'll play against a lot of powerhouse schools and teams that are ranked tops in the country," Gibson said. "That's what you're looking for. You want to be in that type of environment."

More than a homecoming for Tucker, the game represents another chance to show ACC schools that he's "got game". None of the ACC programs offered a scholarship and the sophomore has done well against a couple of their universities. As a true freshman, Tucker scored 21 points in Texas' win over Wake and then 10 points in Texas' NCAA Tourney victory over North Carolina to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.

"He had a great game against Wake here a year ago and he had a great game against North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament," Barnes said. "I hope he has a great game Saturday on Tobacco Road. I think he's played enough now to know that it doesn't matter about any of that but that he's got to go out and let his instincts work for him."

This is Tucker's first road game in the Tar Heel state since enrolling at Texas.

"I haven't been home in a while so I can't wait," Tucker said. "I know a lot of guys on the Wake Forest team. We beat them last year so they're hyped about playing us."

Paul was named the ACC Freshman of the Year last season, beating out Duke's Luol Deng. He was also named National Freshman of the Year by several publications and is considered one of the nation's top point guards. He is his team's third-leading scorer at 12.1 ppg.

A first-team All-ACC selection in 2004, Gray leads his team in scoring with 15.3 ppg. The pre-season All-American candidate is one of the top three-point specialists in the country (hitting 45-of-106 this season, 43 percent). Gibson will draw his toughest defensive assignment (this side of Oklahoma State) when he matches up with Gray, but at least it will be a familiar draw. Both were teammates at the Nike All-American Camp last summer.

"I'm pretty familiar with him so it's going to be a lot of fun," Gibson said.

Wake Forest was ranked No. 1 in both major wire service polls but got tumped at No. 3/5 Illinois, 91-73. The Illini took over the top spot while Wake has struggled as of late. The Demon Deacons eked out a 'W' at Temple, 67-64, and did not pull away from lowly regarded Elon College until late in the game Wednesday, 85-67. So incensed was coach Skip Prosser at his team's sloppy performance that he delivered a 30-minute tongue-lashing following the contest. In that one, Prosser sent starting forward Vytas Danelius to the lockerroom with 16 minutes left in the game, furious at Danelius for shouting an expletive as he came to the bench. Presumably, Prosser reminded his squad that a nationally ranked team which beat them badly last January would be in their house on Saturday.

"To go into their place and win a game like that would say a lot about the type of players you have on your team and the type of program you're trying to build," Gibson said. "Texas is trying to be an elite program. To do that, you've got to win."

Texas will tag-team three-year starting center Eric Williams (6-9) with fifth-year C Jason Klotz and freshman F LaMarcus Aldridge. The junior is Wake's second-leading scorer (15 ppg) and has seven blocked shots on the season.

"Williams is definitely the best post player we've played against up to this point," Barnes said. "They're a quick team that's going to put a lot of shooters out there so we're going to have to defense a lot of different things."

For my money, Aldridge is Texas' most-improved player since the start of the season. He'll grow up in a hurry Saturday.

"Coach Barnes will have everyone ready," Aldridge said. "He's letting us know that the defense needs to be strong, we need to box out, run the floor, play our game and we should be good."

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