Horns Look For 'Margin' Of Victory In Tournament

For now, forget about a possible shot at top-ranked Illinois. No. 8 Texas will not get past No. 9 Nevada in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, 6:10 p.m. (CST) Thursday unless the undermanned Longhorns reduce the margin of error that has resulted in a few head scratching losses as of late.

Besides, the hardest game to win in the Madness of March is the first one, head coach Rick Barnes said.

"It's Fools Gold if you try to look ahead this time of year," Barnes said. "If you try to look to Step Two, you're going to stumble on Step One and not get to Step Two."

Step One, of course, is Texas' first-ever meeting with Nevada. The Reno school raised eyebrows last season by knocking off Michigan and Gonzaga before falling to eventual national runner-up Georgia Tech.

"They had the whole Cinderella story going on," senior G Sydmill Harris said. "It's a good matchup for us."

The Wolf Pack advanced to its third second straight NCAA Tournament (and just fourth overall) by receiving the program's first at-large bid after winning the Western Athletic Conference regular season championship. Like Texas, the Wolf Pack would like to put in their rear view mirror an embarrassing opening round loss in its conference tournament. Nevada fell (on its own floor) to Boise State while the Horns probably drew the dreaded 8/9 matchup and a collision course with the Tournament's top seed following their effortless 81-69 loss to lowly Colorado last week.

It begs the question: which Texas team will show up at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis? The Texas team that went 3-1 against Oklahoma State and Texas Tech (the Big 12 Tourney finalists) will fend off Nevada and hang around with Illinois. But the Longhorn squad that was the only team to lose two games to Colorado will be done so early that the players will be back in Austin soon enough to catch the tail end of spring break.

Texas will live to see another day if a) it keeps turnovers to single digits; b) it wins the battle of the boards against the taller Wolf Pack front court and/or, c) all eight remaining scholarship players bring their 'A' game. (And that would be the game last seen in Stillwater on March 5.) Barnes has told his team (on more than one occasion) that it does not have to play a perfect game to win, but that its "margin of error has been reduced". Significantly.

This season, the Horns have been giving away the basketball like it was government cheese. (In league play, Texas was guilty of 58 more turnovers than its opponents.) Colorado and Oklahoma outrebounded Texas by double-digits in the two recent losses. In other words, no single player can carry Texas on his shoulders as much as will sound, fundamental basketball in this one-and-done format.

One of the lessons of this topsy-turvy 20-10 season is that F Brad Buckman can have a monster game and Texas can still lose. The junior contributed career highs with 27 points and 21 rebounds in the February 8 loss at Colorado. Yet, Texas doesn't upset Oklahoma State (or perhaps advance to the Tournament at all) if not for his 27 points, nine rebounds and brink-of-exhaustion effort on March 5. However, Buckman can keep Texas in virtually any game when his head is in the game, or when he is not sidelined with early foul trouble.

"Everybody's mind is on the same page," Buckman said. "Everybody's eager to play. These freshmen are trying to figure out what it's like to be in the NCAA Tournament. On Thursday, they're going to experience it. I told them that it's amazing, that if you get into this Tournament, you never look back. It's the best experience of your life. We're gong to try to come together, work the kinks out and figure out what we're going to do with Nevada."

Buckman is Texas' best hope for containing 6-11 C/F Nick Fazekas. The WAC's player of the year led the league in scoring (21.8 ppg) while leading his team with 10.7 rebounds per contest. The sophomore also paced his club with 30 treys. More than anything else, Barnes is impressed with Fazekas' overall consistency.

"He has a double-double every night," Barnes said. "He obviously went to a program where he had a chance to play right away, and nothing takes the place of playing-time. He's really a nice player. He's highly skilled, he's long and improved from a year ago. If you look at what he's done every single night, there's not a coach in the country who wouldn't want a guy like that on his team."

Senior F/C Kevin Pinkney, at 6-9, complements Fazekas in the low post while Barnes is impressed with freshman G Ramon Sessions' 7:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Don't be surprised if senior G Kenny Taylor returns to the starting lineup. If Texas' guards can dictate the tempo and knock down some treys (and, again, reduce turnovers), a faster game bodes well against a Nevada team that prefers a half-court game. The Wolf Pack have combined for just 81 three-point FGs all season while the Horns are 238-of-617 (38.6 percent) from outside the line.

Texas is just one of seven D-I schools to have appeared in 15 of the past 17 Tournaments. The school is also just one of five programs nationally (Duke, Connecticut, Kansas, Pittsburgh) to have advanced to the Sweet Sixteen in each of the past three seasons. Yet, freshman G Daniel Gibson believes the Longhorns might be one of the more overlooked teams in this year's field.

"I think we're kind of sliding in under the radar," he said. "A lot of people are not worried about us. We're just going to go in there and play Texas basketball. I think we have just as good of an opportunity as anyone else in the Tournament to do some big things. If we just go in there and play ball, I think we'll do just fine."


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