Barnes: Horns 'close to something special'

I'll admit it, I didn't think they had it in them. Back in late December, when the Texas training staff confirmed the worst fears about Chris Owens' knee injury, I predicted a less-then-spectacular finish to the season for the Owens-less Horns.

My exact words, from the Dec. 31 edition of Inside Texas: "Owens is the one player that Texas absolutely could not afford to lose. Before Owens went down, the return of Fredie Williams from his pre-season knee injury probably elevated the Horns to a top 15 team nationally and a Big 12 title contender. Now, Barnes' bunch will be hard-pressed to crack the league's top five and earn a post-season NCAA berth. Those things are certainly possible, but improbable without substantially better play from UT's remaining young big men -- Brian Boddicker, James Thomas, Jason Klotz and just recently healthy Deginald Erskin. The perimeter game will also be pressed into a more prominent role. . . . Sadly, a season with such Burnt Orange promise may have collapsed in Salt Lake City along Owens' right knee."

That the season didn't collapse, that Texas finished No. 3 in the best basketball league in the country, and that the Horns not only made the Big Dance but waltzed into the Sweet 16 and finished a mere bucket away from the Elite Eight, is a testament to the fact that the guys mentioned above, plus just about every player up and down the Texas bench, did indeed turn in substantially better play after their senior teammate went down in Utah.

Thomas and Erskin, who both started every game after Owens' injury, in particular picked up the slack in the paint. In the Horns' 11 games with Owens, Thomas averaged 8.1 points and 5.6 boards per game. In the 23 games without Owens, the sophomore from New York averaged 12 points and 10.5 rebounds per game. Erskin contributed almost 20 minutes and eight points per game for the season and the junior forward played an even bigger role during the post-season, averaging almost 13 points on 65-percent shooting. Klotz, although still somewhat of a project, provided valuable minutes off the bench over the season's final eight games, generally spelling Thomas at the center spot and averaging about four points and four boards over that stretch. By the end of the season, the redshirt freshman had developed a nice touch around the basket and an improved defensive game. Boddicker suffered through what might be called a "sophomore slump," finishing with numbers (7.1 points, 3.9 rebounds, 38.2-percent from the field) similar to his freshman season stats (5.7 points, 3.9 boards, 36.5-percent shooting) but quite a bit below expectations. He did step up in several games, including the Kansas game in Austin, both Missouri wins and the Oregon Sweet 16 contest, and he will be counted on for more of those type performances as a junior.

But the play of the big guys is only part of the story. T.J. Ford, with the burden of amazingly high expectations, met or even exceeded those expectations with his true freshman season play. The McDonald's All-American from Willowridge, averaged an NCAA-leading eight assists per game becoming the first true freshman to lead the nation in that category. Ford's play also improved as the season went on. Over the final 14-game stretch, the freshman point guard became far more assertive offensively, averaging almost 14 points per game. The true freshman also stepped into a leadership void when Owens went down in late December. "I guarantee you I'll be a better player next year than I am this year," Ford said following the Oregon game, a promising thought for Orangebloods.

Another promising thought is that Texas will return all five starters -- Ford at the point, second-leading scorer and defensive stopper Royal Ivey at shooting guard, leading scorer Brandon Mouton at the swing spot, Erskin at forward and Thomas, who Rick Barnes said "is about to explode," at forward/center -- and all but one back-up from its 22-12, Sweet 16 team. Fredie Williams is the lone graduating senior from the '01-'02 team. Williams averaged 16 minutes off the bench, providing outstanding defense but just five points per game. Senior-to-be Terrell Ross, who missed most of the pre-season with a foot injury and who battled to make up for lost practice time through the entire season, will step into Williams' role as the back-up point guard next fall. Sweet shooting Sydmill Harris, who provided the Horns with their most accurate three-point threat, returns as a back-up at the two and three spots. By late season, Harris had developed into a threat off the dribble, which should only increase his effectiveness on the perimeter next fall.

Barnes will also welcome his third McDonald's All-American, along with Ford and Boddicker, to campus in Westlake big man Brad Buckman. The 6-8, 230-pound forward has a solid all-around game that may land him in the UT starting line-up from Day One on the Forty Acres. Buckman has similar shooting and handling skills to future teammate Boddicker but is also a more polished inside player than the junior-to-be already wearing the Orange and White. Texas will also gain the services of 6-2 combo guard Kenton Paulino, a prolific high school scorer off the dribble who is adept at finding his own shot, an area that Barnes wants to see improvement next fall. Chris Wright, a 6-foot-10 forward who redshirted last fall after knee surgery but who Barnes calls possibly the team's best shooter, will add even more depth to a talented and proven line-up.

And then there's the Chris Owens wildcard. The University has petitioned the NCAA to grant Owens a half-season of eligibility, which the forward could use over the final half of the '02-'03 season. Regardless of the NCAA's decision in the Owens case, which should come down in the next couple of months, Texas looks poised for another strong season.

"I can't wait for next year," the Texas head coach said. "We're building something here and I can feel it. We're only going to get better."

"I'm not satisfied," Boddicker said after the Horns bowed out of the Big Dance three games before their ultimate goal. "I feel the same way I felt last year when we lost in the first round to Temple. I'm not going to be satisfied until we win the last game of the season. What that takes, we're just gonna have to go in and work our tails off to be back here next year."

"We think we're getting close to something special and you'll see that next year," Barnes added.

Because of strong recruiting by Barnes and staff, the pieces certainly seem to be in place.

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