Hoops: Horns Saving Best For Last?

Entering the 2006 NCAA Tournament, Texas' resume includes the most wins (27) as well as the second-highest seed (No. 2) in school history. But are the Longhorns now playing their best basketball of the season?

In a word: No.

That distinction belongs to a stretch from December 22 to January 28 in which Texas won nine straight, including wins over NCAA No. 1 seeds Villanova (58-55) and Memphis (69-58). Save for a setback at Oklahoma on January 28, the streak would have reached 15 games.

The operative question is whether the Horns are playing good enough hoops to fulfill their lofty seeding and set up a probable rematch against Duke in the Elite Eight. Junior F P.J. Tucker, who joined F LaMarcus Aldridge on the Big 12 Tournament All-Conference team, believes his team is now playing about as well as it has throughout the season in which the Horns have been ranked in the Top Ten for all but three weeks.

"We're doing well," Tucker said. "If you look at overall (record) and how our season's been, we've played pretty good. We've had a couple of letdowns but, at the same time, right now we're playing great basketball as a team. We look to carrying it on and taking it into the Tournament."

Texas has posted a 7-3 mark during the past 10 games, including a 25-point home win over Kansas and 24-point shellacking of Oklahoma, also at home. Both opponents were Top 20 teams at the time, and it was enough to not only give Texas a share of the Big 12 Conference title for the first time since coach Rick Barnes' first season (1998-99), it also (in all probability) clinched the second-seed prior to this past weekend's conference tournament. The Horns were rewarded with a First Round game in Dallas this Friday, scheduled for 8:50 p.m. (Central) at the American Airlines Center.

"I think we're one of the top teams in the country," said Aldridge. "I think we're going to see what we did wrong (in the Big 12 Championship game) and come out stronger when we get into the Tournament."

No small part of what Texas "did wrong" Sunday was commit 16 turnovers leading to 32 points for the Jayhawks. Tucker was guilty of six of those miscues. Aldridge had just one FG against Kansas and just one in the second period against A&M. Senior F Brad Buckman is looking for his offense after going 1-of-7 from the floor on Friday and Saturday.

"I can't be having that coming into next week," Buckman said. "My shot is not falling and I've got to do some other things besides shooting the ball."

The flip side is that the last 10 games saw Texas fall to Oklahoma State by 21, escape Kansas State with a one-point win while Saturday's grudge match against Texas A&M was a one-possession game with less than one minute remaining. In short, it's a record that could just have easily been 5-5. Meanwhile, the Longhorn offense has struggled to two of its poorest performances of the Barnes' era during the past 10 outings. The 43 points mustered at Texas A&M (just 15 in the second period) represent the low-water mark for a Barnes-coached Texas team. On Sunday, Texas went 9:15 without a FG against Kansas. F Brad Buckman finally broke the drought with a frustration slam with one minute remaining but, by then, a six-point Texas lead had dwindled into a 12-point defeat.

Add it up, and it probably made Texas a rather suspect No. 2 seed in the eyes of the NCAA Selection Committee, as evidenced by its pairing against the Blue Devils. Duke is the Tournament's top-seeded team, and Atlanta is a hop, skip and a jump from Durham.

"You can't worry about it now," said G Daniel Gibson. "We're the No. 2 seed and have the opportunity to play in Dallas. I think that's where a lot of the players wanted to be because we'll have the support of our Texas family right behind us."

Barnes is not one to make excuses following a loss but points out that his team's won-loss record this past weekend put them in relatively good company. Top-seeds Connecticut and Villanova (albeit with little to gain in the Big East Tournament) suffered losses, as did Big Ten champ Ohio State. Duke survived Boston College, 78-76, in the ACC Tournament Final after the Blue Devils dropped two regular season games down the stretch.

"We're no different than any other team that lost in the conference tournaments," Barnes said. "It's over and done with. Our Number One goal all year was to play to get into the Tournament and to have a chance, with 65 other teams, to be the last one standing."

That number will be down to 32 by late Friday night. The Horns open Tournament play against Penn. The Quakers (20-8) are the Ivy League champs for the second straight year.


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