Texas-WVU Should Be A Nailbiter

It's No. 2 seed Texas vs. No. 6 seed West Virginia for a shot at the Elite Eight and, if history repeats itself at the Atlanta Regional, it will come down to a one-point game Thursday.

The Longhorns (29-6) and Mountaineers (22-10) will meet for just the third time in series history at the Georgia Dome but for the second time this season. Each of the previous contests were one-point affairs and were played at neutral sites. WVU notched an 80-79 win over Texas back in the day (Dec. 28, 1973). Yet, sophomore F LaMarcus Aldridge almost single-handled sealed the deal in Texas' 76-75 comeback win in the Guardians Classic at Kansas City last November 21.

Aldridge posted 15 points and 14 boards while providing the game-deciding plays on both ends of the court in the final five seconds. He followed his putback of Kenton Paulino's missed jumper with his block of Mike Gansey's layup attempt in the final second. The Mountaineers built a 48-38 lead at the 16:58 mark of the second period before Texas responded with a 13-0 run. WVU reclaimed the lead, 75-72, with 63 seconds left but Texas closed the gap with P.J. Tucker's putback. West Virginia missed the front end of three straight one-and-ones in the closing seconds, setting the stage for Aldridge's heroics.

Does Aldridge need to post similar numbers for Texas to get past WVU and have a shot at top-seeded Duke? Maybe not. Tucker is tearing it up in the post-season, sophomore G Daniel Gibson found his stroke Sunday in the win over North Carolina State while freshman G A.J. Abrams is emerging as an X-Factor for Rick Barnes' bunch. Tucker has posted four double-doubles in five post-season games this year and joined Aldridge on the five-member All-Big 12 Tournament team. More important, Tucker averaged 17 points and 11.5 rebounds in the two NCAA Tourney games in Dallas last weekend. He has shot 50 percent from the field (13-of-26) and 8-of-10 FTs.

WVU's centerpiece is, literally, 6-11 C Kevin Pittsnogle. He averages 19.3 ppg on a senior-laden team (four seniors in the starting lineup). Gansey is a first-team All-Big East selection at forward and averages 16.8 points and 5.8 rebounds per outing.

Barnes likened WVU's attack to that of a spread offense in football.

"It's more like a fun-and-gun where they spread you out and they're going to shoot 25 threes," Barnes said during Wednesday's press conference. "They make more threes than any team in the country. It's like playing against a no-huddle offense. They do a great job of flowing right into their offense. They do a great job of creating offense with their defense."

WVU will, in a probability, defend Texas with its 1-3-1 zone.

"The odds are that they're going to try to space you out," Barnes said. "They do so much with their zone. They adjust it. Sometimes they'll be a little more aggressive. They'll try to get you to pick up your dribble. They're going to try to spread you out. They're going to make post players play perimeter defense."

Barnes basically told his backcourt (following the lackluster win against Penn) that Texas wasn't going anywhere but home if they didn't start bringing their A-game. Gibson's early three-point barrage helped Texas stake an early double-digit lead against the Wolfpack and then set the tempo by pushing the ball during the second period as Texas sprinted into its fourth Sweet Sixteen appearance in five seasons. Meanwhile, Abrams came off the bench to score 16 points (5-of-8 FG, including 3-of-6 treys) to complement five assists and three rebounds in 24 minutes. The freshman has averaged 9.2 ppg while posting 19 assists against seven turnovers in five postseason games this month.

There have been plenty of times this season when the offense has become stagnant primarily because a) the guards fail to get the ball into the low post, b) Aldridge stops moving without the ball, drifts to the perimeter and disappears from the offense and/or c) lack of ball movement all together. Aldridge isn't getting enough touches for a player of his stature (Barnes has said all season that the big guy needs to be more aggressive and demand the ball). Senior F Brad Buckman is due for a breakout game this post season. His missed FGs are usually chip shots above the rim but Buckman typically compensates with a blue-collar work ethic on defense.

When the offense has stalled, it has been a suffocating defense, tenacity on the boards and a solid showing at the free-throw line that has carried Texas to the brink of its second Elite Eight appearance in four years. The Horns limited Penn to 31.1 percent FG shooting in the First Round win before holding N.C. State to 39.3 percent from the field, including a 3-of-22 (.136) showing from three-point range. The Wolfpack shot just 26.5 percent during the second period (7-of-27) as Texas turned a 5-point halftime lead into a runaway.

Texas has registered a +15.5 rebound margin in its two NCAA Tournament games last weekend (40.0-24.5). The Horns lead the nation in rebounding margin at +10.3. Meanwhile, Texas is enjoying its best season at the charity stripe in 25 years. The Horns have converted 72.8 percent (524-of-720) of its foul shots this year, marking the program's highest FT percentage since the 1980-81 team hit 74.4 percent from the stripe. Texas has shot 82 percent (37-of-45) from the line in the NCAA Tournament.

The Mountaineers defeated Southern Illinois and Northwestern State to reach the Sweet Sixteen for the second consecutive year. WVU lost six of its last eight before the NCAA Tournament, in part, because of Gansey's injury (strained abdominal muscle).

"I think they're a more athletic team than people give them credit for," Barnes concluded. "They understand what they're looking for. Their players understand each individual role."

Tip-off is set for 8:40 p.m. (Central).

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