Texas, LSU Ready To Rumble For Final Four

ATLANTA -- Almost heaven? West Virginia? Texas is now 60 minutes from the promised land. All that stands between the Horns and their second Final Four in four seasons is big-bodied LSU in a Saturday showdown shaping up as the most physical contest of the year for both programs. It's all good, according to F Brad Buckman. After all, Texas likes it rough.

"We like the more physical game and going up and down as fast we can," Buckman said, adding that LSU does not necessarily present a more physical opponent than any his club has faced in the blue collar Big 12 Conference. "We get the best game from everybody every time we play. It's been a battle the whole time."

But have the Horns faced a skirmish like this? The Tigers manhandled top-seeded Duke Thursday, yet required a Darrell Mitchell trey with 3.9 seconds remaining to get past Texas A&M last weekend. In fact, Buckman says the Aggies remind him more of LSU than any team the Horns have faced in 2005-06 (a schedule that included three NCAA No. 1 seeds at the start of the Tournament).

The Tigers boast one of the strongest, and youngest, front courts in college hoops. LSU's front court bullied top-seeded Duke in that 62-54 win, blocking nine shots and altering enough attempts to hold the Blue Devils to 27.7 percent (18-of-65) from the field.

The most high-profile postman is sophomore F Glen 'Big Baby' Davis (6-9, 310), the SEC Player of the Year. He led the league in both rebounds (9.8) and double-doubles (19) and has scored double figures in 38 straight games. His presence almost overshadows F Tyrus Thomas (6-9, 215), the SEC Freshman of the Year. He made his first start Thursday since injuring his ankle against Kentucky (Feb. 25) and posted game highs in rebound (13) and blocked shots (five). He played off the bench in his first two NCAA games and now his 25 points, 24 boards and 11 blocks in three post-season games. Then there's 6-7, 230-pound freshman F Tasmin Mitchell who notched his first double-double against Duke (10 points, 10 boards) since December and one of four Bayou Bengals to score in double figures Thursday.

It's a tall (and wide) order for Texas' frontcourt.

The Horns will counter with Big 12 Player of the Year P.J. Tucker. And if LaMarcus Aldridge is an NBA Lottery pick, Saturday's 3:40 p.m. (Central) tip would be a good time for him to flex some muscle in his 6-10, 237-pound frame. The rub on Aldridge is that he gets pushed around by the more physical front courts, resulting in his drifting out of the low post virtually to MIA status in the offense. (This was the case in all three outings against A&M this year.) Yet, his best games of the regular season came against the higher-seeded Tournament teams (Memphis, Villanova, West Virginia, Kansas, Oklahoma). The sophomore has been generally solid in his first postseason appearance. In three NCAA Tournament games, Aldridge has averaged 18.3 points and 10.3 rebounds. His 26 points against WVU were a career high.

Sophomore F Mike Williams is finally coming into his own. For nearly two years, the McDonald's All-American teetered on 'bust' status and was an offensive liability almost every time he stepped on the court. Now, head coach Rick Barnes is not only dialing his number to give starters a breather but also to give Texas a lift. That's exactly what happened Thursday as a 12-point Texas lead dwindled to a three-point deficit. Williams' nine points (4-of-4 FG) were not only clutch but marked his highest point total since he tallied 10 mop-up points against UT-Pan American last November, Williams finally looks comfortable with the ball in his hands.

"Offensively, we're not asking Mike to score," Barnes said. "We do ask him to take shots that he practices and shots that he makes. And he did that. He's done that the last couple of games. But what we've asked him to do when he goes out there is to really give us presence, to give us energy, to run down rebounds. When I went back and reviewed the (WVU) tape last night, he made an effort on every shot that went up. He was making an effort to get to it, some way, some how."

The Horns will likely assign Buckman to Davis in the early going, according to Tucker.

"We are going to throw a lot of bodies at him and wear him down and keep playing hard the whole game," Tucker said. "We are definitely worried about him controlling the paint. He takes up a lot of space. He is very skilled and has good footwork. He can finish around the basket. He's a tough guy and we're going to have to defend him well."

Assuming that both frontcourts somehow neutralize each other, this game could be decided by the Longhorn guards. It means that Texas' backcourt may have to accomplish what Duke's J.J. Redick and Company failed to do against the Bayou Bengals. G Garrett Temple (6-5, 176) frustrated the All-American Redick into a 3-of-18 performance, tying his season-low with 11 points, while holding the Blue Devils to their lowest point-total in 10 years. It's been an on-again, off-again season for Texas G Daniel Gibson. Following his 1-of-8, foul-plagued performance against WVU, the sophomore is due to be 'on' Saturday.

"They're extremely athletic," Gibson said. "I think we'll prepare for them and be ready to play."

Thursday's hero Kenton Paulino said teammates are actually relieved to play a team that is as physical and up-tempo as LSU. The Horns tend to get bogged down offensively, he said, against spread offenses (WVU) and programs that slow the game by milking the shot clock (Penn).

"You could compare them to Memphis based on their athletic ability," Paulino said, "but we're preparing for them just like we prepare for any other team."

The 26-8 Tigers won the SEC title and had their way with a Duke team that beat Texas by 31 points last December. Yet, Texas matches up better against LSU than it does Duke.

"You've just got to be impressed with the fact that they went through their league, won it, and are right here with everybody else still playing," Barnes said.

Well, there are a lot pedigreed programs who are not still playing this weekend. The Horns and Tigers are in elite company. Two league champs, two of college hoops toughest frontcourts, but just one berth to the Final Four at stake. Of course, you know, this means war.

"It's going to be a good match down low," Buckman concluded. "We've got two big-time frontcourts going at each other. It's going to be a good battle down low and we've got to get prepared for them."

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