Texas Faces Michigan State in Hoops Classic

When No. 19 Texas tips-off Thursday night against Michigan State, coach Rick Barnes will bring to Madison Square Garden arguably the most highly recruited herd of young Longhorns in program history. The ninth-year UT coach likes the improvement he has seen in his squad, but the problem is he ain't heard nothin' yet.

That can change, starting with Texas' appearance in the semifinals of the 2K Sports College Hoops Classic at 8 p.m. (CST)

"You can't be a great basketball team if you don't talk," Barnes said.

Texas players need to do a better job of communicating while setting up screens, or when shading toward shooters, or on inbounds plays, or, or.... Well, Barnes' list goes on and on, but most of it stems from lapses in communication while in defensive transitions.

"We didn't do a very good job at all communicating in the (2-3) zone (Friday) night," Barnes said, although Texas raised it's record to 2-0 following 92-66 thumping of Chicago State. "We allowed the ball to be passed ahead too many times. We didn't do a good job in screening when we were supposed to switch, and one player did and one player didn't. It comes back to talking and communicating."

It's all part of the learning curve for wet-behind-the-ears squad dripping with raw talent. Barnes is expected to stick with his starting lineup of three freshmen (F/G Kevin Durant, F/G Damion James, G D.J. Augustin) and two sophomores (G A.J. Abrams, F/C Connor Atchley) who had combined for all of one start heading into this season.

"We could use that (inexperience) as an excuse all year if we wanted to," Barnes said, "but they seem to talk pretty well off the court. They're on their cell phones a lot."

So, how do the Horns make the transition from talking to each other off-the-court to hearing each other loud-and-clear during ball games?

"Some of the guys are going to have to get out of their personalities a little bit and be more vocal," Barnes said. "They can't get lost in the game. They have to realize you've got to talk to be a good basketball team."

Barnes predicted during the season that Abrams and Durant would be the team's scoring leaders and, through two games, both are averaging 20.5 ppg. The expectation is that most opponents will double-team Durant, which was the case Friday against Chicago State. That left Abrams open for a career-best 28 points. He drained 11-of-17 three-point shots in back-to-back outings on the way to Austin Regional MVP honors.

"People will look to his size (5-10) and think they can take advantage of him," Barnes said. "They're going to screen him and wear him down on the defensive end. His attitude is they have to catch him first."

Durant is the highest-rated prospect ever to play for Texas, yet admitted he was a little stunned how critical Barnes was of his defense during the preseason. Now, Durant's defense is the most improved aspect of his game, Barnes believes.

"For the first time, we're not talking to Kevin about playing defense," Barnes said. "We're demanding it. He's starting to feel like he can effect the game on the defensive end. I don't think any of us have seen what he can do. I'm not afraid to tell you that he's our best inside player. He just can't settle. He can shoot the ball as well as anybody out there. He's had the ball taken away from him twice when he's just been lazy and not respecting the person in front of him enough. He's gotten better, and the most impressive thing he's done is the effort he's made on the defensive end. I told him that he's shown us he can do it. Now, it's a matter of him doing it consistently."

Augustin joins Durant as the other McDonalds All-American on this year's squad and is Texas' first true point guard since All-American T.J. Ford. Augustin is averaging 10 points on the young season.

Texas is 2-0 in its abbreviated series against Michigan State. The winner of the Texas-Michigan State game will advance to face the survivor of the Maryland-St. Johns match-up at 8 p.m. (CST) Friday. A consolation game is scheduled for 6 p.m. All games will be nationally televised on ESPN2. On the horizon are early-December showdowns against Gonzaga and No. 5 LSU.

"We've got our program to a point where we're going to play a national schedule," Barnes said. "We're going to play on one of the biggest stages in college basketball. It doesn't get any bigger than Madison Square Garden. It's great exposure, which is part of it. The other part of it is that (the Hoops Classic tournament) gives us the extra games. We could have backed off our schedule, but we've built our program to a point where we're not going to do that."

And, that, of course, is something to talk about.

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