'Top Five' and 'Fearless'

Stormy weather grounded Texas' basketball team at LAX for nearly eight hours Sunday after upsetting top-ranked UCLA. Have the high-flying Horns come back down to earth enough to focus on surprising North Texas?

The Mean Green arrive Wednesday with a better-than-expected 5-1 mark, including an 82-73 victory against Oklahoma State and, more recently, a 75-72 win at New Mexico State. But No. 4/5 Texas may be the biggest surprise of the college hoops season after starting the year at No. 15/16. The Horns' 63-61 triumph at No. 1/2 UCLA marked the highest-ranked basketball team that Texas has defeated in school history. The upset came exactly one week after Texas upended then-No. 7 Tennessee, 97-78.

Safe to say that Rick Barnes' bunch is ahead of schedule?

"In all honesty, I didn't know what to expect this year," Barnes said. "I didn't have any preconceived ideas. All I've said to the guys from day one is that we've got to find a way to get better every day, from game to game. I don't know what else I expected other than that we were going to play one of the toughest schedules in the country this year. All we could control was getting better. This is the first year since we went to the Final Four (2003) that we've had the full allotment of scholarships. But then, all at once, we started getting these crazy (preseason) injuries. It was things you couldn't even imagine."

The walking wounded included F/C Matt Hill (left heel), C Dexter Pittman (foot), A.J. Abrams (turf toe), G Dogus Balbay (right knee) and, of course, stud recruit Gary Johnson 's previously undiagnosed heart condition that has kept him out of ballgames but not practice. The blessing in disguise is that the inures forced true freshmen Clint Chapman and Alexis Wangmene to grow up quickly; each contributed quality minutes against UCLA after Atchley was whistled for this third personal Sunday just two minutes into the second period.

Last week, Barnes said he would learn a lot about his team following the UCLA game. So, what does Barnes know now that he didn't know then?

"What this team has done is that players have stayed within their roles and they've stayed within themselves," Barnes told Inside Texas. "They didn't flinch. I told them at halftime exactly what was going to happen, that UCLA was going to hit back. Maybe I talked them into it too much because exactly what I said happened. UCLA came out very physical and starting running on us. Defensively, they went at us harder and we got into foul trouble. What we learned from this had more to do with Alexis and Clint. When UCLA made that push, the crowd really got into it. Those two (freshmen) gave up two poor defensive plays. Two possessions like that can really flip a game, and it almost did. Other than that, those two freshmen did a good job but they broke down twice. The team understands that we've got to get better. They've shown that their fearless in terms of they're going to jump in their and go at it."

One of the storylines that continues to surface when Barnes meets with members of the national media (as was the case this past weekend in L.A.) is how this year's team appears to be better without consensus National Player of the Year Kevin Durant.

"People asked me the other night after the game if we're better without Kevin," Barnes noted. "That's the stupidest thing you could ask. Believe me, if we had his 25 points and 11 rebounds (per game), we'd be a better team."

Granted, but some have speculated that Durant's teammates had a tendency last year to look over their shoulders and wait for their superstar to create.

"I don't think our guys ever stood around and waited," Barnes continued. "Kevin wasn't the kind of guy that expected that. The bottom line is that, every year, we tell our players that the improvement we have to make is with individuals. Each of our players have improved. Each player on this team understands his role, and now we're trying to get guys to expand their role...Everybody talks about the play at the end of the game (Atchley's try to tie the UCLA game, followed by James' dunk on the ally-oop from Augustin). The two plays of the game were really Connor Atchley's inside defense and Justin Mason coming up with two steals and creating a travel. Those were two huge plays. But there's no doubt that, overall, these guys are better."

Better than expected? To everyone, perhaps, except Rick Barnes.

OFFENSIVE FIREWORKS, DEFENSIVE DOMINANCE
A trademark of a Barnes' coached club is its relentless defense. This year's team is no exception but may also be setting new program standards for offensive efficiency. The Horns have limited their first seven foes to 59.7 ppg and a combined 36.7 percent from the field. Meanwhile, Texas is averaging 84.4 ppg and has shot better than 50 percent in five of the first six games. The Horns have converted 48.6 percent (67-of-138) from three-point range this season, on pace to eclipse the school record (38.8 percent) set in 2004-05. Texas' win against Tennessee marked the first time in school history that Texas had four 20-point scorers in one game (D.J. Augustin, Connor Athchley, A.J.Abrams, Justin Mason). The feat has been accomplished by just five other schools (against Division I opponents) this decade.

NO. 4/5 TEXAS (7-0) vs. NORTH TEXAS (5-1)
7:00 p.m. (CST), Wednesday
Television: Fox Sports Net within the state of Texas (except in the Dallas and Houston markets)

UNT is averaging 81.5 ppg while connecting on 45.7 percent (176-of-385) of their FG attempts, including 33-of-112 from three-point range (32.4 percent). G Josh White is his team's scoring leader (16.2 ppg). The team should open with three guards and two forwards. Texas holds a 28-5 all-time series lead against North Texas, dating back to the 1913-14 season. The last UNT victory in Austin was December 6, 1930. All five Texas starters are averaging in double-figures, with Abrams (18/7 ppg) and Augustin (17.7 ppg) neck-to-neck as the team's scoring leader. Augustin's is Texas' assist-leader (6.6 apg) while Damion James is the team's leading rebounder (8.4 rpg).


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