Hoops: Texas Opens Big 12 Play At Mizzou

Texas' non-conference schedule may have been the toughest of coach Rick Barnes' tenure, but it was created with Saturday in mind. That's when Texas begins its rugged Big 12 slate at Missouri, the start of a two-month stretch to get into prime position for the NCAA Tournament.

This marks the third time in five years that Texas has opened the year with 13 wins in its first 15 contests. Ironically, 13 has been a lucky number for the Horns. Each time Texas has started 13-2, it has advanced to nothing less than the "Elite Eight" (including the Final Four appearance in 2003). This year, however, Barnes overloaded the pre-conference plate as Texas has faced three teams currently ranked in the Top 10 (UCLA, Michigan State, Tennessee) and has played a pair of teams (Wisconsin, Saint Mary's College) that have also spent time in the Top 25.

"If you go back and look at what we've done to this point, I think we've come through with the schedule that we've played," Barnes said. "We can say 'What if?' this or 'What if?' that, but I'm not into the 'What if?' game. You are what you are. We've had a pretty good non-league start, but that's all behind us. We're still shaping our team because Gary (Johnson) has had just two games. I'm going to be disappointed if, in another couple of weeks, we don't have a real feel for who we are and what we have to do to continue to get better."

For Texas, the difference between winning and losing this season is defense and rebounding. In their 13 wins, the Horns have allowed 61.7 ppg on 37.5% FG shooting. In their two losses, the Horns have allowed 72.5 ppg on 45.5% FG shooting. In UT's 13 wins, the Horns have posted a +4.0 rebound margin while recording a -0.5 rebound margin in the two defeats against a pair of Big 10 teams (Michigan State, Wisconsin) that boasted a physical front court.

Barnes typically tinkers with his rotation during non-conference, but his experimentation has been limited due to Johnson's undiagnosed heart condition, which sidelined him until just last week, as well as Matt Hill's season-ending foot injury. Shooting G A.J. Abrams and C Dexter Pittman have also missed games while nursing injuries.

"One of the strengths that we have had here is we wait until we really get going into the season to see where players are and not force guys into roles they can't play," Barnes said. "We try to tailor what we do with our personnel. When we started the non-conference schedule, we expected the full allotment of scholarship players. We expected Matt Hill to be a starter. We did not know at the time Gary Johnson would go through the situation that he was in. There are some things we do every year, but we are flexible enough to make the changes we need to make."

One of the recent tweaks to Barnes' lineup has been the addition of Johnson in the front court, bringing G Justin Mason off the bench and moving Damion James out toward the perimeter. James leads the team in rebounding (10.8 rpg) and double-doubles (seven) and ranks third in scoring (13.8 ppg). He also ranks second on the team in blocks (22). He has elevated his production during the last four contests, averaging 20.0 ppg and 13.3 rpg while converting 30-of-52 (.577) field goals, including 6-of-9 (.667) from three-point range. He had 15 points and 16 rebounds against No. 9/10 Michigan State (Dec. 22). James then tallied 21 points and 15 boards against Wisconsin (Dec. 29) and recorded a career-high 29 points and 14 rebounds against TCU (Jan. 2). He added 15 points and eight rebounds against Saint Mary's.

"I think Damion would tell you his natural position is playing on the perimeter," Barnes said. "The fact that he's been here a year-and-a-half and has done whatever he's had to do to help us speaks volumes about him as a teammate and his unselfishness. He's worked hard and improved. He's a much different player than he was a year ago. You can tell he's excited about where he is right now and that he's going to work to get even better. One of things you appreciate about Damion is he wants to be coached. We've asked a lot from him. If you go back a year ago, we played our best basketball when he was playing his best."

The Longhorns have posted a perfect 9-0 mark in Big 12 Conference openers under Barnes. Texas is 10-1 in league openers since the Big 12 began play in 1996-97.

ABOUT MISSOURI

The Tigers are 10-5 on the season, including wins over Maryland and Purdue. Texas holds an 11-7 edge in the all-time series which dates back to 1946. The Horns are 10-3 against the Tigers since the formation of the Big 12 Conference and have won nine consecutive games in the series. This streak includes four straight wins by the Horns in Columbia and last year's 88-68 win in Austin.

Second-year coach Mike Anderson brought an up-tempo, run-and-gun style and an attacking defense to Columbia when hired from UAB in 2006. (He followed Quin Snyder who is now the head coach of the Austin Toros of the NBA Development League. The Toros roster includes former Longhorn G Kenton Paulino.)

Missouri is averaging 82.1 ppg while limiting foes to 66.8 ppg. The Tigers are shooting 46.6 percent from the floor, including 33.2 percent from three-point range. Junior F DeMarre Carroll, a Vanderbilt transfer, is the team leader in scoring (14.8 ppg) and rebounding (6.7 rpg). Senior G Stefhon Hannah averages 13.9 points per outing and is his club's three-point specialist (34-of-83 threes, 41 percent). Junior F Leo Lyons has been good for 12.3 ppg.

Defensively, Mizzou is holding opponents to 41.7 percent shooting.

"We have a tough opener against a team where no lead is secure because they're going to come after you for 40 minutes," Barnes said. "We're going to have to handle their pressure. They like to run an extended zone. We just have to be ready to go."

Tip-off is set for 12:30 p.m. (Central) and will be televised regionally on ESPN-Plus


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