Season-Defining Stretch Starts at A&M

As the hoops calendar turns to February, Texas enters a pivotal stretch where it plays three-of-four games on the road before coming home to No. 2 Kansas. It all begins with Wednesday's showdown at Texas A&M.

Texas has won three straight and is currently ranked No. 10 in both major polls this week. Yet, one UT hoops officially privately expressed disappointment this week that the Horns' RPI rating stands at just No. 14 in "the column that the (NCAA Tournament Selection) committee uses." The table is set, however, for Texas to pad its resume. Texas is one of six Big 12 Conference teams ranked among the top 44 in this week's RPI, and the others remain on the schedule.

The Horns (16-3, 3-1) have wins against three nationally-ranked foes (UCLA, Tennessee, St. Mary's-Calif.) while two of its three losses are to a couple of Big Ten squads that are also in the Top 25 (Michigan State, Wisconsin). Now, Texas faces a stretch run against No. 23 Texas A&M, No. 25 Baylor (Baylor!) before traveling to Oklahoma (15-5) and then to Iowa State (12-8). It has the makings for the biggest Monday of the conference year with Texas hosting Kansas.

Among Big 12 teams, Texas A&M (16-4) is second only to Kansas in FG percentage (49.2%) and FG percentage defense (37.8 percent). The Aggies were off to their best start in 85 years and ranked in the Top 10 before dropping three straight games, including Wednesday's home loss to Baylor in five OTs. Texas' three-game win streak may be attributed to defensive improvement. The Horns have allowed just 58.3 ppg on 39.7 percent FG shooting during that stretch. Texas also leads the nation in fewest turnovers per game (9.7).

Texas holds a 129-82 series advantage and are 15-4 against the Aggies during the Rick Barnes era. Texas has won 34 of the last 40 meetings, including the most recent 98-96 double-OT win in Austin last February 28th. The most notable difference, of course, is that Texas' Kevin Durant and A&M's Acie Law, IV are now earning NBA paychecks. Barnes has gone back to a three-guard starting lineup with arguably college hoops best point guard running the floor. Sophomore D.J. Augustin leads the league in assists (5.95 apg) and has scored 20+ points in seven of the past 10 contests.

The Aggies will counter with a taller lineup, featuring C Joseph Jones (11.4 ppg, 5.5 rebounds-per-game) and sophomore F Bryan Davis (total of 36 points and 17 boards in the past two games). A&M also leads the Big 12 in rebounding margin (+9.7).

"They do a good job in staying in front of you," said junior F/C Connor Atchley. "They make you shoot over them. They make you shoot your shot."

Junior G Josh Carter is his team's scoring leader (13.5 ppg) and has scored double-figures in each of the past 14 games. G Dominique Kirk is second in the Big 12 in assist-to-turnover ratio; the senior has 32 assists to only nine turnovers in his last nine outings.

The Aggies, however, keep stubbing their Achilles Heel at the charity stripe. A&M ranks dead-last in the Big 12 with a 60.9 FT percentage.

Tip-off is set for 8 p.m. (CST), Wednesday, and will be televised nationally on ESPN2.

The college hoops adage is that a team is only as solid as its point guard, but there is another line of thought that says a team's success in March ultimately comes down to its bench. While Texas has four starters averaging double-figures (Augustin, Damion James, Atchley, A.J. Abrams), the team is averaging just under three points-per-game from the four primary understudies (Gary Johnson, Dexter Pittman, Clint Chapman, Alexis Wangmene).

Granted, Barnes does not look to his bench primarily for points as he does for defense and rebounding. In fact, Barnes is much quicker to pull a player for defensive lapses than for missed shots. Barnes' bench is not nearly as deep as he anticipated, given a couple of season-ending injuries (Matt Hill, Dogus Balbay) as well as Johnson's heart condition that sidelined him the first 13 games of the season. What's left is a group of young reserves that are extremely talented yet frustratingly erratic.

"I don't know that any of them have played more than three or four minutes of good basketball (per game)," Barnes said candidly. "None have proven effective for more than a few short bursts. If we put all three or four of them (Johnson, Dexter Pittman, Clint Chapman, Alexis Wangmene) we'd have one good player."

Johnson started the first four games after he was cleared to play against TCU on January 2nd. He relinquished his spot in the starting lineup to Justin Mason in Texas' 69-67 squeaker against Colorado (Jan. 19). Johnson averages 4.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per outing, tops in both categories among all reserves.

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