Not many programs have enjoyed the recent run of consistent success as the Texas Longhorns in the NCAA Tournament. Since the 2001-02 season, the Longhorns under the direction of Rick Barnes have won their first round game in six of the last seven years, appeared in five Sweet 16's, two Elite Eights and the Final Four in 2003.
Entering the 2008-09 season, the Longhorns were ranked in the top 10 and were one of the favorites to make another deep tournament run. The lofty ranking didn't come to fruition, but now the Longhorns have the chance to make another tournament run after a late season push secured a "Big Dance" invite.
The Longhorns (22-11) were seeded #7 in the East Region on Sunday and their opponent will be #10 seed Minnesota, the seventh place team out of the Big 10.
The Gophers, coached by future Hall of Famer Tubby Smith, are back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2005. While this Minnesota (22-10) team doesn't have a player that has logged an NCAA Tournament minute, they did advance to the NIT a year ago.
A pair of guards, Lawrence Westbrook and Al Nolen, and versatile forward Damion Johnson lead the Gophers. Westbrook is the leading scorer at 12.4 points per game for a Minnesota team that has struggled to score the ball averaging just 61.6 points per game in Big 10 play.
Nolen runs the team and is a very talented on the ball defender that averages 6.6 points and 4.3 assists per game, while Johnson is an impressive all-around player that blocks shots and records steals at a high rate.
In eleven starts, Balbay has averaged 6.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.4 steals. The Longhorn's field goal and three-point percentage has improved in those eleven games.
Pittman, in the last five games, has played the best basketball of his career at Texas. The 6-10 junior is averaging 16.8 points, 10.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots in that span.
The meeting between Texas and Minnesota on Thursday will be the first between the two programs.
The game is set to tip-off at 6:10pm central time and will be televised regionally on CBS. Jim Nantz and Clark Kellog will call the action.
The winner of the Texas vs. Minnesota game will take on the winner of #2 seed Duke and #15 seed Binghamton on Saturday afternoon.
A Look at the Coaches
Rick Barnes has a career record of 471-238, including 267-104 at Texas. Barnes is 18-16 in NCAA Tournament play, including 16-10 at Texas.
Tubby Smith is in his second season at Minnesota. Smith has a career record of 429-169, including 42-24 at Minnesota. Smith has a 29-13 record in NCAA Tournament play, including the 1997-98 National Championship at Kentucky.
A Look at the Numbers
Texas shoots 44.2% overall, 32.1% from the three-point line and 67.1% from the foul line.
Minnesota converts 44.2% from the floor, 32.7% from three and 71.5% from the free throw line.
The Longhorns hold their opponents to 40.6% from the field, while Minnesota checks in at an impressive 39.8%.
Texas holds a +4.7 rebound margin and turns the ball over 12.5 times per game, while the Gophers check in at +2.4 on the boards and commit 14.5 turnovers per game.
The Longhorn Starters
G Dogus Balbay 6-0 So. (3.3 points, 2.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists)
G A.J. Abrams 5-10 Sr. (16.3 points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists)
G Justin Mason 6-2 Jr. (6.4 points, 3.8 rebounds and 4.1 assists)
F Damion James 6-7 Jr. (15.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists)
C Dexter Pittman 6-10 Jr. (10.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.0 blocks)
Key reserves include 6-6 sophomore Gary Johnson (10.5 points and 5.4 rebounds), 6-2 freshman Varez Ward (3.7 points and 2.2 rebounds), 6-11 senior Connor Atchley (4.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.4 blocks) and 6-10 sophomore Clint Chapman (2.1 points and 1.6 rebounds).
The Gopher Starters
G Al Nolen 6-1 So. (6.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.8 steals)
G Lawrence Westbrook 6-0 Jr. (12.4 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.7 assists)
G Jamal Abu-Shamala 6-5 Sr. (3.7 points and 1.6 rebounds)
F Damian Johnson 6-7 Jr. (9.7 points, 4.2 rebounds, 2.0 blocks, 1.9 steals and 1.7 assists)
C Ralph Sampson III 6-11 Fr. (6.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks)
Key reserves include 605 junior Devron Bostic (4.1 points and 1.5 rebounds), 6-4 sophomore Blake Hoffarber (6.5 points and 2.7 rebounds), 6-8 sophomore Paul Carter (5.3 points and 4.4 rebounds), 6-10 freshman Colton Iverson (5.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks) and 6-2 freshman Devoe Joseph (5.1 points and 1.7 assists).
What to Watch For
The Longhorns will face a Minnesota team that has a tough time scoring the ball consistently, but is very well coached and tough minded on the defensive end with active hands and big time shot blocking ability.
Tubby Smith teams have always played man-to-man pressure defense traditionally, but will face an interesting choice on Thursday. Their ball pressure and active hands and ability to play passing lanes has been their best offense at times this season.
Only Kansas State has played Texas that way for an extended period of time over a two-game stretch as the majority of opponents of the Longhorns played a box and one or sagging man against Dogus Balbay and Justin Mason. That would be a switch for Minnesota to play a sagging man or zone.
Al Nolen, Lawrence Westbrook and Damian Johnson can all create turnovers with active hands, length in Johnson's case and quick reactions jumping into passing lanes.
Before talking about Pittman and James in the paint, Dogus Balbay has to play as a one man fast break on Thursday. Texas can't just rely on scoring in the half court against the Gophers, so that means Balbay has to create some transition opportunities for the Longhorns. If Balbay grabs a rebound, he has to force and push putting it on his teammates to change ends of the floor.
Dexter Pittman is going up against some quality on-the-ball shot blockers and weak side shot blockers against Minnesota. Pittman has to work to get position on the block and get to the rim quickly. At the same time, because Pittman has a 60-70 pound weight plus strength advantage, he has to be cognizant of picking up early offensive foul calls. The Minnesota post defenders could take a small hit by Pittman and it could look like a blatant charge as and the officials anticipating the drop step and shoulder in the chest and through the chest.
Damion James must play his best basketball. He has a big time strength advantage when defended by Damion Johnson. James can't settle for 18 to 20 foot jumpers and must look to post and play in the mid-range in order to be in a position to crash the offensive glass. Minnesota will consider it a win if James takes five or six 18 to 20 foot jumpers.
Gary Johnson has to rebound. Since returning from the ankle injury, Johnson has not rebounded the ball. In what will be a rugged, half court game, Johnson has to pull down seven or eight rebounds if he plays major minutes. The Longhorns have to beat up the Gophers on the glass in this game.
Gopher junior college transfer Devron Bostick has been key in recent games for Minnesota, so Texas has to respect his ability to add some much needed scoring punch off the bench.
The Gophers struggle shooting the ball from three-point land. The top long-range shooter by percentage is freshman reserve guard Devoe Joseph. Joseph shoots 38.3%, but is a streaky shooter. Texas has to close out well and not run at Joseph as he can put the ball on the floor and get into the paint.
The top three-point shooter and most dangerous catch and shoot player on the Minnesota team is guard Blake Hoffarber. The lefty is hitting only 34.1% this season, but he is a guy that has the ability to hit four or five threes and can be a major difference in a one game and out scenario. Texas simply can't rotate off of him and must force him to put the ball on the floor. There should be no catch and shoots in rhythm.
Minnesota is a very good free throw shooting team, converting 75% in Big 10 play, but isn't without a couple of players that struggle. If freshman center Colton Iverson catches the ball and goes up around the rim, he must be fouled hard and sent to the line. Iverson knocks down just 50.7% from the charity stripe.
Damion Johnson knocks down 66.2% from the line and Texas must make him earn his points.