No. 8 seed TEXAS (24-9, 9-7 Big 12) vs. No. 9 seed WAKE FOREST (19-10, 9-7 ACC)
NCAA Tournament First Round in East Regional: Thursday, Approx. 8:45 p.m. (Central)
WHERE: New Orleans Arena (17,000)
TV: CBS (Dick Enberg, Jay Bilas)
SERIES: Wake Forest leads 3-1, last meeting won by WF 89-88 (Dec. 18, 2004; Winston-Salem).
Texas fans have come to expect big things from Damion James, who just averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds in two Big 12 tourney games, and Gary Johnson, who has averaged nearly 12 points and 7.5 rebounds the last 11 games.
Even Dexter Pittman resurfaced in the Big 12 Tournament, averaging 15 points and 5 rebounds in two games.
If Texas is going to get its season turned around in the 11th hour, it will have to come with the help of its three talented freshmen.
All three have gone for at least 25 points this season. Avery Bradley did it first with 29 points against Colorado on Jan. 9. Then, Jordan Hamilton helped take down Oklahoma State on Feb. 1 with 27 points in a 72-60 victory in Stillwater (a win that is looking better by the day).
Then, J'Covan Brown hit for 28 in a loss at home to Kansas on Jan. 8.
But the freshmen have scored in double digits in the same game only five times this season:
-- An 89-42 victory over UC Irvine on Nov. 15 (Brown 13, Hamilton 12, Bradley 10)
--An 85-60 victory over Iowa on Nov. 23 (Hamilton 16, Brown 14, Bradley 12)
--A 107-74 victory over Long Beach State on Dec. 7 (Bradley 17, Hamilton 13, Brown 13)
--A 90-83 victory at Iowa State on Jan. 13 (Bradley 24, Hamilton 11, Brown 11)
--A 91-51 victory over Nebraska on Feb. 13 (Bradley 25, Hamilton 16, Brown 12)
Needless to say, when the freshmen get it going in the same game, Texas is a nightmare to stop. In the five games they all scored in double figures, UT won by an average of 31.6 points per game.
If the Longhorn freshmen could find the range starting Thursday night against ninth-seeded Wake Forest in New Orleans, life would get a lot easier for the burnt orange. But the odds are probably against it.
J'Covan Brown's minutes have been disappearing faster than Masters tickets. He played only 3 minutes in UT's victory over Iowa State in the Big 12 Tournament, and didn't even come into the game against Baylor in the quarterfinals until Texas was behind by double-digits in the second half.
"Me and coach are always good," Brown said. "Sometimes stuff hits the fan, and he hollers at me. But it's all about the game. That's his job. There's nothing bad between me and coach."
But what about erratic allotment of minutes - 3 minutes vs. Iowa State and then nothing in the Baylor game last weekend until the team was in desperate need of offense, down double digits in the second half?
"I just said when he called my name, 'Now it's my turn,'" Brown said. "I try not to think about any of that negative stuff. That's coach's decision. Coach is always going to make a decision. So I just try to be happy with his decisions. Whatever happens, I'm just happy to try and help my teammates."
What does Brown need to do to stay on the court?
"I just need to bring energy," Brown said. "Some games I'm hyped. Some games I'm down a little. But Coach will look at my body language and think it's bad. It's not that, I'm just trying to be calm and not use my energy in the locker room until I get out on the court."
Barnes said the team needs Brown, adding that Brown has been practicing well since the Big 12 Tournament.
"We need him, obviously," Barnes said. "So much of what happens, obviously, are the matchups defensively that we'll find ourselves in. But I can tell you the last 10 minutes of practice (on Monday), he was outstanding. He was talking and doing some things. If we could get that from him consistently, it would really help us. At the end of practice, he was terrific."
FINDING THE RANGE AGAIN
Hoping Avery Bradley can find the range suddenly might be asking for too much. He's hit only 32.6 percent of his shots the last eight games (29 of 88). He has averaged 32.3 minutes over the last 13 games and looks dead-legged when attempting jump shots. (He's much better going to the basket.) But Bradley says he's fine physically.
"My body is fine," Bradley said. "The coaches take care of all that. They make sure I'm eating the right things and taking care of my body. So I'll be ready."
Barnes said he wants Bradley to shoot with confidence.
"I want to see him get back to where he's not hesitant to shoot it, especially from the 3 when he's open," Barnes said. "But I was really impressed with Avery's demeanor and attitude in the Big 12 Tournament. As a young player, you started to see some of the leadership coming through. That part I was really impressed with because he really stayed with it."
HUNGRY FOR THE BIG STAGE
The freshman most likely to go off on Thursday or in this NCAA Tournament - for better or worse - is Hamilton. He was just 4-of-16 shooting (25 percent) in the Big 12 Tournament. So he is either due or locked in the cold with his shot right now.
But Hamilton was a frosty 4-of-14 in the three games leading up to his breakout game at Oklahoma State. So you never know.
"We are hungry. I'm really hungry," said Hamilton, who is shooting just 40.8 percent on the season and 35.6 percent from 3-point range. "I have to execute and do what I have to do to help my team get where we want to go. Right now, everyone is nervous, but you still have to come out and execute, ice up and get ready for the new season.
"It's a new season, and this is where guys make their names and their presence felt. I'm going to come out and do everything I need to do to help my team. I just have to play smart and play mature and just go out there and execute. Take good shots, open shots and create for others and pass it to the open man, just do all the little things.
"I think guys are really serious and we have a chance to do something big."
Transfer guard Jai Lucas is another new face on this year's team has been getting some minutes lately. Lucas, who is averaging a team-best 46 percent from 3-point range this season (12 of 26), has averaged 15 minutes of action the last two games.
If Lucas could somehow get it going from outside, the inside might open up ever so slightly for guys like Pittman, James and Johnson.
THE LAST WORD
Rick Barnes says he's convinced his team can flip a switch and get things going. He used his team at Clemson back in 1997 as an example. Barnes said he had the same sick feeling about Clemson leaving the ACC Tournament that year, but the Tigers reached the Sweet 16 before losing to Minnesota in double overtime. It was a Minnesota team that would reach the Final Four.
"I want to see it start more defensively and then move the ball on offense," Barnes said. "We've talked about it, and everyone knows that it's a fresh start. Maybe the burden of the regular season will be lifted.
"I know every time they turned around, I don't think anyone's asked them a positive question in the last two months. So I think they are relieved the regular season is over with. I think they are looking forward to the tournament.
"We have grown. In terms of the kind of record we had in the Big 12, that's not what we're about. We're not going to accept that. I tell our guys all the time you really shouldn't be reading the paper because the people outside the team really don't know. There's things, if anyone's been involved in athletics, that you're not going to discuss. It stays in the family.
"We know as a team that we have grown in a lot of ways. We've had some injuries we've had to deal with. We've tried to get younger guys to grow up maybe faster than they could have or should have.
"Where we have been the last two years in the regular season, we want to be better than that. And we're going to be better than that. But we're not going to take for granted this NCAA Tournament. We're not going to do that. And if people don't realize how important it is to part of this NCAA Tournament, they can make a call to 250 other teams that would love to change places with us right now.
"It's been difficult at times, but they have never wavered from pulling for each other. It's like watering a plant. You water and water and hope that it sprouts. Did we want to win more games in the league? Absolutely. But we're in the NCAA Tournament, and that's what you want."
FIVE THINGS GOING FOR TEXAS
1. Damion James - The kid has raised his level of play this season and helped carry the team during stretches of games.
2. Gary Johnson - Johnson knows where and how he's going to get his points - either with that little drop step into the lane or with a 10 to 12 footer. He's been very consistent all season. He also expects to draw the defensive assignment on Wake Forest's NBA prospect at forward - 6-9 sophomore Al-Farouq Aminu (15.7 ppg, 10.7 rpg). (Barnes will hope Johnson can do a better job on Aminu than he did on Quincy Acy of Baylor in Waco and hold Aminu's dunks to a minimum.)
3. Rebounding - The Horns have only been outrebounded once in the last nine games (Texas A&M outboarded UT 24-17 in College Station). Even in the loss to Baylor in Kansas City, Texas outrebounded the Bears 40-34, including 19 offensive rebounds. Now UT needs to convert more second-chance points.
4. Improved FT shooting - Over the last five games, UT has averaged 75.7 percent shooting from the foul line, well above the Horns' steaming poo season average of 63.4 percent.
5. Dexter Pittman - Over the last 12 games, Pittman has scored in double digits only four times. But two of those came in the Big 12 Tournament against Iowa State (16 points, 5 rebounds) and Baylor (14 points, 6 rebounds). We'll know Thursday if those two post-season games represent a trend upward. But Pittman said, "I'm ready to take my game to another level."
FIVE THINGS NOT GOING FOR TEXAS
1. No floor general in the final four minutes of a close game - Texas has no closer, no finisher. The Horns don't know how they are going to get their points late in a close game. When Texas was down late at OU, the Horns tried isolation for Damion James and Gary Johnson. Both went to the line and couldn't hit free throws.
Early in the season, it looked like this role would go to J'Covan Brown. He literally took over a pre-season scrimmage against Gonzaga in the final five minutes. Against Michigan State and Texas A&M, arguably UT's two best wins, the Horns used defense (Gary Johnson and Dogus Balbay) to close the game.
Common sense says J'Covan Brown needs to be a part of any late-game situation simply because he's not afraid to drive, get fouled and make free throws.
2. Weakened defense - Against Wake Forest, Texas will desperately miss Dogus Balbay, a guy who would have drawn senior point guard Ish Smith. Smith is one of the fastest guards in the country and will be hard to contain.
Balbay would have relished the assignment. (So would Varez Ward for that matter.) Now, Texas will likely have to start with Justin Mason on Smith and probably platoon different players on him because Smith tends to foul out his defenders.
3. Lack of defined roles - Players still don't know when they're going to play 33 games into the season. Barnes is still making playing time decisions based on practice the previous day. Unbelievable.
That's why J'Covan Brown played only 19 minutes in two games in Kansas City. The big guys backing up Pittman (Alexis Wangmene, Clint Chapman and Matt Hill) never have any idea when they are going to play because their minutes and substitutions are all over the place.
4. Avery Bradley's shooting - If Bradley is not feeling it from outside, he has to get to the rim. He showed such excellent decision making earlier in the year, when, if his shot wasn't falling, he would drive to the basket. Another 32.6 percent shooting night would really handicap Texas.
5. The J'Covan Brown Mystery Tour - Only Barnes, his assistants and the players know what happened to this freshman's season. Barnes and his staff were so sold on Brown to start the year it was staggering. They thought he would be one of the best players on the team. Instead, he's been a candle in the wind, burning bright only intermittently.
PREDICTION: Texas 81, Wake Forest 73
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