Wiedmer: Texas has chemistry for deep run

Wiedmer: Texas has chemistry for deep run

February 8th, 2011 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports

When it comes to athletic teams, sometimes the pieces just don't fit. The talent's there. The depth's there. But the whole somehow remains less than the sum of the parts.

Thus did the Texas Longhorns win their first 17 college basketball games a season ago to ascend to No. 1 before losing 10 of their final 17, including a first-round game in the NCAA tournament.

So when this year's Longhorns clubbed Arkansas by 33 points a few weeks ago -- the largest Texas margin of victory in the 153-game series -- coach Rick Barnes said much about last season's slide without ever mentioning that team.

"Tonight wasn't just a win because of our execution, but because of our chemistry," he noted.

That chemistry has led the 'Horns to 14 wins in 15 games heading into Wednesday night's visit to Oklahoma. Ranked third in the latest Associated Press poll, Texas has won each of its first eight Big 12 contests by double figures.

"This is a great team," Texas Tech coach Pat Knight said after the Longhorns defeated his Red Raiders 76-60 last Saturday. "They've got great chemistry and good leadership. I really think this is one of Rick's better teams."

Then he explained why.

"They've got a great offense," Bob Knight's son said. "They've got great spacing and five threats out there."

Those threats begin with sophomore wing Jordan Hamilton, who leads the 'Horns in scoring at 18.9 points a game and rebounding at 7.6. An erratic shooter a year ago, Hamilton is hitting 42 percent of his 3-pointers this season.

But it hardly ends with him. Freshman post player Tristan Thompson may appeared undersized at 6-foot-8, but he averages 12.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and two blocks. After that comes senior forward Gary Johnson at 11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds a game, followed by freshman guard Cory Joseph's 11 points per game.

Then there's sophomore guard J'Covan Brown, who averages 9.3 points off the bench and hits 85 percent of his free throws.

"We want to run, we want to get out in transition," Barnes said last week. "We want a fast pace."

Of course, he also said, "Defense has had a lot to do with where we have been."

He thought he was on his way to the Final Four a year ago. With the likes of forward Damion James, Dexter Pittman and 2009 first-team prep All-American Avery Bradley, he knew he had both talent and depth.

But from the moment they suffered their first loss in mid-January at Kansas State, those Longhorns began coming up short in the wins department. Then James, Pittman and Bradley all moved on, either through graduation or a jump to the NBA.

When Texas lost 73-56 at Southern Cal in early December this season, many feared these Longhorns might not mesh any better than last year's model.

But an earlier loss at Pitt had shown them something.

"We lost to a team that played [physical defense] in Pittsburgh," Johnson said last month. "We didn't like it. We kind of put it into our system -- me, Tristan and Jordan trying to be physical. Good defense beats good offense on any given night."

Just ask Missouri guard Kim English, whose Tigers were held to their lowest point total of the year in a 71-58 loss to Texas two weeks ago.

"There's no secret how they play," he said after Mizzou shot just 34 percent from the floor and 22 percent from the 3-point line. "They are a physical team. They pressure the ball. Big, strong guys."

They've become so physical in the Big 12 that they're surrendering only 54 points a night in conference play and winning by an average of 18 points.

The NCAA tournament now less than six weeks away with the Final Four slated for Houston, the only thing that would appear able to slow the Longhorns is their free-throw shooting, which is a below-average 65 percent.

Otherwise, after watching his Top 25 team manhandled by 20 points at home by Texas last week, Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon said of the 'Horns: "If they keep improving and stay healthy, they can win the national championship."

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6273.