Longhorns showcase depth, size

Texas coach Rick Barnes stood inside the locker room at Cowboys

Stadium following the Longhorns’ convincing 103-90 victory

against 10th-ranked North Carolina and echoed an earlier message of

how much he expects his team to improve over the rest of the

season.

“We can do better,” he said.

“We’ve got a lot of growth,” he added.

It was typical, generic coach-speak in an effort to temper

the expectations.

But this Texas team is pretty darn good right now.

In fact, while Barnes may be reluctant to admit it,

it’s the best group to come through Austin since he arrived

11 years ago.

The T.J. Ford-led team that lost to Carmelo Anthony in the

2003 Final Four had talent, but nowhere near as much as this group.

That team had virtual unknowns such as Sydmill Harris, Jason

Klotz and Deginald Erskin coming off the bench.

This one has potential future pros such as freshmen Jordan

Hamilton and J’Covan Brown as reserves.

“There’s no doubt in my mind this is the best team

we’ve played so far this year,” North Carolina’s

fifth-year senior Marcus Ginyard said following the loss.

“There’s no question they’ll be playing well into

March.”

Ginyard and his young teammates are qualified to make a

well-informed judgment, since they have plenty of experience of

late dealing with quality opponents. The Tar Heels have already

played four top 25 teams — including a pair that currently

rank in the top five: Kentucky and Syracuse.

Texas has it all.

Defensive-minded, suffocating perimeter players such as Dogus

Balbay, Avery Bradley and Justin Mason.

Size, with the likes of Dexter Pittman (6-10, 290), Alexis

Wangmene (6-8, 240), Clint Chapman (6-10, 240), Matt Hill (6-10,

240) and Gary Johnson (6-7, 240).

Athletic scoring forwards Damion James and Hamilton, a

plethora of point guards with Balbay, Brown and Florida transfer

Jai Lucas and plenty of experience with three seniors —

James, Pittman and Mason — who have logged a ton of minutes.

“I can’t really think of anything they don’t

have,” Ginyard admitted after taking a moment to ponder.

“I guess we don’t have any weaknesses,” James said.

It certainly doesn’t appear that way right now. Barnes

consistently runs a dozen players in and out of the game —

which is unheard of for a championship team — but he

isn’t worried about having to shrink that number to keep

everyone content with their all-important playing time.

“Why?”Barnes responded when asked if he needed to shorten his

rotation. “They’ll shorten it up. I won’t have

to.”

When Hamilton — arguably the most talented scorer on

the team — isn’t playing well, Barnes can go in a

different direction, as he did Saturday.

He can toss out a three-guard lineup of Balbay, Bradley and

J’Covan Brown with James and Pittman up front.

Or he can toss Mason in for one of the guards — or

throw Gary Johnson in the mix and slide James to the small forward

spot.

Most programs would be crushed if they suffered a

season-ending injury to a starter. Texas hasn’t missed a beat

— despite watching starting guard Varez Ward go down for the

rest of the year with a ruptured his quad suffered in pre-game

warmups a few weeks ago.

Sure, there are areas where Texas can improve. Barnes points

to the second half, when his team allowed North Carolina to shoot

nearly 59 percent from the field.

The physical Pittman did his best DeMarcus Ware

impersonation, looking more like a defensive lineman and

overpowering a North Carolina frontline that many have said has no

peer nationally.

Pittman finished with 23 points and 15 rebounds — a

dozen of the offensive variety — while the 6-foot-7 James

added 25 points and 15 boards.

“Who won the battle today?” James asked with a smile

after the victory.

Texas won the battle and the war on the glass, 60-41, against

a team that entered the game out-rebounding its opponents by nearly

10 per game. The ‘Horns also played with far more toughness

and intensity than the Tar Heels.

It got so ugly that Pittman said North Carolina’s long

and talented sophomore, big man Ed Davis, asked him at one point

late in the game if he could take it easy on them in the paint.

“He asked me why we’re so strong?” Pittman said.

“I told him it’s Texas. This is Big 12, bro.”

Barnes has led the Longhorns to the NCAA tournament every

year since arriving in 1998, but he has his share of critics due to

his inability to hang a championship banner in Austin.

“Could it be? Yeah, maybe, possibly,” Barnes said when

asked if this was his best team in Austin. “I think we’ve got

a lot of room for improvement. I don’t think we’re

anywhere close.”

It sure sounds like coach-speak, but that’s one scary

thought.