Longhorns showcase depth, size

BY foxsports • December 19, 2009

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.

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