Horns of Plenty
Deep and relentless, Texas has emerged as a national title contender
Moments after snapping No. 9 Oklahoma State's 15-game winning streak with a 78-65 victory last Saturday, Texas players stood on the floor of the Frank Erwin Center, raised their right pinkies and index fingers in the Hook 'em Horns salute and joined most of the 14,804 in singing the school's alma mater, The Eyes of Texas. That sort of postgame scene is familiar in Austin, but there are a few new wrinkles this year. The fans are turning out in droves, the Longhorns are playing entertaining, fast-paced basketball (averaging 79.3 points a game through Sunday), and the team has emerged as a national-championship contender. "I told my teammates before the game that this place is usually laid-back," said Oklahoma State senior guard Victor Williams. "That wasn't the case today. These people were amped."
For good reason. Had the Longhorns not lost 90-87 at Kansas earlier in the week, the victory on Saturday would almost certainly have catapulted them to No. 1 in the nation. As it is, though, the Longhorns improved their record to 14-3 (5-1 in the Big 12) and maintained their No. 3 ranking in the AP poll. Texas has now been in the Top 10 every week this season, which is stunning for a program that had previously spent just three weeks there in its entire history.
All of which is raising hope that the Longhorns, who have no seniors in their regular starting lineup and have never won a national tide in basketball, can make it to their first Final Four since 1947. Asked last week if Texas had proved itself to be championship caliber by taking Kansas down to the wire, sophomore point guard T.J. Ford said, "We went there to win, not to prove a point. The way I see it, we didn't get the job done."
The reliable Ford, who at week's end led the team in scoring (14.8 points a game) and was seventh in the nation in assists (71), is one of 10 Longhorns who average at least 13 minutes a game, making Texas the only team in the country with as much quality depth as No. 2 Arizona. Opposing defenses can't focus on only one threat, as eight players have led the Longhorns in scoring this season. Against Kansas, for instance, Ford scored 25 points, and 6' 8" junior forward Brian Boddicker scored a career-high 20; Royal Ivey, a 6' 3" junior guard, went for 17 points, a season high, in the win over Oklahoma State.
Still, as Texas coach Rick Barnes points out, depth is worthless if a team doesn't have good chemistry. "I can honestly say our guys pull for each other," he says. "They all want to play, but they also realize that if you don't have it one night, you have to let someone else have a shot at it."
Most Marked Improvement
Going from Role Players to Stars
Last year Indiana forward Jeff Newton was a role player who gave the Hoosiers a defensive lift when he came off the bench and chipped in with 8.1 points a game on offense. This season, however, the 6' 9" senior had started every game for Indiana through Sunday, and he was only one of two players in the Big Ten to be ranked among the league leaders in scoring (13th, with 14.2 points a game), rebounding (first, with 9.1 a game) and blocks (tied for sixth, with 1.4 a game). "I know he's the most improved player in the Big Ten," Indiana coach Mike Davis says. "Jeffrey has carried us at times this season. When he plays well, we play well."
Newton is not the only player who is dramatically better than he was a year ago. Here are five other candidates for most improved player.
?Torris Bright, LSU
For the last three years Bright, a senior point guard, has been coach John Brady's favorite whipping boy. But this season Bright has silenced Brady by taking much better care of the ball. After having almost as many turnovers (123) as assists (129) last season, Bright had 96 assists and just 41 turnovers through Sunday.