Texas returns five starters (yes, I’m still going with "five") from the 26-7 Final Four team, the winningest in school history, the only NCAA top seed in school history, and the most celebrated hoops players in school history.
Honestly, when Texas opened a preseason No. 4 (AP) and No. 5 (ESPN-USA TODAY), did you expect them to be there at the end of March? To his credit, head coach Rick Barnes had his team convinced long before the masses jumped on the bandwagon in late winter.
The team posted wins over nationally ranked teams in Oklahoma, Connecticut, Michigan State, Oklahoma State, Missouri and Georgia (plus a pair of three-point, road losses at Kansas and Arizona when Texas had the last shot in both nail biters).
An impartial observer might suggest that Texas’ biggest wins of the season where the NCAA South Regional triumphs over Connecticut and Michigan States (teams that have each claimed a national title during the past four years) that put Texas in its first Final Four since 1947.
Friends, I am no impartial observer. I say the pair of wins against Oklahoma were just as big (if not bigger).
The epic 67-61 February win over No. 5 Oklahoma in Austin snapped an eight-game losing streak to the Evil Empire. Students who waited hours in line for Missouri and Oklahoma State tickets camped all night for a chance to hate the Sooners up-close-and-personal. Hoops hysteria reached a crescendo as lathered, painted students stormed the court with Dick Vitale and ESPN’s "Big Monday" crew filmed the catharsis. Moments later, senior G Hollis Price told a packed interview room that he looked forward to getting the Horns in Norman on Senior Day.
Hee. Hee. Hee.
When the fourth-ranked Longhorns upended No. 5 Oklahoma, 76-71, to end the regular season on March 8, Texas snapped OU’s national-best 37-game home winning streak and, for all intents and purposes, earned the No. 1 NCAA seed that day. Obviously, the win at OU was enough to mitigate a 92-81 setback against Texas Tech in the Big 12 quarterfinals.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Yet despite the team’s unprecedented success, no current Longhorn can boast of either a Big 12 regular season or Big 12 Tournament championship. That should change next season when Texas opens as the league favorite. Yet sophomore sensation T. J. Ford said this team’s goal has always been the national championship.
All indications are that the court magician will be back to turn the trick next November, but that Ford will not officially make that decision until after conferring with Barnes later this month.
Ford’s final numbers corroborate his All-American status: A consensus first-team All-America selection, Ford led the team in scoring (15.0 ppg), assists (7.7 apg), steals (2.0 spg), free throw percentage (.820) and minutes (33.6 mpg). He ranks second on UT's all-time career assist list (527). In addition to the Naismith Award and John Wooden Award, Ford was both Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News selection as National Player of the Year. (He’ll no doubt pick up a few team honors tonight, as well.)
Ford’s ability to elevate the play of his team can not be quantified in a line score. Ford’s presence will mean the Horns will be a Top Three preseason team (along with Syracuse and probably Connecticut) come November.
At the same time, there is no guarantee that returning three seniors from a Final Four team will get you back to the promised land (just ask Oklahoma). It’s just that next season the promised land is San Antonio, where Texas should once again enjoy its Dome-court advantage. (Texas is 2-0 in the Alamodome whereas the Big Easy has been anything but for the current herd of Horns. Following the Syracuse loss, Texas is 0-2 in N’awlins in two of the past three tournaments.)
Maybe next year, there won’t be as many UT students selling their Final Four tickets on E-bay. (Presumably, these were many of the same students who had no problem making their way to New Orleans last September for the Tulane football game.)
So, what does Texas have to do to pick up where it left off?
Barnes’ blueprint for improvement next season is not much different than from his approach to any single game this past year: play better defense. Texas’ failure to make critical defensive stops in crunch time is what kept the otherwise highly successful team from advancing each of the past two seasons, the fifth-year head coach is convinced.
Still, at some moment next fall, the Final Four banner will be raised high inside the renovated Erwin Center where a rejuvenated basketball program is both revising Longhorn record books and raising the expectations to a level as high as (gasp!) the football team. And as far as the history book is concerned, the next chapter may be the best of all.