The Texas Longhorns are the No. 4 seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament, where they'll face 13th-seeded Oakland in the first round. It's coach Rick Barnes' 13th NCAA Tournament team in his 13 years as Texas coach, after heading west from Clemson in 1998.
During Barnes' tenure the Longhorns have reached one Final Four (2003) and two Elite Eights (2006, 2008). While he has produced consistent results, some question his in-game coaching and cite his failure to win a post season Big 12 tournament, as well as eight NCAA Tournament losses to lower seeds. Barnes appears to have his best shot at removing that stigma since the days of T.J. Ford.
Texas entered the 2010-11 season as a team in transition, after losing their top three scorers – Damion James, Dexter Pittman and Avery Bradley – to the NBA, Justin Mason to graduation, and underclassmen Varez Ward and Shawn Williams to premature exits after injury problems. Highly regarded recruits Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph arrived to take some of the load, while seniors Gary Johnson and Dogus Balbay have assumed team leadership roles.
While the Longhorns are still one of the higher scoring teams in the country at 75.0 points per game, they have evolved into more of a defensive team. Despite an improved collection of ball handlers they’ve slowed their pace a bit and have cut opponents’ shooting percentage and points per game considerably. The six key performers who average more than 15 minutes per game are all listed between 6-1 and 6-8, so this Texas team relies on athleticism over size and often utilizes a 2-3 zone against larger teams.
After starting the season 23-3 and spending much of the winter in the top-five of NCAA rankings, Texas limped to the regular season finish line, losing three of their last five. The Longhorns lost to Kansas in the Big 12 title game, 85-73.
Record: 29-8, 13-3 in the Big 12
Key wins: Texas gained one of their marquee wins under Barnes on Jan. 22, as they topped Kansas 74-63 in Lawrence, ending the Jayhawks’ 69-game win streak at Allen Fieldhouse. Kansas jumped out to an early 18-3 lead, but Texas outscored them by 23 in the second half to cruise to victory. ... At the time, the Texas-North Carolina matchup on December 18 in Greensboro, NC seemed to pit two programs at their low points. The Longhorns were ranked 23rd by AP, while the Tar Heels were unranked. In retrospect it would be a matchup of to-be top ten teams and a key road win for Texas. A late 10-2 Horns run put Cory Joseph into position to win the game on a 15-foot jumper with 1.4 seconds remaining. The win eased the disappointment of narrow losses to Big East powers Pittsburgh (68-66) and Connecticut (82-81).
Key losses: Texas appeared primed for a top seed on Valentines Day, but a four-game stretch against Big 12 North teams undid those hopes. Texas visited Nebraska in Lincoln on Febuary 19 ranked third in the country, but missed a shot to tie at the buzzer, falling 70-67. Texas shot 36 percent and was just 12-36 from inside the arc.
They rebounded with a resounding 76-53 home win over Iowa St. and still ranked fifth in the AP poll, but a 91-89 loss on February 26 in Boulder ended their hopes of a top seed. Colorado shot 53 percent and were led by a 33-point, 10-rebound game by Alec Burks. ... The Longhorns ended February with a home loss to surging Kansas St., falling 75-70. They were badly outshot once again (50 percent-34 percent), particularly on the perimeter, with their backcourt shooting a combined 12-46.
Players to watch: Texas is led by sophomore Jordan Hamilton. Often compared to Paul Pierce as a high school player, Hamilton began to fulfill his potential in his second season. The 6-7 forward won three Big 12 player-of-the-week awards, averaging 18.6 and pulling down 7.7 boards per game, while shooting 40 percent from behind the arc. He is a streak shooter, particularly from three-point territory, and has a knack for taking over games when he gets hot. Texas’ second most significant player is freshman Tristan Thompson (13.5 PPG, 8.0 RPG), but possibly the biggest key to the Longhorns’ tourney run will be sophomore guard J’Covan Brown. He averages 9.5 PPG in just 21 minutes and can key their defense with his aggressive play on the perimeter. More often than not, as J’Covan goes, so go the Longhorns.
Texas profile by Brett Perryman of SB Nation Dallas. Click here for a printable 2011 NCAA Tournament bracket.