March 19, 2009

The BIG Preview: NCAA action begins

The Basics

It's go time. After months of up and down play, the seventh-seeded Texas Longhorns start playing for keeps tonight in their first-round match-up against No.10 Minnesota in East Region action of the NCAA Tournament. Tip-off is scheduled for 6:10PM (central) and the game will be aired regionally on CBS, with Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg calling the action.

Series vs. Minnesota

This is the first meeting between the two schools.

History is on Texas' side?

If you're looking for some positives heading into the match-up with the Gophers, just consider the experience edge that the Longhorns possess. Texas is one of just seven teams nationally that has qualified for the NCAA Tournament in each of the last 11 seasons.

On top of that, the Longhorns have been among the best in the nation at taking care of business in first round match-ups, as they've compiled a 14-4 record in opening round games since the NCA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985. During the 11-year run under Barnes, the Longhorns have gone 7-3 in the first round games.

Over on the other end of the court, the Badgers will be making their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2005.

Of course, the Longhorns don't have every piece of history going for them. The Gophers might only be 7-5 in their NCAA Tournament history, but they are 2-0 when playing in Greensboro. In 1989, the Gophers defeated Kansas State and Siena to reach the Sweet 16 at Greensboro Coliseum.

Longhorns earn all-league honors

Senior guard A.J. Abrams and junior forward Damion James were both named second-team All-Big 12 by the coaches and media. Meanwhile, junior guard Justin Mason was named to the Big 12's all-defensive team by the coaches and media.

Balbay the X-factor for the Horns

Since debuting as the starter at the point guard position in a home win over Oklahoma State on February10th, sophomore point guard Dogus Balbay has been a lightening rod for the team - both good and bad.

When Balbay is playing well, the Longhorns are much more efficient offensive team and the play of everyone around him is in improved. The reverse is also true, which is why his play this weekend is so vital for the future of the season.

In his last 23 games, Balbay has registered a team-high 96 assists and only committed 31 turnovers (a 3.1-to-1 ratio). In his 11 games as a starter, Balbay has averaged 6.0 points per game while recording 60 assists and only 22 turnovers.

Overall, the Longhorns' shooting from the field, three-point land and free throw line have all improved since Balbay's insertion into the starting line-up.

The Leading Man?

If anyone can strap the Longhorns onto their back and carry the team into the Sweet 16, it might be junior big man Dexter Pittman.

Over the last five games, Pittman is averaging a team-best 16.8 points and 8.6 rebounds in 26.2 minutes per contest while shooting 65.3 percent from the field.

The highlights include a three-game stretch in last week's Big 12 Tournament that saw him earn All-Tournament honors averaging a team-high 17.3 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 28.7 minutes per game, while shooting .667 from the field.

NBA Longhorn Notes

Former Naismith Award winner Kevin Durant played in his second game since returning from the disabled list and poured in 28 points and grabbed six rebounds in a 103-96 loss to Chicago. In his return on Monday night against San Antonio, he scored a team high 25 points as the Thunder beat the Spurs 78-76.

Former All-American Lamarcus Aldridge continues to play well in his third season with the Portland Trailblazers, averaging 18.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game this season. He had 23 points and 11 rebounds in a 93-89 loss to Dallas on Wednesday night.

About Minnesota…

The Longhorns might have found their long lost brother of a team in the Gophers. Just like the Longhorns, the Gophers will get after it on defense in a big-time way and there are times when they can be painful to watch offensively.

On the offensive end of things, the Gophers spread things around pretty evenly. Junior guard Lawrence Westbrook is the team's leading scorer at 12.4 points per game and probably the top overall player. Although he's not quite the natural shooter that Texas guard A.J. Abrams is, he is a better player off the bounce and finished at the basket. That being said, he's a very good three-point shooter and the last guy you want to send to the free throw line.

The only other player on the team that comes close to averaging in double-figures outside of Westbrook is athletic swingman Damian Johnson, who averages 9.7 points per game and does most of his damage in transition or on the offensive glass. Although he'll take an occasional three-point shot (nine of 36), he's not a guy that's going to consistently knock down shots from 15-feet out.

Point guard Al Nolan is the guy that stirs the drink for the Gophers and with his 6.6 points and 4.3 assists per game, he's a steady player, but he can make Dogus Balbay seem like a sharp-shooter with his 34.0 shooting clip from the field. That number drops to 29.2 percent from three-point land.

While those three get the headlines, the team's X-factor is reserve guard Blake Hoffarber. When he's in a comfort zone and really feeling it, his three-point shooting can absolutely carry them from very good to great. Expect the Gophers to get him involved early off the bench because he's the one guy that they have outside of Westbrook and Johnson that can heat up and change the outcome of a game with his offense.

Seven other players combine to give the team a minimum of four points per game each, which only further shows that this team is all about spreading the ball around and finding the best shot possible, and it doesn't matter who gets the touch.

If they are a below-average team offense, the Gophers make up for it on defense, as they rank among the nation several major defensive categories. Head coach Tubby Smith will play as many as 11 or 12 players throughout the game and they are going to play in-your-face man-to-man defense for 40 minutes.

As a group, the Gophers do a great job of making plays by cutting off passing lanes with active hands and their overall length and athleticism will surprise you at times. The Gophers rank fourth in the nation in blocks with a shade over six per game. Johnson leads the team with 59 blocks this season, but the two man tandem of Ralph Sampson III and Colton Iverson have combined for 90 blocks this season.

Bottom line - there are no easy shots. Period.

The Three Keys

1. Balbay has to play well - If Balbay can't get this team into some transition opportunities off of defense and maintain a steady hand as the table-setter on offense, this is going to be a tough night for the Longhorns on the offensive end. Texas needs Balbay to be aggressive, but play under control. Yes, it's a fine line, but he manages it perfectly when he's at his best and that's what Rick Barnes needs tonight.

2. Suffocate Hoffarber - The Longhorns cannot let him get hot from the three-point area. He is their version of AJ Abrams. When he's in the game, he needs to be locked up and under no circumstances is he to be left along.

3. Finish - The Longhorns have not done a good job of closing out the end of the first or second half in recent weeks. That has to change on Thursday. If the Longhorns don't win the final four minutes of both halves, they are going to have a tough time winning.

The Texas line-up

The starters

Guard - A.J. Abrams - 5-10 senior - (16.2 points, and 2.3 rebounds)
Guard - Dogus Balbay - 6-0 sophomore (3.3 points and 3.3 assists)
Guard - Justin Mason - 6-2 junior - (6.4 points and 4.1 assists)
Forward - Damion James - 6-7 junior - (15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds)
Forward/center - Dexter Pittman - 6-10 junior - (10.0 points and 5.2 rebounds)

The next five

Guard - Varez Ward - 6-2 freshman (3.7 points and 2.2 rebounds)
Guard - Harrison Smith - 6-2 junior - (2.0 points and 1.7 rebounds)
Forward - Gary Johnson - 6-7 sophomore - (10.5 points and 5.2 rebounds)
Forward - Connor Atchley - 6-10 senior - (4.8 points and 3.2 rebounds)
Forward/center - Clint Chapman - 6-10 sophomore - (2.1 points and 1.6 rebounds)
Forward - Matt Hill - 6-10 sophomore - (1.0 points and 1.1 rebounds)

The Minnesota line-up

The starters

Guard - Al Nolan - 6-1 sophomore - (6.6 points and 4.3 assists)
Guard - Lawrence Westbrook - 6-0 junior - (12.4 points and 2.5 rebounds)
Guard - Jamal Abu-Shamala - 6-5 senior - (3.7 points and 1.6 rebounds)
Forward - Damien Johnson - 6-7 junior - (9.7 points and 4.2 rebounds)
Center - Ralph Sampson III - 6-11 senior - (6.4 points and 4.3 rebounds)

The next four

Guard - Blake Hoffarber - 6-4 sophomore - (6.5 points and 2.7 rebounds)
Guard - Devoe Joseph - 6-3 freshman - (5.1 points and 1.8 rebounds)
Forward - Paul Carter - 6-8 sophomore (5.3 points and 4.3 rebounds)
Center - Colton Iverson - 6-10 freshman - (5.5 points and 3.6 rebounds)

And finally…

In our quest to provide you with a tidbit in each preview that teaches you something you might not have otherwise known, we give you this…


Texas is one of just three schools to have advanced to at least the Sweet 16 in five of the last seven years, joining Duke (5) and Kansas (5).

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