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Title Contenders?

UT basketball has the national media's attention

By Russ Espinoza, 4:49PM, Tue. Feb. 8, 2011

UT's Tristan Thompson
UT's Tristan Thompson
Photo courtesy of UT

The No. 3 ranked Longhorns are all the rage on the national scene since going unblemished and looking untouchable against the Big 12’s beefiest. The terrain entering the 12-day gauntlet of No. 22 Texas A&M, No. 2 Kansas, and No. 19 Missouri looked shaky, with a Kansas-sized reality-check readied on Jan. 22 to sour the outlook of Texas players and fans alike.

Despite the roster turnover from last season and Rick Barnes’ addition of mature, dynamic freshmen Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph, last season’s humiliating free fall must’ve haunted the psyches of Longhorn fans into fearing a similar spell might occur.

The Longhorns instead made four separate but equally forceful and convincing arguments illustrating their oft-undervalued and overlooked worth. Even ESPN — the holy gatekeepers of relevance in sports — has begun to sufficiently recognize the team's unrivaled body of work and declare them championship material. The network’s latest Power Rankings leapfrog UT over Kansas and read: Ohio State, Texas, Kansas, Pittsburgh, and Duke; going on to explain: “As bad as they looked this time last year, the Longhorns now look that good. Texas’ defensive lockdown on Big 12 opponents continued this week, with high-speed Missouri and defensive-minded Texas A&M the latest victims. The schedule breaks favorably for the Longhorns down the stretch, and they could play their way into a No. 1 seed after playing themselves out of the rankings last season.”

There’s an obvious reason to fixate on the depth of ESPN’s coverage. Not to sound like a sports communist, but the “worldwide leader” naturally has the power and widespread reach to establish storylines, maintain storylines, or choke them off. As a careful observer of Texas basketball, and an oddly transfixed viewer of ESPN, I’ve been somewhat perturbed until recently at the network’s Big East-centric attention span, and the lack of SportsCenter and talk show discussion of UT and other geographically disadvantaged squads.

But former St. John’s and New Mexico head coach and current ESPN college basketball broadcast analyst Fran Fraschilla recently deemed Rick Barnes the early front-runner for Coach of the Year; by extension, Dana O’Neil of ESPN.com writes: “The Longhorns have also done what no one can seem to do this season — win on the road. Texas has beaten three Top 25 teams in fiercely hostile environments — at Michigan State, at Kansas and at Texas A&M — and are arguably playing the best basketball of any team in the country right now, including unbeaten Ohio State. Rick Barnes has done a masterful job at retooling and redirecting a team that clearly finished last season like a rudderless ship.”

The sudden and well-deserved torrent of praise and good national press for Barnes and his calves might be a mixed blessing, however. Texas A&M head coach Mark Turgeon— whose Aggies were last clobbered by the Longhorns on January 31 in College Station, 69-49 — speculated afterward that his team’s current tailspin is likely attributable to the Aggies getting fat on their own hype following a 13-game winning streak (one the Longhorns snapped on January 19).

It’s well-known that UT’s offensive firepower is primarily supplied by sophomore Jordan Hamilton and freshman Tristan Thompson — 18.9 and 12.7 points per game, respectively. It’s to be discovered how these supremely talented young leaders, in addition to freshmen guard Cory Joseph (11 points per game), respond to their own greatness, and that of the team in general. Will egomania destroy them from the inside out a la Texas A&M? No chance. It all sounds very serendipitous, but the 2010-11 Longhorns have been tirelessly deflating proud programs, exorcising demons, and bucking monkeys since November’s tip-off: (the all-snap recap, plus one).

Having ended Michigan State’s 52-game home winning streak. Earning their first-ever win at Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse, and derailing the Jayhawks’ 69-game home winning streak. Winning in College Station over Texas A&M for time since 2004. Snapping a three-game losing streak to the Missouri Tigers. UT is 7-0 in Big 12 play for the first time since 1977-78.

A campaign with this many rarities and historic hurdles cleared can only have one natural ending to prolong and seal the season's theme. The symbolism of Houston’s Reliant Stadium as the site of the 2011 Final Four is hard to ignore. One hundred five seasons of championship-less Texas basketball collapses into the next nine weeks, and the clearest shot at the mountaintop this program has ever had.

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