Basketball

It’s Showtime: UCLA-Texas Take Center Stage

UCLA makes its Austin debut Thursday in a clash of Top 10 teams, but college basketball’s most storied program needs no introduction.

Unless, of course, you play for Texas. This time last year, very few of the current crop of Longhorns were familiar with the Bruin dynasty. Guard A.J. Abrams, for example, was stunned to learn that UCLA had won an unprecedented 11 national titles back in the day. All they knew of legendary Bruin coach John Wooden was that he was “old” and that former Longhorns T.J. Ford and Kevin Durant won an award named for him. Invoke the names of Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, Bill Walton, Gail Goodrich or Reggie Miller and you’ll get quizzical looks from those barely old enough to vote. Ah, youth. Blissful ignorance may have played a part in Texas’ unflinching 63-61 upset of then-No. 2 UCLA at historic Pauley Pavillion last December. But the fact remains that Longhorn coach Rick Barnes has embarked on some revisionist history of his own during his first decade in Austin. The Bruins are gunning for their fourth straight Final Four appearance, but Barnes’ bunch has all but equaled UCLA’s success as of late.

Texas’ 15 NCAA Tournament wins the last seven years is tied with UCLA and second only to Kansas. Texas is just one of three schools, joining Kansas and Duke, to have reached the Sweet Sixteen five of the past seven seasons. The Horns advanced to the Elite Eight in 2006 and 2008 while reaching the Final Four in 2003. Texas also looks to build upon an eight-game home winning streak against Top 25 opponents.

Who’d a thunk that Texas (No. 8 in both polls) would ever be ranked higher than UCLA? (No. 9/12)? Plenty of Longhorn fans, however, have thought about dropping by the Erwin Center for the 8 p.m. (CST) tipoff. The 16,755-seat venue was virtually sold-out by Wednesday morning.

“People love big games and big schools playing against each other,” Barnes said. “This time of year, when you’re transitioning from football season to basketball season, it lets people know that basketball season is here.”

The hoops season began for (5-1) Texas on November 16 and, since then, it’s been point guard-by-committee after All-American D. J. Augustin took his game to the NBA. Ball security has been a problem for the Horns in the post-Augustin era. Texas is averaging 14 give-aways per game (up five per game from last season).

Abrams has run the floor while tallying a team-best 15.8 ppg, including 19-of-45 (42.2 percent) from three-point range. RS-freshman Dogus Balbay is coming off his best outing of the year against Rice (four points, four assists, three steals, no turnovers). The X-Factor for Texas, however, may be combo guard Justin Mason. A scrapper known for doing all the dirty work, Mason appears to have return to form following a heart-to-heart with Barnes last week at the Muai Invitational. The conversation ensued after Mason took all of one shot — he missed — against St. Joseph’s.

“Justin works as hard as any player I’ve ever been associated with,” Barnes said, “but we can’t have him take just one or two shots.”

Since then, Mason has averaged 16 points, five rebounds and 5.3 assists while hitting 19-of-37 (51.4 percent) of his field goals.

“Now, the key is being able to handle it as people start game-planning for you,” Barnes said. “If I were coaching against Justin, I would tell my assistants to go get me one like him because he affects the game in so many different ways.”

Barnes will continue to rotate players at the point, but he’s already detected a shift in synergy when Mason runs the floor.

“I like the ball in his hands,” Barnes concluded. “That way, he’s got to play. He has a tendency to stand and defer. He’s going to get better and better. His shot looks good. Every time he shoots, it now has a chance to go in. You love a guy like Justin Mason because you know what you’re going to get every day.”

Look for Texas to lean heavily on post players (Connor Atchley, Gary Johnson, Dexter Pittman) and swingman Damon James. If the Bruins have an Achilles Heel, it would be their front court.

UCLA replaces All-American C Kevin Love, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder last season, who was an NBA Lottery pick. The Bruins’ interior is also bereft of F Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, a Pac-10 Honorable Mention selection whose name was called during the Second Round of the NBA Draft.

“They’re continuing to work at their inside game, like we are,” is the way Barnes put it. “They play to their strength. They defend you extremely well and make it difficult to score.”

Indeed, the showdown shapes up as a defensive workshop. Texas has limited foes to 55.5 ppg and 34.0 percent from the field. Despite losing Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year Russell Brook to the NBA as a Lottery pick, UCLA has held opponents to 57.2 ppg and 35.7 percent from the floor. The Bruins have the tools to clinch a fourth straight PAC-10 title and another deep run into the NCAAs. Senior G Darren Collison, an AP Third-Team All-American, leads his team with 15 ppg. He is also the team-leader in assists (24) and steals (11). Senior swingman Josh Shipp, the only Bruin to start all 39 games last season, averages 9.8 points and 4.8 rebounds per outing. The Bruins have been infused with fresh talent, courtesy of the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class according to several services. Jrue Holiday, the 2008 Gatorade National Player of the Year, was generally considered the top point guard emerging from the prep ranks this year. The freshman is the team’s second-leading scorer (11.6 ppg) Notes:

Longhorn backup forward Alexis Wangmene (right knee) will miss his second straight game, according to UT officials. He’s still listed as day-to-day.

The UCLA game is part of the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series. Also on tap Thursday is USC at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State at Washington.

The game broadcast will be on ESPN2. Thursday night’s tipoff is set for 8 p.m.