LUBBOCK, Texas -- They have been one of college basketball's sleeping giants for so long, you began to wonder if the Texas Longhorns would ever awaken. UT has always been a football school in a football state, but that was too easy of an excuse.
Through the decades, the state of Texas has produced too much talent to be written off. But only one state school has ever captured an NCAA title -- Texas Western (now UTEP) way back in 1966. Houston had a run in 1980s with Guy Lewis and Phi Slamma Jamma, but other than that it has been years of occasionally good, but rarely great in state teams.
That and a lot of Texans starring on rosters across the nation.
|Guard T.J. Ford is a player coach Rick Barnes hopes will lead to a dynasty.(AP)|
"We are changing the program around," said the 'Horns best, most important and most exciting player, guard T.J. Ford. "Coach (Barnes) has been doing that since he got to the University of Texas. We are finally reaching that status of the Dukes and the Kentuckys. It's great. That is something we want to keep doing for a decade."
Which makes Saturday's 76-71 victory over Texas Tech more than just the Longhorns' 20th win of the season, more than another a league road win that keeps them in Big 12 title contention and more than a step toward what could possibly be a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs.
This was one more statement about what Texas basketball is and what Texas basketball can become -- a top five team starring a player of the year candidate and a talented group that runs 10 deep. All broadcast on CBS.
It also came in a week when the 'Horns picked up a verbal commitment from guard Daniel Gibson, a top 10 junior out of Houston. He'll follow Ford (another Houston product) over to Austin where UT is slowly becoming the viable alternative for local kids to go and play.
Too much talent is still pouring out of the state -- consider freshmen Daniel Horton (Michigan), Bracey Wright (Indiana), Ike Diogu (Arizona State) and Chris Bosh (Georgia Tech) are from the Dallas area alone -- but if anyone is in position to get more than its share it is UT.
The key, according to Texas coach Rick Barnes, was the arrival of Ford two years ago. A McDonald's All-America off of a legendary two-time state champion team at Willowridge High School, Ford is an attention-grabbing, highlight-making superstar.
Saturday he had 18 points, eight assists and was the clear difference-maker against a determined Tech team playing in front of a loud, excited home crowd. Just a sophomore, he is the kind of talent young players can't resist following.
"There is no doubt he has had a major impact on what we've done on the court," said Barnes. "But I feel like his biggest contribution is (changing the perception of the program). He has made it OK to stay home. He has said many times before, 'Why leave when you can get it done right here in your back yard?'
"I think at one time (UT was an afterthought in recruiting). That may have been the case. But right now kids in the state are looking at us first."
There is plenty to look at. Texas is still Texas, the school boasts all of the same positives that make it an attractive destination for football players -- academics, location, campus life, alumni connections.
But now in hoops it is playing a dynamic, fun style. The roster is full of team-first players who don't just get along but have no problem sharing the ball. It is a major player in a major league (the Big 12) and it is making the kind of impression on everyone that changes long-held mindsets.
"You can definitely feel a sense of excitement," said UT assistant Frank Haith. "When you go to a high school game people come up to you and say, 'Hey, this is great.' They may not even be Texas fans but they say, 'You guys winning is making Texas basketball look OK.'"
Barnes argues that hoops throughout the state is on the rise. He thinks the move of the Big 12 tournament to Dallas for the next couple of years is going to help everyone. And he may be correct.
But other than here at Tech, where Bob Knight has turned west Texas into a basketball hotbed, it isn't easy to see. Other than the Red Raiders and 'Horns, there isn't a lot of excitement building at the other high major local programs.
Which makes the timing even better. If the state is there for the taking, no one is doing more than Barnes, who boasts a 39-2 record against instate opponents, to take it.
The Horns are terrific and they proved it Saturday. The frontcourt boasts a ridiculous amount of talent in rebounding machine James Thomas (11 points, five rebounds) and a trio of reserves in Brad Buckman (14 and nine), Brian Boddicker and Jason Klotz. At wing is the slashing, skillful Brandon Mouton.
Then there is Ford, who makes everything hum. Against Tech he made a statement on the opening possession when he drilled a deep 3. That brought a defender out to guard him closer, opening up penetration opportunities and freeing the lane for the big guys.
"When he does that, how do you guard him?" said Barnes.
You can't. And that is why Texas (20-5, 11-3) is so dangerous.
Barnes hardly is satisfied with what he has built in six seasons in Austin. He knows this is great, he knows impressions are being made. But he also knows that even more people pay attention in March. Do it then, maximize what this team is capable of, and everything could change.
And consider this, depending on Ford's professional plans, everyone but backup forward Deginald Erksin, could be back next year, too.
That's always been the potential of UT. There are too many local stars. What if more of them did like Ford or Boddicker or Buckman and stayed home?
"The tradition is getting there," said Ford, who prides himself on being a part of the turnaround. "It's starting. People are going to want to come to the University of Texas."
The giant has finally been awoken. This potentially giant of a season is the proof.