SAN ANTONIO -- It was a net few expected the Texas Longhorns to cut down before one Rick Barnes arrived in 1998. Yet, moments after Texas beat Michigan State on Sunday to advance to its first Final Four in 56 years, there was Barnes taking the last big step up the ladder to finish off the net that his players had left hanging.
|T.J. Ford serves as a coach on the court for Texas.(AP)|
Six years ago when he came from Clemson as coach, Barnes took over a program so down that he had to put an ad in the student newspaper advertising for walk-on players. Help wanted: Any intramural player over 6-foot-3 with some semblance of a jump shot.
They went from that to a Final Four berth next week in New Orleans where they will meet the Syracuse Orangemen in the semifinals. Their impressive 85-76 over Michigan State means the Longhorns are the only No. 1 seed to advance to the Final Four, where they should be favored to win it all.
Does anybody really care now that Roy Williams caught a 60-yard touchdown pass in a spring football scrimmage Saturday?
The eyes of Texas, and the nation, are now on the Texas basketball program.
Welcome to Validationville.
"This week was great for the University of Texas basketball," Barnes said after the game.
That's why the emotion flowed after the game. As the clock wound down on the final seconds, All-America point guard T.J. Ford pounded the ball into the court harder and harder as each second ticked off. With about 2 seconds left, he moved toward his coach and gave him a hug even before the game was over.
The coach who turned around the program giving thanks to the player most responsible for making it happen.
"It was special," Barnes said of the hug. "My wife would probably like me to hug her more like that at this time of the year."
It wasn't all lovey-dovey during the embrace. Barnes gave Ford a message that was to be relayed to the rest of the team.
"I told him there was work left," said Barnes.
Two more victories and the Longhorns will have their first national championship.
If they're to get it, they'll have to borrow from one of the legendary sports quotes of all time, from none other than former Texas football coach Darrell Royal.
They're going to have dance with the one who brung them.
That means Ford, the lightning-quick guard who was named the South Regional Most Outstanding Player, even though he clearly was not on the top of his game. Despite a suspect jump shot -- one of his teammates even joked he's just "T" since he doesn't have a "J" -- Ford was able to control the tempo of both Texas victories.
On Sunday, with Michigan State throwing a bevy of bodies at him as it tried to contain him, Ford had 19 points and 10 assists, although he shot just 4-of-12 from the field.
He won the MOP award because it seemed every time the seventh-seeded Spartans made a run, Ford was there to help stem the tide. Whether getting to the foul line, where he made 11 of 13, or by dishing to an open teammate, Ford controlled the final four minutes.
Asked about his thoughts seeing Ford with the ball in crunch time, Spartans coach Tom Izzo put it bluntly.
"It made me kind of sick," Izzo said.
The Spartans did a good job of slowing Ford early, and they also did a decent job on the boards. But the one area that hurt them was perimeter defense. In the first half, the Longhorns made 6 of 9 3-pointers with five coming from bench players Brian Boddicker (3-4) and Sydmill Harris (2-3).
Teams expect Ford and Brandon Mouton, who had 25 against Connecticut on Friday night, to get theirs. But to get beat by Boddicker and Harris, who hails from the basketball power of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, made it especially tough to take for Izzo.
Harris, whose father Oscar is "the Frank Sinatra of the Netherlands," speaks five languages fluently. He doesn't exactly have the basketball pedigree, but there he was hitting two key 3-pointers and scoring 12 first-half points to help the Longhorns to a 43-38 lead at the half.
"We told them that anyone with a three on their jerseys was a shooter," Izzo aid. "That's 3 (Mouton), 13 (Harris) and 33 (Boddicker). For some reason we didn't check them."
In the second half the Longhorns were twice able to extend the lead to 10, but the Spartans were able to make big baskets to stay within reach.
"They wouldn't go away," said Texas guard Royal Ivey.
Izzo teams usually don't. They are usually tough and physical, and this one was no different. That style led to foul problems in the second half. It was bad enough that the Spartans had to play Texas 75 miles from the Austin campus, but then the officials began to make some questionable calls against the Spartans.
"What the hell is going on here?" Izzo yelled at the officials after two iffy fouls were called. The Longhorns were shooting 1-and-1s with 13:45 left in the second half and were in the double penalty with over 10 minutes left.
At one point, Texas had attempted 21 free throws in the second half to four for the Spartans. Texas finished the game making 29 of 38, while Michigan State made 18 of 26. Texas made 24 of 30 in the second half.
"It was very physical under the boards and very touchy outside," Izzo said. "But it was even for both teams. I didn't have a problem."
Of course he was biting his tongue when he said that. At one point, the outnumbered Spartans fans, including Magic Johnson, let out a mock cheer after a Texas player was called for a second-half foul.
In the end, Texas proved to be too deep and too good offensively for the Spartans. The 85 points were the most scored against Michigan State this year. Five players, led by Ford's 19, scored in double figures. Texas shot 49 percent from the field, including 43 percent on 3s. That was enough to set off a wild celebration after the game, 56 years of frustration and the role of little stepbrother to the football team now gone -- for at least a week.
Barnes is the man responsible for it. Ford is the reason why.
With a coach who knows how to substitute, knows what buttons to push and can relate to his players like a father figure -- which Ford said he has become -- the Longhorns are in good hands.
In Ford, they have their coach on the court. He controls the game with his ball savvy and his quickness, which he did Sunday.
Together they have taken the Texas program from the mess that Tom Penders left behind to two games from a national title.
They play tough, which is a reflection of their coach. This is the same Barnes who once went toe-to-toe with North Carolina coach Dean Smith when he was the coach at Clemson. It seems Smith took offense to a hard foul committed by one of the Clemson players and said something to him. That led to Barnes running down toward Smith, glaring at him and saying, "You coach your team and I'll coach mine. You don't have any right talking to my players."
Now they're talking about them. Texas basketball has arrived. So much so that Chris Ogden, one of Barnes' first recruits and the winner of the Mr. Basketball Award in Texas in 1999, doesn't even get in the game.
Hooked on the Horns, and it's not just football anymore.