How Long Can The Horns Be On Top?

Texas coach Rick Barnes talks with guard T.J. Ford in the first half against Oregon in the Midwest Regional semifinal at the Kohl Center in this March 22, 2002 photo in Madison, Wis.
Several Texas players were involved in a first-round loss in the 2001 NCAA tournament and experienced another one-and-done in last week's loss in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals.

But the Longhorns insist they learn from their mistakes. And they say they won't squander their first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

"We want to be a great team, not a good team," said junior guard Brandon Mouton. "We really want to win a national championship. Our eye is on the prize."

Texas (22-6) is the top seed in the South. The Longhorns open tournament play Friday in Birmingham, Ala., against the winner of Tuesday night's game between Texas Southern and North Carolina Asheville.

Coach Rick Barnes has led Texas into the tournament each of his five years in Austin but the Longhorns were never seeded higher than fifth.

The nucleus of this year's team were freshmen when Texas lost to Temple in the first round in 2001.

Point guard T.J. Ford joined them in 2002 and guided the 'Horns to two tournament wins, a surprising run to the round of 16.

Now, without a senior starter among them, Texas fields a seasoned bunch of veterans in search of a title.

"I'm quite eager myself to see how they handle it," Barnes said. "They understand how quickly it can be over with, they do know that."

Texas earned the top seed on the strength of an entire season ranked in the top 10, a second-place finish in the Big 12 and a tough non-conference schedule. Texas beat fellow No. 1-seed Oklahoma twice.

Even so, Barnes has found himself defending his team's lofty tournament status. Kansas, the Big 12 regular-season champion, beat Texas in their only head-to-head match-up this season and went deeper into the conference tournament. Kansas is the No. 2 seed in the West.

And by picking Texas, the NCAA selection committee also bypassed Pittsburgh (26-4), which won the Big East and hoped it would get a top seed. Instead, the fourth-ranked Panthers are No. 2 in the Midwest.

The Big 12 tournament loss to Texas Tech, a team the Longhorns beat twice during the regular season, raised even more questions.

But Barnes makes no excuses for Texas' lofty status for the NCAA tournament.

"If I were a person who wanted to make a case for Texas, I would have a pretty good case for that, that we are worthy of a No. 1 seed," Barnes said. "And there are other teams that could say that.

"Every school could say we've got a shot at it. But the way it was laid out, we've got to take it and see what we can do with it."

Mouton said the Longhorns are ready to run with the opportunity. He dismissed the Texas Tech loss as ancient history.

"We need to move forward," Mouton said. "We have bigger games in front of us."

Texas now must avoid the temptation to look ahead to the round of 16. Texas must win twice to get there and if they do, they'll play just 75 miles south in San Antonio, a home-state advantage within easy driving distance for hometown fans.

Ford said there's no chance of looking ahead. The No. 1 seed drew everyone into focus.

"That's a goal we set at the beginning of the year, to make it to the Final Four," Ford said. "We'll just take it one game at a time."

By Jim Vertuno