First things first. Congratulations to Texas and Rick Barnes for landing a spot in the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in five seasons. Only last season's early exit, due to the loss of Tucker and Aldridge, can be seen as a disappointment.
So how did they get here this time around? By displaying the versatility that makes the Horns one of the most dangerous teams in the tournament. On Friday night, Texas limped past Pennsylvania by relying on their bigger and more talented frontcourt. On Sunday, it was the backcourt that led the Horns slaughter of NC State.
In neither game was I particularly worried Texas would lose, though our slow start against Penn certainly made things more interesting than they should have been. In reality, neither team played well Friday night; in those cases, the team with the most talent almost always wins. Cinderellas get past midnight when they play well; catching a good team on an off night isn't enough.
Against Penn, Texas was forced to play Tucker and Aldridge for all 40 minutes, which is always a sign that we're in a scrap. Because our backups on the front court are so challenged, there's no room to remove Tucker or Aldridge when the game is tight. The real problem in the Penn game was the remarkably dim play from the guards. Gibson managed only 9 points, Paulino 7, and Abrams a goose egg. While Aldridge and Tucker's presence inside was enough to gut out the win, there was no question that Texas' guards would have to perform better against NC State to win.
And perform they did.
Leading the show was freshman A.J. Abrams, who continues to surprise me, even this late in the season. He finished with 16 points and 5 assists, including three three-pointers, one of which he converted into a four-point play after being fouled. While Abrams rightfully got much of the attention for his game-changing performance, the play of Daniel Gibson is what had me most excited. We've maintained for some time now that Texas can't be an elite team unless Gibson is playing well, and since the Oklahoma game, he's just been terrific. He's playing with confidence again, which helps him shoot better. He's getting to the rim, helping to set the tone for the team, and playing terrific defense. Tucker and Aldridge are two unique talents; but you can't win the NCAAs without strong guard play. Gibson, finally, is back. For all the grief we've given him for his up and down season, he's really put it together over the last three weeks.
The most pleasing stat of the game was the 17-10 assist-to-turnover ratio for Texas on the evening. That may be par for the course for a team like Georgetown, but for the `Horns, that's well above average. When Texas takes care of the ball, they minimize their one weakness: the tendency to play mediocre half court offense. By taking care of each possession, they limit opponents' ability to make runs on the Horns. If the improvement sticks, West Virginia won't beat Texas.
For now, Texas can enjoy a strong first weekend and make their plans for Atlanta. We'll be breaking down the West Virginia game later this week, as well as previewing each regional semifinal game. Until then, we take a moment to enjoy another trip to the Sweet 16. The sky remains the limit for this team. Their most dangerous opponent, themselves, seems to be in check right now. And you know what that means?
It could happen.