Commentary

UT starts two-step with Tar Heels

Updated: December 19, 2009, 11:48 AM ET
By Jeff Caplan | ESPNDallas.com

ARLINGTON, Texas -- Over a 96-hour span, the No. 2 Texas Longhorns will face the two finalists from last season's Final Four.

It all starts Saturday, just as Final Fours do, in grand style.

Texas (9-0) and No. 10 North Carolina (8-2), the defending national champions, meet in the first basketball game to be played beneath the largest and most revered video board in all of sports at sparkling Cowboys Stadium. An anticipated crowd of more than 46,000 and an ESPN national television audience will be watching.

[+] EnlargeDamion James
Brendan Maloney/US PresswireDamion James is averaging 15.4 points and 10.1 rebounds this season for the No. 2 Longhorns.

"I was in shock. Started sweating because it was so huge," said Texas' 6-foot-10, 290-pound center Dexter Pittman of the video board. "It was my first time feeling small. I was just joking around with [Texas media relations director] Scott McConnell. I told him I didn't want to play. Just buy me a ticket to sit in the stands and I'll watch it on the JumboTron."

The senior wouldn't miss playing in this one. Yet just three hours later, whether triumphant or disheartened, the Longhorns will trail back down I-35 to Austin for a crash course on Tuesday night's opponent, No. 12 Michigan State (8-2), last year's national runner-up.

Rarely do the last two teams standing from March Madness land on anyone's schedule, let alone within the span of a week. The Longhorns, having won all nine of their games by double digits, aren't complaining. They want to know where they stand.

"Obviously, we're going to be exposed to a different level of talent than we've played against over the last couple of weeks," Texas coach Rick Barnes said. "I don't want to see us change a lot of who we are. I don't think those teams are going to change a lot of who they are.

"It's just going to be a much different game physically than we've been in, a much faster game than we've been in, so those are things that are going to be different. Obviously, where we've been able to overpower people, talent-wise, that won't be the case in those games."

For the third consecutive season, Texas and Michigan State will play at nearly the identical point in December. That the Longhorns get North Carolina a few days earlier just happened to be a convergence of open dates among the Tar Heels, Longhorns and Cowboys Stadium.

"This is an opportunity for us to show people that we are for real," Pittman said.

The same goes for Cowboys Stadium, which will be the home of an NCAA tournament men's regional in 2013 before hosting the 2014 Final Four. The setup mimics the system introduced during last season's NCAA tournament games held at football stadiums, including the Final Four at Detroit's Ford Field.

The court will be raised, with a temporary floor seating system installed on all four sides to bring fans closer to the action. The center of the court will be directly over the Cowboys star at the 50-yard line.

"This is crazy, man," Texas senior forward Damion James said of the arrangement. "The team was videotaping and taking pictures, because not too much in your lifetime do you get to see things like this. Just being able to go out there and just being able to play on the court is unbelievable. I was already practicing all my moves and stuff. It's just crazy."

Texas is coming off a 104-42 pasting of Texas-Pan American on Tuesday, more of a scrimmage than a tuneup for the Tar Heels. The Longhorns, whose smallest margin of victory this season was 16 points against Pittsburgh, have defeated Iowa (85-60), USC (69-50) and Long Beach State (107-74).

[+] EnlargeDexter Pittman
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesDexter Pittman, all 6-foot-10, 290 pounds of him, was astounded by the size of the video board at Cowboys Stadium. "It was my first time feeling small."

So the next two games will serve as a litmus test for a Texas team that boasts excellent senior leadership mixed with talented youth. Three starters are seniors: James, a double-double machine and NBA prospect averaging 15.4 points and 10.1 rebounds, Pittman and steady guard Justin Mason.

"It is the first time in a long time that we've had a senior class where we've had this many guys that have been here," Barnes said. "Obviously, the NBA draft has taken some of the guys over the years, but it's the first time in a long time we do have this. It's been good."

Freshman guard Avery Bradley averages 11.0 points and has quickly made a name for himself as a sticky defender. Fellow freshman guard J'Covan Brown has averaged 12.1 points and has made 28 of 29 free throws.

Off the bench, Barnes employs junior guard Dogus Balbay, the team's assist leader, junior forward Gary Johnson and sophomore forward Alexis Wangmene. Jai Lucas -- a junior transfer from Florida who was named to the SEC all-rookie team two years ago -- is eligible to play and will make his Texas debut against North Carolina.

The Tar Heels are retooling after losing heart-and-soul forward Tyler Hansbrough and guard Ty Lawson, who is off to a fast start with the Denver Nuggets. North Carolina is young and quick, and coach Roy Williams' team loves to scoot up and down the floor.

"I'm pretty fast. I think I'll be ready to run in this track race," James said. "We look forward to running and doing the things they like to do, and may the best team win."

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail jeff.caplan@espn3.com.

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