Longhorns' lap of luxury
AUSTIN, Texas -- Get a kid on this campus, and the recruiting process is all but over for Texas.
How could any high school player turn this place down?
I mean, if you find your way to Austin, be sure to check out the new Denton A. Cooley Pavilion -- the official name of UT's basketball mansion.
All that is missing is the butler.
The players' palatial estate -- which was funded mostly through donations from benefactors whose names adorn nearly every room -- proves Texas basketball is no longer just putting together decent teams. Texas basketball is now a program, one that should be put in the same sentence with any of the traditional heavyweights of the past 10 years.
Duke, Arizona, North Carolina, Michigan State, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Kansas, Maryland, Connecticut, Syracuse, Florida, Cincinnati, Oklahoma, Stanford ... these are the perennial contenders, save a blip once every few years.
But, not all of them have the facilities to stay at the top. Sure, Michigan State, Oklahoma, Illinois, Florida, Maryland and Connecticut have some new digs that are each very impressive. But after checking out Texas, the bar has been raised to a new level.
It is as if Mark Cuban had suddenly bought the Longhorns.
Texas seems to now have everything -- a Final Four appearance, a few lottery picks (Chris Mihm and T.J. Ford), a top-five recruiting class that includes one of most underrated talent pools in the country, and a world-class facility under Rick Barnes.
All that's missing is a national championship, which is certainly within reach.
This is no joke. The place was absolutely gorgeous. Just ask the current 'Horns.
Seniors James Thomas and Brian Boddicker were practically pinching themselves when they walked through the place last weekend for their first official practice. Classmates Royal Ivey and Brandon Mouton were just as wowed. And what about the newcomers? It almost wasn't fair for the three of them to see this without having had to earn a bit of it by going to the Final Four (even though the facilities were planned three years ago).
"Not many people would have one of these," said Ivey as he sat down on a leather couch in front of a massive flat-screen television in the soon-to-be fully furnished player's lounge, complete with computers for studying and Game Boys for entertainment.
"This is nice. It's big. There are flat screens everywhere. It feels like home, a place to come to any time, shoot and relax and do whatever you want to do."
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The 44,000-square foot facility, spotted with the Longhorn logo, burnt orange, black and white, and plenty of leather touches, is for the men and the women. ESPN.com checked out the whole facility -- save the women's offices and locker room. But the communal area and the men's side, let alone the two courts for men and women, were better than most of the facilities that house NBA teams.
Every player's locker is wide enough for his own personal space in front. And, within a year, a mini flat screen TV (equipped with a DVD, of course) will drop down from each locker to allow players to watch their own highlights. (OK, I'll say it. I was a bit jealous, at this point.) Already in place is a flat screen TV and grease board at the center of the horseshoe locker room. Oh, and the bathroom has a Jacuzzi.
The communal training center and strength areas are bigger than most commercial gyms. All this for 28 athletes (15 women and 13 men). Strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright has a whole area set up just for building speed and quickness with a soft mat running the length of the room. Wright said the equipment cost $300,000 for this room alone.
"The mat will allow us to develop speed, especially laterally and multidirectional speed," Wright said. "Speed and mobility are the name of the game."
While the players don't mind the excess, Barnes didn't want some sort of shrine to himself, so the coaches may have a larger locker room and lounge, but no offices in the building. They kept those on the main campus.
"I looked at everybody's and I thought a lot of money was spent on plush coaches' offices," said Barnes, who visited Duke, North Carolina, Florida and Oklahoma. "I don't want that. I've got an office at my house and on campus. What coach (Jody) Conradt and I decided is that we wanted the best training facility in the country.
"I don't need a plush office. I could work out of the equipment room. What we tried to do is fix everybody's mistakes."
Ah, but even the Longhorns' deep pockets couldn't stop a few nasty crickets from getting into the building. But their mad dash across the court most likely was their last.
With all the money being put into the Texas basketball programs, Barnes was adamant that this is a players' facility. And while all the bells and whistles are nice, the best part about Denton A. Cooley Pavilion is its court -- something that could be a difference-maker for the Longhorns this season.
Sure, Texas made due with the Erwin Center up until this season, and got to the Final Four without a practice facility. But the Longhorns only had practice time at the Erwin Center when a concert or the circus or some sort of school function wasn't being held. When Erwin was occupied, you could find Texas practicing at Gregory Gym or the Student Recreation Center. Both fine facilities, but not where a top 10 team should be forced to co-exist with the intramural leagues.
"I can remember last December when we came back from a trip and T.J. Ford wanted to shoot," Barnes said. "We drove to the Erwin Center, but they had already taken up the floor. We couldn't find a place on campus so we drove around looking for an outdoor court.
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Down at Texas, there were tears over the departure of the maestro man, point guard T.J. Ford, the near-consensus national player of the year. Ford left for the NBA after his junior year.
But, don't cry too much for the Longhorns. Believe me, this club is deep -- with size, talent and strong coaching from Rick Barnes. With strong senior leadership, Texas will be a threat all season long.
The power game inside, led by senior center James Thomas, should be special. Senior guard Brandon Mouton has great shooting range, and senior point guard Royal Ivey is a defensive dynamo.
Barnes will have this team in contention in the Big 12.
"We didn't have a home. Our guys always found somewhere to shoot, but T.J. was notorious for shooting with students. I would tell him that was fine, but 'don't be playing.'"
Mouton said whenever he would go to the Rec Center, students always wanted to shoot, too.
"It was the worst,'' said Ivey. "There are 50,000 students here at one of the biggest schools in the country and they want to play, too. They pay to use the facilities and every time we would go to work out, they would want to play or watch you, and you couldn't get anything done. There aren't enough courts for everybody. You had to bring your own ball and seclude yourself.
"It was frustrating because at times we would come in there and all the courts were full. You didn't want to be a bully and kick anyone off. We had our slotted time and when it was over we had to go. Now with this gym, it's great. We can come here anytime. I love it."
The upstairs court has seven baskets with one beautiful fullcourt that puts some mid- or low-major courts to shame. (The women, who also advanced to the Final Four last season, have the same setup on the other side of a wall). The court was designed to limit any hazards. The water stations and equipment areas are sunken into openings so there is never spillage onto the floor or loose gadgets strewn along the sidelines. There is simply no excuse if a player wants, or needs to work on his shot, free throws or footwork. Then again, why would any Longhorn want to leave this place?
"Facilities don't make programs and we've proven that with what we had," Barnes said. "But we feel this gives us a chance to get good players and make them better. It's a way to say to your players, 'You guys earned this.'"
During last year's recruiting period, the Longhorns didn't have a finished Cooley Pavilion to show off to its recruits. But thanks to its Final Four appearance, Texas still landed a 2004 class of recruits with the potential to be No. 1 on some lists. Power forwards Mike Williams (Camden, Ala.) and Lamarcus Aldridge (Seagoville, Texas), small forward Dion Dowell (Texas City, Texas), center Connor Atchley (Houston) and point guard Daniel Gibson (Houston) -- who already has folks talking about him filling Ford's shoes in 2004-05 -- will be the foundation of future success.
As for the outgoing senior class, which proved it could reach the Final Four by shooting at the Rec center and sharing a court with the circus, it's not about to rest on its laurels and live the life of luxury in these new digs.
OK, they lost Ford, the Wooden and Naismith All-American. But this team is akin to Michigan State in 2000 after it lost Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson. The Longhorns will be a veteran team that lacks superstars, but so too were the Spartans who made it back to the 2001 Final Four.
"I can see that scenario," Ivey said. "They lost two superstars though. But they had veterans and experience. We know the game and know what it takes. We'll just buckle down and get ready."
The Longhorns return the other four senior starters from last year's Final Four run and everyone but Thomas can legitimately make outside shots. Barnes marveled at how well this team shoots and isn't overly fretting about losing Ford.
The four seniors -- Thomas, Boddicker, Ivey and Mouton -- know as much about winning in the Big 12 as any team in the league. The core role guys like Jason Klotz, Brad Buckman, Sydmill Harris and Kenton Paulino are all capable of breakout games. Mouton is a potential star. Expect newcomers Kenny Taylor, Edgar Moreno and P.J. Tucker to have an impact.
"A lot of people are counting us out because T.J. was such a great player," Ivey said. "But our nucleus is back. Brandon is one of the most underrated guards, and James Thomas is tough in the post. You've got me at the (point), Brian Boddicker as a sharp shooter, Jason Klotz and Sydmill Harris can all shoot and have been to a Final Four. Everybody wants more. We'll still be one of the best defensive teams in the country."
"We'll still be a hard-nosed team that does everything to win," Mouton said. "That hasn't changed at all (by losing Ford)."
What has changed is Texas arriving as a perennial basketball power on the court. And last year's Final Four appearance was the result of Barnes building a program. If, or when, the Longhorns finally win a men's national title, Texas now has the facility worthy of showing it off some day.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.