Thomas benched as team seeks answers

12/21/2003 - Texas Longhorns

NEW YORK -- Texas' problems aren't at the point. The Longhorns' issues are inside.

That's what they'll tell you.

They have the evidence, too: an embarrassing 89-61 loss to Duke on Saturday at Madison Square Garden.

If the problems aren't fixed soon, the Longhorns can forget about competing for the top of the Big 12, let alone for a Final Four berth in San Antonio.

James Thomas played four minutes against the Blue Devils. That would be senior center and preseason Wooden All-American candidate James Thomas.

He hit 2 of 4 free throws, missed all four field-goal attempts and picked up two fouls and one turnover in those four minutes.

Conversely, Duke dominated the post with Shavik Randolph (10 points and nine boards) and Shelden Williams (14 points and nine boards) owning the paint.

Texas coach Rick Barnes benched Thomas after four minutes, going instead with his three best practice post players: freshman P.J. Tucker, junior Jason Klotz and sophomore Brad Buckman. Tucker, who was averaging 14.8 points a game, threw up a goose egg in 16 minutes and Klotz only scored four points. That left Buckman, who finished with a dozen, as the only consistent inside presence.

"Royal isn't the problem," Barnes said in defense of senior point guard Royal Ivey, who has the impossible task of replacing T.J. Ford this season. Ivey actually had a decent outing with 12 points, nine assists and three turnovers in 38 minutes.

"Our wings aren't doing what they need to because they're too tentative, but it's inside," Barnes said. "We've got to score inside."

Barnes was even more direct when asked about Thomas' performance.

"He missed the basket, he missed free throws," Barnes said. "It got down to where we had to go with our best offensive players and our three best low-post scorers in practice were P.J., Brad and Jason. If (Thomas) makes those shots early in the game, it's a different game. We got knocked around a bit.

"This was ugly. We're not that bad, but today we were," Barnes said. "Duke spreads you out, and once you guard their perimeter shooters, they put the ball inside. Our post guys have got to do a better job."

Barnes said Thomas was banged up in the preseason and missed practices because of back and ankle injuries. But Thomas said injuries weren't an issue for him.

"That's not why I didn't play," Thomas said.

"I'm not hurt at all. I don't know. I missed a few shots and got off to a bad start. We're missing a presence period. We missed a lot of easy ones. We're missing scoring and a dominant post player."

Isn't that supposed to be Thomas? Whether it's ultimately him or one of the other Horns, Ivey agreed with the big man's assessment.

"We've got to have somebody step up in the post," he said. "We don't have an inside presence. We need somebody to do that for this team."

Ivey was defensive, however, about the leadership vacuum on the team. He said that's not an issue with the Longhorns. But he did say this team is too relaxed and too lackadaisical.

"We've got to go back to the drawing board," Ivey said. "We just lost by 30 (actually 28), so a lot of things are going through your mind. We've got a long season, but not everyone is on the same page. We've got to get focused."

Texas better get its act together soon. The Longhorns' two trips out of Austin so far were in New York, and both were downright awful: a loss to Arizona by nine (it wasn't that close until a late run by Texas) and then Saturday's result.

Texas has to go to Providence on Jan. 5 for the opener of Big Monday. The Friars play a zone that could challenge the Longhorns' shooters and their post players. More importantly, the Friars could cause plenty of problems with Ryan Gomes and Marcus Douthit inside. Gomes is a tough matchup because he can score from anywhere in the paint, and Douthit is an excellent shot blocker.

While the Longhorns left dejected, the Blue Devils were ecstatic with their effort, especially that of Chris Duhon. The senior point guard played his most complete game of the season with 15 points (7 of 10 shooting), nine assists and one turnover in 33 minutes.

"It's starting to click for us," Duhon said. "I'm enjoying every game, I'm aggressive, attacking more and seeing the game in a different perspective. The main thing is I'm having fun, and I'm not feeling a lot of pressure."

Texas would love to utter that kind of statement after a big-time game. For now, the Longhorns are only good against weaker competition. They won't be any better in the Big 12 until they solve their ineptness inside.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.