Texas overcomes bumps, back on title path

Updated: March 24, 2006, 11:43 PM ET
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- So here we are with Texas in the Elite Eight, just like we thought at the beginning of the season.

The Longhorns also believed they would get here -- and they didn't mind the ups and downs along the way.

Yes, Texas shared the Big 12 regular-season title and won at Memphis in early January. But there were several pitfalls -- and when the Longhorns fell, they hit the ground hard. Losses to Duke, vs. Tennessee and at Oklahoma State all were by at least 18 points.

LaMarcus Aldridge
GettyLaMarcus Aldridge & Co. were able to recover from a number of routs.

What the Horns now want you to understand is that never was supposed to be a free ride.

"We weren't the second-best team in the country when we played Duke," Texas coach Rick Barnes said of the much-hyped Dec. 10 matchup. "We weren't."

He's right. And it didn't help that Brad Buckman was hurt in that game, at a time when he was a key member of the offense. The subsequent loss to Tennessee, a team that Barnes was quick to point out was better than anyone thought at the time, happened with Buckman and point guard Daniel Gibson (early game concussion) out.

The Longhorns had to figure themselves out. They took Gibson off the ball, played Kenton Paulino at the point more, got freshman A.J. Abrams to become more comfortable as a point and started to get more production out of Mike Williams off the bench.

But most of all, they realized the importance of leaning on forward P.J. Tucker, who became the Big 12 player of the year, and center LaMarcus Aldridge, who often emerged as a dominant presence.

"Look, it's a long season and we had a young team and guys get tired at times," Buckman said. "But we've played well lately. Our guys aren't settling. Our goal is to win the national championship."

Texas still has to get by LSU -- a similarly athletic, frontcourt-oriented team -- in the Elite Eight on Saturday in order to have a chance to win it all in Indianapolis, but unlike Duke, the team that obliterated the Horns in December, Texas is still alive.

"It was a real roller coaster, and I wouldn't have predicted how we got here at the beginning of the year with those back-to-back losses [to Duke and Tennessee], but we've been a confident group," Gibson said.

Texas has seemed like the most self-assured of the four teams that were here. The reason, to some extent, is the way the Longhorns can morph into different styles. They're not cocky, but they're confident at every position. They don't panic. They can go big or small, play with power or finesse. They can go man or use a 2-3 zone.

They have played West Virginia twice and won. They have outrun Kansas at home and outslogged uptempo Villanova and Memphis. Up next is an LSU team that can be offensively challenged, but will try to match the Longhorns' frontcourt power.

Connecticut still remains the favorite to bring home the crown, but the Longhorns are in the mix, too -- even if the path the early season contenders took to get to this point was a little windy.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com