Wednesday, March 12, 2003

Basketball rules at Texas for now

By Jim Vertuno
The Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas - There is always talk of being No. 1 at Texas. The football team, for sure, and the handful of sports that pass the time between bowl games and preseason practice. Now there's another game in town. With both the men's and women's teams candidates for No. 1 seeds at the NCAA tournament, Longhorns fans are suddenly big on basketball.

"Texas is a basketball school," joked women's coach Jody Conradt.

This is a school with a loaded trophy case. There is last year's baseball national championship plus 10 titles for track and field, tennis, and swimming and diving since 1993. For this month, though, one sport rules.

The women's basketball team won their first Big 12 title. The men have been ranked in the top 10 all season, beat Oklahoma twice in a row for the first time in 50 years and boast one of the best players in the country in point guard T.J. Ford.

The No. 5 women (22-5) are the top seed in this week's Big 12 tournament. The third-ranked men (22-5) finished second in the Big 12.

Both teams went undefeated at home, combining to go 29-0 at the Frank Erwin Center. The men reached as high as No. 2 in The Associated Press poll, the school's highest ranking ever.

"I really feel like before I graduate, Texas will be thought of as a great basketball school," junior guard Brandon Mouton said.

Texas' men have been consistent winners, with 12 NCAA tournament appearances in the last 14 years. They will get their fifth appearance in coach Rick Barnes' fifth season. Texas won the Big 12 in 1998-99 and went to the round of 16 last season.

But going to the tournament and going in as a favorite are two different things. A No. 1 seed carries responsibility.

"It speaks volumes for our program," Barnes said. "This team has had as good a year as anybody."

"Texas is a one seed, I betcha," Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson said Saturday after Texas beat the Sooners 76-71 in Norman. "And they should be."

Ford, among the favorites for national player of the year honors, leads Texas in scoring (14.8) and the Big 12 in assists (7.22).

"They've got the best point guard in my opinion in college basketball," Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton said earlier this season. "I don't know who can cover him."

The Texas women finished the regular season on a 10-game winning streak.

"I thought this would be a really good year for us," said Conradt, who took the Longhorns to the round of 16 last season. I saw their commitment, we had a little taste of the (NCAA tournament) and that was motivation."

The first big win came in December when freshman Nina Norman hit the winning 3-pointer in 63-62 win over perennial power Tennessee. Then in January, a 69-58 win over rival Texas Tech made Conradt just the second women's coach to reach 800 career victories. She's 810-263 in 34 seasons overall.

The season mirrored Texas' glory years of the 1980s when women's games sometimes outdrew the men's, and Conradt guided the first undefeated NCAA women's national champion in 1986.

This year, the women got steady scoring from sophomore forward Heather Schreiber and junior center Stacy Stephens. The addition of Norman and junior transfer Jamie Carey added a backcourt presence.

But even with the Big 12 title this year, Conradt says she'd be surprised with a top seeding in the tournament. Connecticut and Duke are all but guaranteed No. 1 seeds, with the others most likely to go to Tennessee and LSU, she said.

For the men and women, there are signs of more good things to come for both teams.

Ford said recently he's "110 percent sure" he'll return for his junior season to lead a team that has no senior starters this year. And Conradt snared an excellent recruit in 6-foot-4 forward Tiffany Jackson.

Add Erwin Center - which is being redone to add luxury boxes - and the future looks very bright for basketball at a football school like Texas.

"It's happening," Mouton said. "We've got the ball rolling, we just need to keep going."

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