Thursday, March 20, 2003

Texas on guard against upset

By Jim Vertuno
The Associated Press

AUSTIN, Texas - Early exits are nothing new for Texas. But the Longhorns insist they've learn from their mistakes, and are determined to take advantage of their first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

"We want to be a great team, not a good team," said junior guard Brandon Mouton. "We really want to win a national championship. Our eye is on the prize."

Texas (22-6) is the top seed in the South and open Friday in Birmingham, Ala., against North Carolina Asheville. Several of the Longhorns played in a first-round loss in the 2001 NCAA tournament and experienced another early exit in last week's loss to Texas Tech in the Big 12 tournament quarterfinals.

"We need to move forward," Mouton said. "We have bigger games in front of us."

Coach Rick Barnes has led Texas into the tournament in each of his five years in Austin, but the Longhorns were never seeded higher than fifth.

This year's key players were freshmen when Texas lost to Temple in the first round in 2001. Point guard T.J. Ford joined them in 2002 and guided the 'Horns to two tournament wins, a surprising run to the round of 16.

Now, without a senior starter among them, Texas fields a seasoned bunch of veterans in search of a title.

"I'm quite eager myself to see how they handle it," Barnes said. "They understand how quickly it can be over with, they do know that."

Texas earned the top seed on the strength of being ranked in the top 10 all season, a second-place finish in the Big 12 and a tough non-conference schedule. Texas beat fellow No. 1-seed Oklahoma twice.

Even so, Barnes has found himself defending his team's lofty tournament status. Kansas, the Big 12 regular-season champion, beat Texas in their only matchup this season and went deeper into the conference tournament. Kansas is the No. 2 seed in the West.

And by picking Texas, the NCAA selection committee also bypassed Pittsburgh (26-4), which won the Big East and hoped it would get a top seed. Instead, the fourth-ranked Panthers are No. 2 in the Midwest.

The Big 12 tournament loss to Texas Tech, a team the Longhorns beat twice during the regular season, raised even more questions.

But Barnes makes no excuses for Texas' lofty status for the NCAA tournament.

"If I were a person who wanted to make a case for Texas, I would have a pretty good case for that, that we are worthy of a No. 1 seed," Barnes said. "And there are other teams that could say that.

"Every school could say we've got a shot at it. But the way it was laid out, we've got to take it and see what we can do with it."

Texas must avoid the temptation to look ahead to the round of 16. Texas must win twice to get there and if they do, they'll play just 75 miles south in San Antonio, a homestate advantage within easy driving distance for hometown fans.

Ford said there's no chance of looking ahead - the No. 1 seed put everything into focus.

"That's a goal we set at the beginning of the year, to make it to the Final Four," Ford said. "We'll just take it one game at a time."

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