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Texas Gets Behind Wheels of Ford in Title Drive

South Regional has three of past four champions, but Longhorns and their flashy guard are getting the attention.

March 28, 2003|Paul Gutierrez | Times Staff Writer

SAN ANTONIO — Texas has something its three South Regional opponents don't, and that's any advantage it might gain from playing in its home state.

But the Longhorns lack something owned by the other teams gathered at the Alamodome: A national championship.

Connecticut (1999), Michigan State (2000) and Maryland (2002) represent three of the past four winners.

That the only team here to not garner a title is the one favored to advance to the Final Four in New Orleans only adds to the intrigue.

"A lot of people are saying that the other teams are coming in here with nothing to lose," said Texas Coach Rick Barnes, whose top-seeded Longhorns (24-6) will meet No. 5 Connecticut (23-9) in the first regional semifinal tonight. No. 6 Maryland (21-9) then will play No. 7 Michigan State (21-12).

"But I think we all have something to lose -- if you lose [a game], you go home."

The Longhorns' trip, though, would be considerably shorter than the others' would, about a 90-minute drive.

"That's a real home-court advantage," said Connecticut sophomore center Emeka Okafor. "They're what, an hour, an hour-and-a-half away? That's a hop, skip and a jump."

Or less, where Texas' ultra-athletic, whirling dervish of a point guard, sophomore T.J. Ford, is concerned.

Ford, who could make the trip in a hop and a skip before dishing off an assist to let somebody else finish, has transformed the Longhorn basketball team, formerly a nice little diversion between football season and spring football practice, into a national contender.

"We've got to make him beat us with his jump shot rather than with his passing skills," said Okafor, a high school rival of Ford's in Houston.

And the Longhorns have to worry about Okafor's ability to alter things in the post. He's averaging 19 points, 11.5 rebounds and four blocks in the Huskies' two NCAA tournament wins, over Brigham Young and Stanford.

"You have to attack him," said Texas junior guard Royal Ivey, intimating that the Longhorns hope to negate Okafor's influence by getting him into foul trouble. "You can't be intimidated. He'll get his blocks, don't get me wrong, but you just have to take it to him."

With Texas and Connecticut averaging nearly 80 points, expect many challenges at both ends of the court.

The other semifinal, figures to be a battle of wills between programs not expected to be in the Sweet 16.

Michigan State was plodding along at 10-8 in late January before finding its rhythm. Defending champion Maryland needed a buzzer-beating three-point basket from senior guard Drew Nicholas to avoid a first-round upset loss to North Carolina Wilmington.

"One advantage Maryland has is their point guard [senior Steve Blake]," Spartan Coach Tom Izzo said. "Their quarterback is back ... it's awfully hard to knock off a team that has experience and has been there."

Even more so when you're the one playing without a true point guard, as the Spartans have sophomore gunner Chris Hill running their offense.

But Maryland Coach Gary Williams said Hill is still a player who helps the Spartans win.

"Chris makes great shots but he also does other things," said Williams, who last season shed his unable-to-win-the-big-one tag, beating Indiana for the national championship. "He plays good defense and shares the ball. That's what makes a good team is having good players that will do that."

Besides that, Barnes said, all four programs were built on being physical.

"We're physical-type teams that play physical defense and people will tell you that we all rebound the basketball and all four of us look to get opportunities in transition," he said.

That much they have in common.

Texas is hoping it will have one more similarity with the other three after this season's national championship game.

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