By Luke Winn
January 30, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas -- Texas' frontcourt had two face-the-truth moments early in the 2010-11 season. The first was against Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 19, when the Longhorns suffered a 68-66 loss that, in senior Gary Johnson's estimation, brought their manhood into question. "We played like females against Pitt," he said. "We were soft and everyone knew it. It was evident watching the game and in the stat sheet. ... And soon, that was our reputation."

And here's how they learned about their rep: After their one truly bad, non-conference loss, a 73-56 drubbing at USC on Dec. 5, a helpful Trojans player leaked Texas some scouting-report information. "We heard that [USC had been told] we were weak with the ball, and to get up into us because we were soft," freshman forward Tristan Thompson said. "That opened our eyes. If other people are thinking that? Then you know it's true, and you've got to do something about it."

On a Saturday night at the Frank Erwin Center almost two months later, the first question of Missouri's postgame press conference was about Texas' defense, and the answer had to be comforting to Johnson and Thompson. "It's no secret how they play," Tigers guard Kim English said. "They're a physical team, fast to the ball, and big, strong guys."

The seventh-ranked 'Horns had just finished a 71-58 drubbing of No. 11 Mizzou -- a game in which Johnson (15 points, nine rebounds), Thompson (nine points, 13 rebounds) and Jordan Hamilton (16 points, 13 rebounds) had thoroughly dominated the interior. Thompson set an early tone by being so beastly on the glass that he had as many first-half offensive boards (four) as the entire Tigers team.

He also made an ugly impact on the game with an inadvertent elbow to the chin of Mizzou forward Laurence Bowers, striking Bowers so hard following a layup at the 12:12 mark of the first half that he lay on the court, barely conscious, for a few minutes before being helped to the bench. Bowers remained so woozy that he was soon taken to the locker room, and his diagnosis (per Mizzou coach Mike Anderson) was a possible mild concussion. The Tigers had been lifeless early on, falling behind 11-0 to start the game, and losing Bowers -- who averages 11.5 points and 6.2 boards -- only sent them further into a funk. Anderson subtly voiced his concern about what happened, saying, "It was a very physical ballgame ... and I thought there were a lot of loose elbows out there."

Thompson was sympathetic afterward -- "I hope he's alright," he said of Bowers -- but hadn't realized the true force of his blow, which looked brutal in slow-mo replays. "When I turned around and saw him lying on the floor," he said, "I was like, 'Was that me?'"

Standing in the tunnel outside Texas' locker room, Thompson was wearing, at the end of a gold chain, a neon-pink plastic pendant that said "POW!" He'd seen Kanye West with it, so Thompson searched for it on the Internet, ordered it and added it to his own wardrobe. He acknowledged that it seemed appropriate for an evening in which he'd outdueled the Big 12's second-leading offensive rebounder, Ricardo Ratliffe, and controlled the paint. Ratliffe had zero offensive boards, while Thompson upped his season average to a league-best 3.81 per game. Thompson has heeded coach Rick Barnes' orders to fight for offensive position and be active on the glass and was a major factor in what Barnes called "the toughest game we've been through all year."

The Longhorns' toughness is not limited to their froncourt, however: The defensive tone is set, every game, by the tenacious, on-the-ball harassment of senior Dogus Balbay, who made it difficult for opposing point guards Michael Dixon and Phil Pressey to initiate offense. And while Balbay has deservedly gained a big-time defensive rep, the freshman he's taken under his wing -- Cory Joseph -- is emerging as an elite defender in his own right.

Joseph was given the daunting assignment of locking up Tigers guard Marcus Denmon, who came in to the game averaging 17.3 points on 49.1 percent long-range shooting. Denmon finished with a season-low seven points on 3-of-9 shooting, and failed to make a single three. Joseph limited Denmon's touches in part because he'd done so much study of Denmon's runs off stagger screens; Joseph was able to stay on the Tigers star's outside hip and keep him from getting easy catches. "Corey is a really underrated defender," Johnson said. "He's like a quiet killer."

Texas has dominated the Big 12 by growing into a killer man-to-man defensive team. The 'Horns limited Missouri to 0.83 points per possession on Saturday -- by far the Tigers' lowest output of the season. They hadn't been held under 1.00 points per possession in any Big 12 game prior to their visit to Austin. And just a week ago at Kansas, the 'Horns held the Jayhawks to 0.88 points per possession -- also their worst offensive performance of the season. It's no surprise, then, that Texas ranks first nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency.

What's amazing about the 'Horns is they've been able to cruise through the Big 12 -- with victory margins of 31 at Texas Tech, 20 over Oklahoma, 21 over Texas A&M, 11 at Kansas, 15 at Oklahoma State and 13 over Missouri -- without even coming close to reaching their offensive peak. Barnes made significant alterations to their offensive structure in the preseason, moving away from the random ball-screen scheme that didn't fit their personnel well in '09-10 to a more structured, flex-style attack; and they've progressively been more adept at scoring in half-court situations. They have a go-to scorer in Hamilton, but they're so inexperienced with what they're running that they're still prone to getting bogged down and taking questionable shots. Their win in Stillwater on Wednesday was plagued by offensive sloppiness, scoring only 0.88 PPP in the second half against Mizzou after posting 1.23 PPP in the first.

Almost a year ago, I came to Austin to see a version of the Longhorns that was imploding. I watched them get blown out by Kansas and subsequently go into a freefall from a No. 1 ranking to a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament. The '10-11 'Horns are giving off a completely different vibe, though, as they head into February -- that of a formidable team that remains on an upward trajectory. Their defense is already the nation's best, but because there's so much room to grow on offense, I consider Texas to be a better Final Four pick than four of the six teams ranked ahead in the Associated Press poll. Only Duke and Ohio State look like safer bets at the moment.

The 'Horns have been stunningly good in going 6-0 to start the Big 12; now just think how good they'll be in March. They've figured how to be physical rather than soft; if they can figure out how to score as well as they defend, we'll be seeing them in Houston. It has been said many times -- accurately -- that this is a season without a truly dominant team, but it seems that Texas is getting there.

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