Just three weeks ago, Texas boasted a 17-0 record and the nation’s No. 1 ranking, and senior Damion James had become a fashionable national player-of-the-year candidate.
Since then, the Longhorns have gone 2-4 and will slip out of the top 10 when today’s rankings are released. James? He made just four of 13 free throws in a loss to Oklahoma.
How did the Longhorns fall so far, so fast?
For one thing, they were overrated. Two nonconference victories thought to be impressive at the time they scored them, in retrospect, came against foes who were unworthy of their rankings.
Pittsburgh suffered a recent stretch of four losses in five games, including setbacks to unranked foes Seton Hall and South Florida. North Carolina has lost six of eight, a tailspin that started with a setback to College of Charleston.
Defeating Michigan State stands up as an impressive performance — even though the Spartans lost twice last week in the Big Ten — but the Longhorns have been exposed as flawed, weighed down by a center, Dexter Pittman, averaging less than 20 minutes a game, and a three-headed point-guard rotation.
James isn’t mentioned much anymore in Wooden Award talk, but he is averaging 18 points and 11 rebounds and is capable of taking over a game against a quality team. He dominated Michigan State’s front line with 23 points and 13 rebounds in a 79-68 victory Dec. 22.
A 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward from Nacogdoches, Texas, James is a .377 three-point shooter, but he has gone four games in a row without hitting a shot from long distance, attempting just one in each of those games.
A nonconference loss to UConn, mixed into the Longhorns’ schedule after four Big 12 games, couldn’t be traced to James. He had 23 points and seven rebounds.
James remains the biggest threat to KU’s unbeaten Big 12 record. Last season in Allen Fieldhouse, James scored 20 of his team-high 26 points in the first half of a game Kansas came from behind to win, 83-73.
Remarkably consistent, complete-player Marcus Morris draws the tough defensive assignment. Morris helped to limit Iowa State’s Craig Brackins — a longer, less physical player than James — to 13 points.
“He can shoot the ball, he can put it on the ground,” Morris said of James. “He’s a three playing the four. That’s going to be a tough assignment. I’m going to watch film on him. I’m going to see his tendencies, what he enjoys doing, what way he goes. That’s just going to be my assignment for the game. I’m not worried about scoring. I’m not worried about rebounding. I’m just worried about taking one of their best players out of the game.”
More than depth of talent makes Texas an extremely dangerous opponent for Kansas. The home team has the advantage in Saturday-Monday games. This will be KU’s third overall game and second road game in six days. Texas is desperate for a signature victory to restore its confidence. Winning this one will require a slicker effort from the Jayhawks than they put forth against either Colorado or Nebraska.
Texas won’t go 10-for-27 at the free-throw line as it did in the loss at Oklahoma, one that left the Longhorns wounded and dangerous.