Horns ready to face Illinois in Madison Square Garden

AddThis

If the initial two games of the season were a peek at the Longhorns’ new offensive scheme, full of high-post jumpers and off-ball screens, Thursday’s clash with No. 13 Illinois represents the first true test of the system for unranked Texas.

The Longhorns (2-0) travel to Madison Square Garden in New York City for the second round of the 2K Sports Classic, where head coach Rick Barnes will get to see his newly minted, highly structured offense against a Big Ten defense known for its physicality — the Illini (3-0) average 19 fouls per game, tied for third most in their conference.

Barnes picked up the offense from watching the NBA’s Utah Jazz practice during the offseason. After last season’s late implosion, including a first-round NCAA tournament exit, the coach was criticized for his lack of a consistent structure. This year, he’s moved to the opposite end of the spectrum with an emphasis on motion and very specific floor spacing.

“It opens up things for a lot of people. It’s a slow-paced offense,” said senior forward Gary Johnson. “Our offense is going to speak for itself.”

Texas opened the season with two big wins, scoring more than 80 points in consecutive games to start the year for the first time since 2006.

“We need to get it into the high-percentage area and get some movement off of it and do what we’ve been doing,” Barnes said. “It’s important to get the ball where we need to get it.”

Ball movement will be especially important against the Fighting Illini’s frontcourt, which sports a quarter of their players over 6-foot-8.

Freshman Tristan Thompson, who’s averaging 14.5 points and 7 rebounds per game, is aware of the challenge awaiting him in the post.

“Those guys are two great college players,” Thompson said, referring to Illinois’ 7-foot-1 Mike Tisdale and 6-foot-9 Mike Davis. “I’ll be tested on both ends, I’ve just gotta be prepared.”

The Longhorns’ new look has accounted for a good deal of improvement in ball movement but the players’ understanding is still a work in progress.

“I don’t think we’ve reached our peak as far as offense is concerned yet,” Johnson said. “And there’s a lot of reads out of this offense.”

Texas is one spot outside of The Associated Press Top 25 and No. 22 in the ESPN/USA Today coaches’ poll but could make a statement with an early season victory over a Big Ten powerhouse.

“If that was our mindset I’d like to think it’d be the best place to do that,” Johnson said. “But that’s not what we’re concerned about. We’re not trying to convince anyone that we’re a top-10 team or anything of that nature. We just want to go out and play and win games.”

The importance of this week’s trip to the Garden is not lost on the Longhorns, especially if they advance to the final round against either No. 5 Pittsburgh or ACC-contender Maryland on Friday.

“People could say it’s our first test, our first real test against a big-time team, so I’m excited to see how we match up against them,” Thompson said.