Jai Lucas

TULSA, Okla. — Every time the video montage is played prior to a Texas home game, someone will either glance over at assistant coach Kenton Paulino and smile or give him a little nudge.

One of the highlights that plays on the Frank Erwin Center screen is Paulino’s game winning buzzer-beater against West Virginia to send Texas to the Elite Eight in the 2006 NCAA Tournament.

“I can watch it over and over again,” Paulino said. “I don’t think it will ever get old.”

Junior Alexis Wangmene remembers that moment like it was yesterday.

“That was my favorite tournament memory,” Wangmene said.

Jai Lucas’ favorite tournament memory came in 2004 when his brother John Lucas III hit a 3-pointer in the Elite Eight with six seconds left to beat top-seeded St. Joseph’s in New Jersey.

“That’s a moment I will remember for the rest of my life,” Lucas said.

Every player on the team has his favorite memory from watching when they were younger. Cory Joseph and his entire family would gather around the TV every March and just watch basketball. Matt Hill would always try to find a TV in between classes in junior high and high school. Lucas remembers showing off his baby blue North Carolina t-shirt in the hallways of Bellaire High School after the Tar Heels won the National Championship.

Tristan Thompson’s favorite game was when Virginia Commonwealth upset Duke in the first round of the 2007 tournament because he would always love to see upsets.

“But now that I’m playing in the tournament I don’t want to see the underdog win,” Thompson said.

Staying out of the Pool

The Longhorns have no interest in taking part in a bracket pool. Lucas used to always pick the winner with his friends, but that tradition stopped when he got to college.

The team won’t even watch any of the analysis or predictions made.

“It’s just people’s opinions,” Hill said. “You never know what’s going to happen. Whatever everyone picks usually doesn’t happen anyways.”

Even Thompson, who said he never turns his TV off ESPN, can’t watch it. They do however watch as many of the actual games as they can.

Staying off the Beach

This is the Longhorns’ 13th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament. That also means 13 straight years without a spring break for Rick Barnes’ squads as the opening rounds of NCAA Tournament usually coincide with the week off a school that most students get.

Every year, Hill has to hear from his friends about their trip to Mexico. Sometimes he wishes he could join them, but he is always content with his trip.

“I think I get the better end of the deal,” Hill said.

Lucas noted that the team actually gets two spring breaks including the Big 12 Championship week which they miss most of school from. He’s not complaining.

“I think I’d rather experience this any day,” Lucas said.

Basketball players know what they are getting themselves into when they choose to play in college. Sometimes that means sacrificing a relaxing week at the beach for a chance at a NCAA title.

“This is our fun time,” Wangmene said. “I don’t have any problem with that.”

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — For most of the season, Jai Lucas has been the ninth man in a nine-man rotation that the Longhorns run.

His minutes would vary game by game. He played as much as 30 against Rice in December. He did not appear on the court for one second against Baylor in February.

“You never know when you are going to go in,” Lucas said. “It just happens.”

On Thursday, Lucas was the first player off Rick Barnes’ bench for the second consecutive game — a position that J’Covan Brown, Matt Hill or Alexis Wangmene usually fill.

Lucas first entered the game with 16:12 remaining in the first half after two Dogus Balbay turnovers. The score was 4-2. Nine seconds later, Lucas hit a 3-pointer. Following a Gary Johnson jumper, Lucas ran the length of the court for a layup to put Texas up 11-2, forcing Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel to call a time-out.

Lucas, a senior transfer from Florida, scored all eight of his points in the first half of Texas’ 74-54 win over Oklahoma, a win which allowed Texas to advance to the semifinals of the Big 12 Tournament tonight against Texas A&M.

With Balbay not being much of an offensive threat, Lucas has become the guy who can replace him with the same mentality and effort, in addition to a better jumpshot.

But the Longhorns don’t usually rely on Lucas for scoring. He is there for his leadership.

“When he comes into the games, he calms everyone down,” said freshman Tristan Thompson. “It’s almost like Coach Barnes is on the court playing with us. He brings that whole coaching aspect of the game to us.”

When on the court, Lucas is the ball-handler. He calls the plays and creates for everyone; he has become a vocal leader of the Longhorns in his senior year.

Lucas’ voice was most heard late in the first half. His man had sagged off into the paint, and Lucas was standing all alone in the corner. He was clapping and screaming for the ball. Cory Joseph received a pass at the top of the key and turned.

“I saw his eyes look at me and I was ready to shoot,” Lucas said.

With his two 3-pointers, Lucas matched his total during the entire Big 12 season. He has continued to work on his shot but sees no change in his stroke. Instead he has worked on getting into the flow of the game.

Now, he just doesn’t have to wait as long.

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — You could call it a comeback for Jordan Hamilton if the sophomore swingman didn’t already average a team-best 18.5 points per outing. But after a five-game slump in which he hit just 31.5 percent of his shots, Thursday’s 22-point performance was a turnaround of sorts for Hamilton as Texas defeated Oklahoma 74-54 in the second round of the Big 12 tournament. “I had some days off, and we had a chance to go on and practice and execute and listen to what Coach has been saying,” Hamilton said. Hamilton was dangerous in close, scoring eight of his points in the paint, and from afar with two treys plus a few more long jumpers. “He knows when to take shots and when to turn them down,” said Texas guard Dogus Balbay. “We believe in him.” On a day when top-seeded Kansas barely escaped Oklahoma State and No. 4 seed Kansas State fell, the Longhorns (26-6, 14-3 Big 12) blew out the Sooners. They showed signs of their mid-season form — when they rattled off a record 11-straight conference wins — with accurate shooting and stifling defense. Texas dominated 39-23 on the glass and out-scored its opponent 34-18 in the paint. “We got back to getting on the glass,” said Texas coach Rick Barnes. “I thought we really looked to help each other.” Oklahoma (14-18, 5-11) was 40.4 percent from the field, well above average for a Texas opponent, but attempted 10 fewer shots than Texas. “Texas can really pressure defensively,” said Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel. “They obviously have depth where they can keep coming at you in waves.” And it was bench players that helped sustain the Texas lead when its starters’ shots weren’t falling. Senior guard Jai Lucas was first off the bench for the Longhorns and scored eight points in 20 minutes to go along with three assists. Fellow guard J’Covan Brown finished with 11 points and five assists and supplied some timely jumpers to break a number of scoring droughts. At one point, the only starter on the floor was Cory Joseph. “I thought our bench was terrific tonight,” Barnes said. It all started with an 11-2 opening run that had Texas way out in front. The team shot 62.1 percent in the opening period. “Their pressure got to us,” said Oklahoma senior guard Cade Davis. “We were kind of forcing shots.” Davis put up a team-high 17 points for the Sooners. The 6-foot-5 guard was a matchup problem for the Longhorns on the perimeter, but Texas forward Alexis Wangmene helped limit his scoring drives in the second half. “It was hard, but I was supposed to do it,” Wangmene said. Texas closed the half on a 10-2 run to enter the break up by 23. But Oklahoma out-scored the Longhorns 19-10 at the start of the second half, prompting Barnes to call a timeout with 12:28 remaining in the game. “Playing with a lead is always hard,” Lucas said. “We just have to find a way to keep playing as if the score is 0-0.” Even as Texas relented, allowing some easy buckets — including 14 points off turnovers for Oklahoma — the lead was never seriously threatened. The Sooners got within 13 but couldn’t manage to trim the gap any more. With a little over a minute left, Oklahoma’s Davis was pulled from the game, and he solemnly hugged each teammate and member of the coaching staff on the bench before sitting down. It was that kind of night for the Sooners, who lost all three of their contests versus Texas this year by an average of 18.6 points.

All the usual stars showed up for Texas on Monday night — Jordan Hamilton scored a game-high 20 points, Tristan Thompson added 10 points and five boards and Cory Joseph scored 11 — but for the Longhorns to win by 20, it took some atypical contributions from the team’s role players.

Matt Hill, Jai Lucas, J’Covan Brown and Alexis Wangmene all logged significant minutes as other players sat with foul trouble.

“We always trust our bench,” said starting guard Dogus Balbay. “Tonight was one of those nights, you know, they came in and changed the game.”

Hill was first off the bench in both halves. His first touch of the ball was a putback minutes into the game that he immediately followed up with a defensive rebound on the other end.

“What Matt Hill does doesn’t really show up on the stat sheet,” Hamilton said. “He’s a great defender, and he’s a force inside.”

Hill and fellow reserve forward Wangmene helped defend A&M’s David Loubeau, Ray Turner and Keith Davis inside after starters Thompson and Gary Johnson were pulled for accumulating early fouls.

“Matt Hill came in and rebounded his tail off,” Thompson said. “He was really impressive inside and gave their big men a tough time.”

Hill also converted two field goals, including a mid-range jumper, an unusual shot for the 6-foot-10 post player.

“When he hit the little jump shot in the lane,” said A&M head coach Mark Turgeon. “It was kind of their night.”

The senior hadn’t played much in recent games — just 11 minutes against Missouri on Saturday and three versus Oklahoma State on Jan. 26. But head coach Rick Barnes turned to him for relief and leadership on Monday and the senior responded with a season-high eight rebounds.

“He’s one of those guys on the offensive end that just keeps things gong,” Barnes said about Hill. “But he came up with some big rebounds on the defensive end.”

Lucas and Brown effectively ran the point when Balbay was out. Brown played 24 minutes, the most he’s played since a Jan. 22 win at Kansas, and scored eight points.

Overall, the Texas reserves outscored their Aggie counterparts 19-10.

“There wasn’t any drop off tonight,” Turgeon said. “I thought Wangmene played well and [Matt] Hill really played well.”

Brown, Lucas and Wangmene all scored during a crucial 14-0 run by Texas halfway through the first period while three starters sat with foul trouble.

The scoring streak helped Texas build a 25-point halftime lead, its largest of the season.

Last Saturday’s three-point win over Rice was exactly what the Longhorns needed, according to Rick Barnes.

“That game was good for us,” the Texas head coach said on Monday. “I think being in a close game — at no point in time in that game did these guys panic.”

Whatever the Longhorns were expecting against Rice, they were treated to a lesson in clock management as the Owls matched them shot for shot and made the most of each long possession over the weekend.

Barnes hopes his team has learned from that experience as No. 19 Texas (5-1) faces the Southland Conference’s Lamar Cardinals (4-2) on Wednesday night in the Frank Erwin Center.

The Longhorns’ biggest problem against Rice was an inability to adapt against the Owls’ matchup zone. Texas had to settle for perimeter shots, a strategy which limited the team to 20 points in the first half and nearly led to the first home loss of the year.

“We need to be able to adjust,” said Texas guard Jai Lucas. “We need to be able to move to the next thing with no hesitation, to communicate and have patience.”

The team doesn’t practice much against the zone, according to Lucas, and it showed versus the Owls. Luckily for Lucas and the rest of the Longhorns, Lamar mostly runs a full-court pressure defense that relies on man-to-man coverage. That could play into the Longhorns’ strengths: post up ability in the frontcourt and strong individual defenders.

“You just have to focus on defense,” Lucas said. “For some reason, when you talk about defense I don’t think any player gets excited.”

The Cardinals are fresh off a 118-69 win over St. Gregory’s and have scored 90 or more points in a game four times this season, compared to the Longhorns’ single 90-point game.

But the Texas defense has held every opponent under 85 points, even in an overtime victory against 20th-ranked Illinois two weeks ago.

“Defense wins games,” said guard Cory Joseph. “If we can take care of that, then the other details ... will take care of themselves.”

Joseph would know. The first-year Longhorn started his sixth straight game for Texas on Saturday and is likely to be in the first five against Lamar because Barnes believes the young man is a reliable one-on-one defender.

Along with fellow freshman Tristan Thompson, the two rookies are first and second in minutes on the team by a wide margin.

“They play, they have a great motor,” Barnes said about his freshmen. “They’ve earned the time that they’ve had.”

Barnes said Joseph “has settled down” in his role while Thompson, who leads the team in blocks and steals, is now a player “people are going to game plan for.”

Texas, which last defeated Lamar 96-82 in 1995 and leads the all-time series 4-0, will get a chance to iron out the post-Rice wrinkles tonight at home against one of the Southland’s top teams.

The Rice game was a test for the Longhorns but they’re confident the close call will prepare them for what’s to come.

“You always want a game like that just to test you,” Lucas said. 

A frustrated Damion James walks off the court during the Longhorns' 69-59 win against Oklahoma State on Feb. 24.

Photo Credit: Bobby Longoria | Daily Texan Staff

Try to think back to a time long, long ago. All the way back to January of this year.

Things were much different then.

A catastrophic earthquake shook Haiti. “Avatar” captured the hearts of millions with its “Fern Gully”-meets-”Pocahontas” charm. Your humble columnist enjoyed his 22nd birthday.

The Texas Longhorns were 17-0 and ranked No. 1 for the first time in school history. Fans were thinking that the Horns could make their first Final Four appearance since 2003, and maybe even a national championship was well within reach.

My, how times have changed.

As you well know, the Longhorns proved to be one of the biggest pretenders in recent history. Convincing wins over Pittsburgh, Michigan State and North Carolina became afterthoughts as Texas dropped eight of its last 14 games. The heartbreaking overtime loss to Wake Forest in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last week just happened to be the last.

It was, all things considered, a merciful end to a season gone very, very wrong. Better to lose an exciting game to Wake Forest than to be destroyed by top-seeded Kentucky two days later. Maybe the players found time to hit up Bourbon Street or the beach to squeeze some enjoyment out of their spring break.

But now that it’s all over, it’s possible to actually reflect on the season that started with so much promise.

Remember how, after the team went all of the 2008-09 season without a true point guard, it was supposed to have a surplus this season?

Even when Varez Ward, Texas’ most complete point guard, went down in November with a ruptured quadriceps, we thought things were OK. There were still Dogus Balbay, J’Covan Brown and Jai Lucas.

Boy, were we fooled.

Despite preseason talk of Balbay actually developing a jump shot, he averaged just 3.8 points per game before tearing his ACL in February. Brown never got into Texas coach Rick Barnes’ good graces, often riding the bench for long stretches despite exploding for 28 points the game before. Lucas, the Florida transfer, was a non-factor and proved that the talent pool in the Big 12 is head-and-shoulders above that of the SEC. This ain’t football, after all.

Now, there’s already talk of Barnes hitting the recruiting trail to try to woo stud high-school point guard Cory Joseph of Findlay Prep, the same Nevada academy that produced Avery Bradley and 2010-11 commit Tristan Thompson.

So much for a surplus.

Remember how the youth injection of freshmen Bradley, Brown, Jordan Hamilton and Shawn Williams was supposed to give Texas an endless supply of offensive weapons?

Bradley never found his rhythm and didn’t back up the talk about him being just as good as, if not better than, Kentucky’s stud freshman John Wall. Hamilton was the team’s streakiest player and biggest hothead. Despite being the Horns’ leading scorer at halftime during Wake, he hardly saw the court in the second half because Barnes thought he broke down mentally. Williams hardly played before getting hurt and missing the season.

Remember how Damion James and Dexter Pittman both said no to NBA millions to return for their senior season and provide a guiding light for a freshman-heavy team’s run to a championship?

To his credit, James did exactly what he should have done. He finished the season averaging 18 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, making him the Big 12’s all-time leading rebounder. But those expecting him to become this team’s Kevin Durant were sorely mistaken.

Pittman, on the other hand, completely regressed. He had a bunch of hype surrounding his coming into the season because of a solid showing in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments. He was lucky to average 10.4 points per game this season and played just 19 minutes per game, despite averaging over 27 during the 2008-09 postseason. He proved to be incapable of shedding double teams.

He was Texas’ biggest disappointment.

So where do the Longhorns go from here? Who knows, but if this season taught us anything, don’t bank on any optimistic predictions.