Western Conference

MLS Touchline- Week One

Friday marks the start of the 20th season for Major League Soccer.

Or at least it should.

Currently, there is still no CBA, Collective Bargaining Agreement, between MLS and the players, which, if unresolved by Friday, could result in a player’s strike and games not being played.

But we’re going to  go on the assumption that the games will be played as scheduled this weekend.

This season should be an exciting and intriguing year for MLS as soccer is at an all-time high in the U.S. after a tremendous showing in television ratings for the World Cup last year and heightened popularity of the English Premiere League.

Attendance last year for MLS was up across the league, if you take away the stats from now-defunct Chivas U.S.A. The average attendance for the league was just over 19,000, which is roughly near capacity for most of the teams’ stadiums (CenturyLink Field obviously notwithstanding).

There are a number of key storylines going into this year that should keep things intriguing from March to Decemeber. (We’re going to hold off on the CBA issue here.)

First, there are the two new teams coming into this season: New York City F.C., a joint venture between Manchester City and the New York Yankees, and Orlando City F.C. The intrigue here is both on and off the pitch. Both teams ought to do well with their solid rosters and the fact that they’re both in the weaker Eastern Conference. And then there’s the attendance watch for both teams in their first years. Orlando has already announced that their first match on Sunday, coincidently enough against New York City, at the Citrus Bowl is sold out. Whether that keeps up and whether New York City can put up good numbers at Yankee Stadium will be something to keep an eye on.

Then there’s the Western Conference that, much like it’s NBA counterpart, is absolutely stacked with competitors. Last year the conference produced about six or seven teams that would have made the postseason had they been in the Eastern Conference. That goes off both points and the fact they would have had an easier schedule. This year it only gets stronger with the addition of Houston and Sporting Kansas City, though MLS has added an extra playoff slot for each conference which helps. It’s still a long season, but I’d venture a guess that there are four to five teams in the conference with a legitimate shot to win the MLS Cup and another two that could be contenders.

Within that conference are two teams are the biggest contenders to win it all, each with its own big storyline.

First, the Los Angeles Galaxy are going to have to figure out a way to play without Landon Donovan, who retired after last year. The Galaxy are in a good spot, however, with Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes up front on the attack. Still, it’s worth watching to see how the defending champs without the league’s best player.

And then there’s the Seattle Sounders who, despite their regular season success, find their trophy cabinet MLS Cup-less. Last year the Sounders were one round away from making it to the MLS Cup final, but fell short to the Galaxy. Seattle returns the same basic squad, minus defender Deandre Yedlin, so expect them to be contenders this season.

These storylines, along with a host of others, will (hopefully) be answered this year in what will likely be the best season in the history of the league.

That season has to start without a strike, but hopefully those differences are settled before the season begins or without a work stoppage. But that’s another story for another day.

Predictions

·      Supporters’ Shield – Seattle

·      Western Conference playoff teams – Seattle, Los Angeles, Sporting Kansas City, Real Salt Lake, FC Dallas, Houston

·      Eastern Conference playoff teams – D.C. United, Orlando City, New York City F.C., New England, Columbus Crew, New York Red Bulls

·      MLS Cup matchup – Seattle vs. Orlando City

·      MLS Cup Winner – Seattle

Power Rankings

1.    Seattle – The Seattle Sounders were the best team in the regular season last year, taking home the Supporter’s Shield and winning the U.S. Open Cup. But the Sounders couldn’t quite catch that elusive MLS Cup title that has dogged them the past few years. This year they’re set up once again to be favorites to take the title with forwards midfielder, and Texan, Clint Dempsey and forward Obafemi Martins, as well as a talented supporting cast. With the experience and passionate fan base, Seattle has to be considered a top team in MLS, if only for the start of the season.

2.    Los Angeles – The Galaxy will take a hit in their chance to repeat with U.S. legend Landon Donovan retiring, but there’s more to this team than Donovan. Forwards Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes made a significant impact up front for Los Angeles last year and will again team up to be a potent attacking duo. Add in Steven Gerrard at the summer transfer window and the Galaxy are in a great spot to repeat as champs once again.

3.    Orlando City – Of the two expansion teams joining the league this season, Orlando City is the most likely to make some noise and potentially find itself in a position to make it to the MLS Cup. Of course, everyone knows about Brazilian forward Kaka, but City features more than that. Orlando should set in goal with Jamaican national team goalie Donovan Rickets. And if midfielder Brek Shea can find the same success he had a few years ago with FC Dallas, City might have a solid attack.

4.    New York City F.C. – Of course, the biggest name team coming into this year is New York City F.C. under the combined ownership of Manchester City and the New York Yankees. While some uncertainty still looms over whether or not midfielder Frank Lampard will make the transfer from Manchester, City have a solid team in place anyway with forward David Villa, midfielder Mix Diskerud and defender George John. With a relatively weak Eastern Conference, NYC F.C. will certainly be contenders to make it to the MLS Cup.

5.    Sporting Kansas City – Last year was a disappointment for Sporting K.C., dropping out of the postseason in the wild card round a year after making it to the MLS Cup. And things won’t get much easier for them this season either as Kansas City, along with Houston, make the jump to the stacked Western Conference. Still, SKC boasts of U.S. national team players midfielder Graham Zusi and defender Matt Besler, and forward Dom Dwyer became a force to be reckoned with last year. It won’t be easy in the Western Conference, but Sporting will not be an easier out for anybody this season.

The Bench – 6. Real Salt Lake, 7. New York Red Bulls, 8. D.C. United, 9. Houston, 10. FC Dallas

Games to Watch

·      New York City F.C. at Orlando City, 4 p.m. Sunday, ESPN2
Great scheduling from the MLS scheduling crew resulted in the two expansion teams facing off against each other to start off the season. But while it seems like a gimmick, this should still be a great match. Both teams come is as contenders right off the bat to top the Eastern Conference. Both teams also feature big names such as Kaka and Villa. This game should be the best game of the weekend.

·      New England at Seattle, 8:30 p.m. Sunday, Fox Sports 1
Of the teams we know about and are returning, this should be the best match of the weekend. New England was oh so close to coming away with the MLS Cup last year, falling in the final minutes to Los Angeles. The Revolution have a bright star in midfielder Lee Nguyen and also feature U.S. national team defender Jermaine Jones. Seattle, as mentioned earlier, have been close to getting to the MLS Cup, but have yet to fulfill that goal. With the great Seattle fans providing the backdrop, this should be a fun one.

Rest of the Schedule

·      Chicago at Los Angeles – 9 p.m., Friday, MLS Live, UniMas

·      Montreal at D.C. United – 2 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live

·      Colorado at Philadelphia – 3 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live

·      Toronto F.C. at Vancouver – 5 p.m., Satuday, MLS Live

·      San Jose at FC Dallas – 7:30 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live

·      Columbus at Houston – 7:30 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live

·      Real Salt Lake at Portland – 9:30 p.m., Saturday, MLS Live

·      New York Red Bulls at Sporting Kansas City – 6:00 p.m., Fox Sports 1

NHL season causing chaos early

Editors Note: All stats current as of Nov. 8

If the regular season ended today and the playoffs started, everyone would freak out because it's only November and the NHL season just started last month.

But, in addition to everyone freaking out, four of last year's eight Western conference playoff teams would be out. Those teams include the dynastic Chicago Blackhawks, the star-studded Minnesota Wild, the young Colorado Avalanche, and the bromantic Dallas Stars.

With all of those teams struggling, people start wondering why that could be. Well, no worries, I got some answers. In fact, I am going to identify a problem and the solution for all of these teams.

Chicago Blackhawks

Problem: With 2.43 goals scored per game average, the Blackhawks just aren't scoring enough goals.

Solution: Mix up the line combinations and put 6' 4'' left-winger Bryan Bickell on the top line so he can screen the goalie and give Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews better goal-scoring opportunities.

For the Chicago Blackhawks, they are just outside of the top eight with a 7-6-1 record that is good for 15 points. A record like that indicates mediocrity and that's just what the Blackhawks haven't been. Instead, they've been a team that plays great defense with a brickwall (Corey Crawford) for a goaltender. The Blackhawks have been so good on defense that they lead the lead in goals against per game with 1.86.

That being said, they have an exceptionally hard time scoring the puck. They've been shut out twice in a row at home this season, against the Anaheim Ducks and the Winnipeg Jets and they're also a paltry 2-7 in non-shootout games decided by one goal. So, when the Blackhawks win, they win big, which is the reason why their goals scored average exceeds their goals against average, despite their record.

My solution of putting big power forward Bryan Bickell in front of the net would distract opposing goaltenders and make seeing the puck almost impossible. This in turn would mean more goals for all-stars like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Let's make it happen head coach Joel Quenneville.

Minnesota Wild

Problem: The Wild have a 5.3% success rate on the power play, good for 29th in the league. That's a spot away from last people!

Solution: Play a more conservative, dump and chase style instead of the possession-based style they have been playing.

The Minnesota Wild's 7-5 record would be good enough for eighth in the Eastern Conference. But that's a totally meaningless statement since they're in the Western Conference in 10th place. The more you know, you know? Anyway, the Minnesota Wild have been a top 10 team in both goals per game, at 2.92, and goals against average, at 2.08. With numbers like that, you would think that the Wild would have a better record than 7-5. However, their power play has been holding them back.

In the NHL, where every player has talent and a good ethic and games come down to the bounce of a puck, excelling when you have a one-man advantage is extremely important. And as I said earlier, the Wild just haven't been doing that with their 38 power play opportunities. So far, they've only found the net on two of those PP chances thanks to some bad luck plus poor strategy and play.

Playing a more conservative dump and chase style would allow the Wild to keep the puck and get into position on the power play. With great offensive players like left-winger Zach Parise (who is currently out with a concussion), fellow left-winger Thomas Vanek, and offensive-minded defenseman Ryan Suter, one would think that a possession-based style of play would be better. However, that has clearly not been the case. So, maybe going conservative would be the Wild's best bet because something has to be done if the Wild want to make the playoffs again this year.

Colorado Avalanche

Problem: In almost every major team statistic category, the Avalanche are ranked in the bottom third of the league.

Solution: Mix up the line combinations so that the struggling sophomore Nathan Mackinnon has less pressure on him, while paying attention to what made last year's team successful.

Last year's Colorado Avalanche exceeded everyone's expectations last year when they made the playoffs by winning the Central Division with 112 points. This year, they have yet to discover the magic they had last season. Their record of 4-6-5 this year illustrates that fact. From goals per game (2.40) to goals against per game (2.93) as well as their power play (14.6%), the Avalanche have struggled through almost every facet of the game.

The Avalanche could just be regressing to the mean after their incredible success last year. However, that doesn't mean that head coach Patrick Roy should just stand pat and expect failure from his team. In interviews, Patrick Roy has stated that he wants his team to continue playing fast, offense-minded hockey, so their last resort appears to be changing up the lines.

Last year, Nathan Mackinnon scored 63 points on 24 goals and 39 assists as a rookie, which was good enough to win the Calder Trophy. In addition, last year's Avalanche had completely different lines that depended more on chemistry than ability. I suggest that the Avalanche should go back to the lines that made them successful last year while at the same time allowing Mackinnon to play against second and third line centers of the opposing teams.

Dallas Stars

Problem: Their 3.38 goals against average is 28th in the league. That number indicates poor defense and terrible goaltending.

Solution: Find better backup goaltending, whether from current backup Anders Lindback, their AHL team, or the waiver wire.

Out of all of these teams, the Dallas Stars have the worst record at 4-5-4. They're currently 14th in the Western Conference, which is one measly spot above the beyond atrocious Edmonton Oilers. The Stars have only won once at home and are only .500 on the road at 3-3. Their team statistics point to a team that has been able to score, at 2.8 goals a game, but not do much else. Their 17% success rate on the power play is 19th in the league and their 77.1% success rate on the penalty kill is even worse at 25th in the league. All of that being said, their defense has been atrocious with 3.4 goals given up per game. That number is 27th in the entire NHL.

That's a lot of numbers in one paragraph. But the Stars have all the pieces needed to succeed in the NHL. So, using numbers helps me comprehend just why they've lost so many games early in the season. Center Tyler Seguin continues to score and Jason Spezza has dished out the assists. The defense hasn't been that good, but the Stars have been a team focused on offense, so that's to be somewhat expected. Really, the only explanation for the Stars' terrible record has been the goaltending.

Kari Lehtonen, the Stars starting goaltender, has lost five games straight with a 2.94 goals against average that is 49th in the NHL. That being said, Lehtonen is the starting goaltender and those aren't exactly easy to come by. Especially when your backup hasn't exactly picked up the slack. Anders Lindback, former Tampa Bay Lightning starting goaltender, has not been able to stay in front of the puck this season. He has played in only two games this season, but he has given up nine goals already. These goaltending issues signal a team that needs to find a goaltender that can give this team a chance to win.

With the first NBA exhibition game only a week away, there are several reasons to be thrilled about the 2013-2014 NBA season. The landscape of the NBA is undergoing major transformations this season, ranging from the retirement of commissioner David Stern to the birth of a dynasty in Miami. This season will play a big role in determining the legacy of LeBron James, the fall of past powerhouses — Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and Dallas Mavericks 

— and the rise of others in the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. With that said, let’s see how the Western Conference will play out this season. 

1. San Antonio Spurs- Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Calling the Spurs too old to compete, saying Tim Duncan is too old to be an elite power forward, and counting the Spurs out season after season is nothing but insanity. The Spurs will once again show why they are the class of the NBA Western Conference.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder- The Oklahoma City Thunder was an outstanding team last year. But they never seemed quite the same after the departure of now-superstar James Harden. Will general manager Sam Presti’s financially conservative decision to let go of Harden backfire on the surefire championship contender? We can only wait and see. 

3. Los Angeles Clippers- There are only four coaches in the NBA today who have won a championship- Gregg Popovich, Erik Spoelstera, Rick Carlisle and Doc Rivers. The Los Angeles Clippers now have one of them. With a championship-worthy coach in Rivers, Chris Paul and the still-improving Blake Griffin, the Clippers are primed to take the next step in the playoffs. 

4. Golden State Warriors- The acquisition of Andre Iguodala was arguably the best steal of the NBA offseason. With the entire free agency revolving around Dwight Howard’s arrival in Houston, a bigger story was missed. The Warriors, NBA Western Conference semi-finalists of last year, have acquired an elite wing stopper and much needed veteran leadership. The maturation of superstar Stephen Curry and the health of Andrew Bogut should determine how far this team can go. 

5. Houston Rockets- Dwight Howard has landed in the perfect spot. He is being coached by arguably the best post player of all time — Kevin McHale. He is mentored by one of the greatest centers of all time — Hakeem Olajuwon. He is alongside the best shooting guard in the NBA — James Harden. If Howard continues to whine or not take the Rockets deep into the playoffs, expect it to be a disappointing season in Houston. 

6. Memphis Grizzlies- This team can play defense. Marc Gasol anchoring the defense and Tony Allen on the wing is certainly a recipe for defensive success. However, the Grizzlies can go for long stretches without an elite scoring punch. 

7. Dallas Mavericks- It’s hard to believe the Mavericks won a championship just two years ago. The Mavericks of last year resemble nothing of the 2011 Mavericks that had mastered the art of flow offense and zone defense. However, with a healthy Dirk Nowitzki ready to prove himself and the additions of Monta Ellis and Samuel Dalembert, the Mavericks should sneak into the playoffs. 

8. Minnesota Timberwolves- Health is the biggest problem here. If Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love and Nikola Pekovic are healthy for whole season, there is no doubt the Timberwolves will finally make the playoffs. 

NBA: The race for eighth in the West

With only a few weeks remaining in the NBA’s regular season, the race for the 8th seed, or the last spots in the Western Conference playoffs has heated up. 

The Los Angeles Lakers are currently holding on to the 8th seed by a half a game lead over the Utah Jazz, and behind the Jazz are the Dallas Mavericks who are only a game back. The Portland Trail Blazers have also quietly made their way in to the picture and are only three games back for the number 8th spot. Here’s how it looks. 

8. Lakers 37-36

   Jazz     36-36

   Dallas  35-37

   Portland 33-38

Some very important games remain on the schedule for each team as well.

The Lakers host the Mavericks on April 2nd in a game that will be very important for both team’s playoff chances, and the Lakers also travel out to Portland on April 10th. The Lakers odds of making the playoffs may have gotten even slimmer with both Kobe Bryant and Steve Nash going down to injury last night against Milwaukee. 

The Dallas Mavericks travel to both Portland and Los Angeles before seasons end, giving them a great shot at sneaking their way in to the 8th spot. They’ve quietly worked their way in to the picture, and now it doesn’t seem so far-fetched that the Mavericks will make the playoffs. 

The Utah Jazz and Portland Trailblazers play each other two more times before the end of the season, with one of those meetings being tonight in Portland. 

All four teams have ample opportunity to earn the 8th spot and it could easily come down to the very last few games of the season. Since these teams are all set to play against at least one of each other, the tie breaker scenarios could end up getting very complicated come the end of the year. 

The always tough Western Conference is holding up to its reputation, but for whichever of these teams does make the first round of the playoffs, the Spurs who are sitting at the top of the west won’t be a very friendly match-up.  

Spurs are poised to contend for fifth title

The short-handed San Antonio Spurs are in the midst of a league-best 11-game winning streak. Led by veteran All-Star point-guard Tony Parker, the Spurs are positioning themselves to make another championship run.

The Spurs are commonly perceived as an “older” squad because their core veteran players were all a part of the team’s title runs in the past decade. The Spurs are actually in the middle of a youth movement and possess one of the NBA’s youngest set of bench players.

Playing most of the season without guard Manu Ginobili, the Spurs have needed major contribution from their young players to help them remain contenders. The hottest team in the league holds the Western Conference’s second best record at 23-9.

Players like Gary Neal and Danny Green filled in nicely for the Spurs after their superstar went down with a broken hand.

"When you have guys that go down, I think sometimes it helps guys refocus knowing you have less room for error, everybody has to contribute," said veteran Richard Jefferson.

If the Spurs are to make a serious run at their fifth championship they will need Ginobili to be healthy during the playoffs. The Spurs started last year’s playoffs without Manu and had an unexpected early-exit as the Western Conference’s number one seed.

With a wide-open Western Conference the Spurs have the pieces to make another run. They do, however, need their superstar and established closer to compliment all of those pieces. The other Western Conference contenders all have a superstar closer to rely on during the playoffs. The Lakers, Mavericks, and Thunder all have reputable leaders in Kobe Bryant, Dirk Nowitzki, and Kevin Durant, respectively.

For now, the Spurs will continue to depend on their youth to remain as one of the league’s best teams. Having just returned from a 22-game absence Ginobili injured his chest, and will be out of action at least a couple of weeks.

"He just came back, played in a couple of games and was beginning to get in shape, get a rhythm, and then he goes down again,” said Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. “He's pretty depressed about it. Hopefully the team can be over it and realize he and Tiago are going to be gone for a while.”

Nicknamed “El Contusione” by former teammate Brent Barry, Ginobili has garnered a reputation as a walking contusion. Just like last season, the Spurs can’t afford to have Manu sidelined when the playoffs get underway.

Tim Duncan (21) high-fives center DeJuan Blair (45) in a recent game. The Spurs and the Thunder are in contention for the top playoff seed in the West.

Photo Credit: Austin Laymance | Daily Texan Staff

The San Antonio Spurs are the team to beat in the NBA’s Western Conference.

Sure, the Oklahoma City Thunder are loaded with young talent, the Dallas Mavericks are the defending champions and the Los Angeles Lakers have five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant, but the Spurs have depth.

And Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s bunch is hungry after last season’s embarrassing exit in the first round of the playoffs at the hands of the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.

San Antonio has quietly jumped to the top of the Western Conference, fighting the Thunder for the No. 1 seed in the playoffs, which begin April 28.

“We love our position [in the West], obviously,” center Tim Duncan told reporters Tuesday. “We hope to hold on to it. We’re facing a tough schedule, but we’re feeling good and we’re staying healthy.”

Health is paramount for the Spurs, who could care less about seeding.

“We won [61] games last year. Remember we lost right away. One would think that maybe it doesn’t matter,” Popovich said when asked about the importance of getting the top seed.

The Spurs are a far different team than they were a season ago, because their bench is among the league’s best.

Rookie swingman Kawhi Leonard plays and defends multiple positions. Forwards Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair are each a force in the paint. Matt Bonner is a 3-point specialist with size. Gary Neal scores in bunches. Patrick Mills goes baseline to baseline in a flash.

And if that wasn’t enough, the Spurs got more help at the trade deadline.

Boris Diaw looks reborn after coming over from the lowly Charlotte Bobcats, and Stephen Jackson hasn’t skipped a beat in his return to the team he won an NBA Championship in 2003.

Jackson started the year with Milwaukee before being acquired March 15. He’s a proven champion with a repuatation for being a tough guy.

“He’s got an edge to him,” Popovich said. “I like his edge; I like his toughness, his grit, his willingness to play in big situations. All those sorts of things are what I like.”

The Spurs lacked Jackson’s toughness a year ago as the Grizzlies muscled San Antonio out of the playoffs. That won’t happen again with Jackson in the fold. He’s a fearless competitor notorious for his role in the infamous 2004 brawl between the Detroit Pistons and Indianapolis Pacers.

“I’m all about my team,” Jackson said. “Whatever it takes to protect my teammates, to be with my teammates, I’m going to ride it to the end. That’s all I know.”

The Spurs don’t have the flash of the run-and-gun Thunder or the glamour of “Lob City” and the Los Angeles Clippers.

What they do have is a veteran corps led by four NBA champions, a seasoned coach and a deep bench full of rising stars and castaways with something left to prove.

San Antonio has never won an NBA title in an even-numbered year, but all that could change come June.

Printed on Thursday, April 19, 2012 as: Ageless Spurs continue to roll
 

One-third of the way into the lockout-shortened NBA season, a couple of former Longhorns within the league continue to headline for their contending team while others show enduring signs of promising NBA careers.

Kevin Durant

An established scorer and 2007 college basketball player of the year, Kevin Durant has earned recognition as an early season MVP candidate. His 26.8 points per game are third-highest in the league and are a big reason why the Oklahoma City Thunder have an NBA-best record of 18-5 this early in the season.

Durant and the up-and-coming Thunder are poised to make another legitimate run at the title in what seems to be a wide-open Western Conference race. Their championship hopes ended last season at the hands of the eventual NBA Champions, the Dallas Mavericks.

“Durantula,” as many call him, made an early-season statement against the defending champions after beating Dallas with a buzzer-beating three-pointer and winning two out of the three early season matchups against the Mavs. In order for the Thunder to take the next step in their championship aspirations, the former Longhorn great must execute clutch plays of this sort when the playoffs arrive.

LaMarcus Aldridge

Aldridge and the tough-minded Portland Trail Blazers look to make a deep playoff run in a Western Conference that’s up for grabs. He has solidified himself as one of the top forwards in the league and, much like Durant, has a strong chance of being in this season’s All-Star Game.

“He’s matured, he has been consistent over the last three years. He’s shown growth. Even though we’ve lost a lot of guys to injury, we have continued to win and compete and get to the playoffs,” Blazers coach Nate McMillan said of Aldridge.
His career high of 23.1 points per game have the Blazers positioned to make a title run as they currently hold the sixth seed in the highly-competitive Western Conference.

Avery Bradley

After a rookie season with limited opportunities to make an impact for the Boston Celtics, Bradley’s NBA future was looking bleak.

This season, Boston’s aging and banged-up roster has opened the door for the former Longhorn guard to display his talents. He’s averaging 18 minutes and four points per game for the undermanned Celtics.

His offensive numbers aren’t exactly eye-opening, but his biggest contribution has been on the defensive side of the court. His breakout performance came in a historic 87-56 Celtics win over the Magic in January.

“His defense set the whole tone for the entire thing. He took us out; we had a hard time getting the ball down and getting into offense,” Magic head coach Stan Van Gundy said of Bradley.

With the Celtics expected to rebuild and rely on young talent after this season, Bradley’s impressive defensive display may land him a long-term role with the franchise.

Tristan Thompson

The fourth overall pick in last year’s draft has displayed a high skill at the NBA level in limited playing time with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Like Avery Bradley, Thompson’s main contributions have come from the defensive side of the ball.
He is averaging over one block per game and fewer than five rebounds per game. With the emergence of teammate Alonzo Gee, Thompson saw his minutes dwindle. What separates the two forwards at the moment is Thompson’s limited offensive skill set.

The former Longhorn’s athleticism and length alone may keep him in the league for a while, but he must improve his offensive capabilities to fully reach his NBA potential.

Rick Barnes, coming off one of the biggest regular-season wins of his career at Texas, reached out to one of his former players.

The Texas coach gave his praise for former Longhorn LaMarcus Aldridge and hopes that he is named to the Western Conference all-star team.

Aldridge is currently not in the top 10 amongst Western Conference forwards in the ballot returns released on Jan. 13. Online voting concluded Jan. 23 with lineups to be announced Jan. 27.

“One thing I wish could happen more than anything is that the fans could really vote for him and get him on that all-star team because he’s having a great year,” Barnes said.

Aldridge was named the league’s Western Conference player of the week on Monday after averaging 28.3 points and 10.3 rebounds for the Portland Trail Blazers over a 4-0 streak. Overall he’s averaging 21.4 points and 8.9 rebounds per game this season. The No. 2 overall pick in 2006 is now the top offensive threat on a team that seems playoff bound.

Aldridge’s mother, Georgia, was diagnosed with cancer in the offseason and the Dallas native has said her strength in fighting the disease is added motivation for him to earn an all-star spot.

“I know it’s been a really tough year on him,” Barnes said. “The fact that he got some recognition today is a really good thing for him and we’re happy for him.”

At Texas, Aldridge averaged nearly a double-double for his entire sophomore season. He became the highest draft pick in Longhorn history when he went second overall in the 2006 NBA draft, a record matched by Kevin Durant a year later.

Now Aldridge is having the best run of his professional career and is averaging more than 20 points per outing for the first time since joining the league.

“I don’t think they are going to pick me,” Aldridge told Yahoo! Sports’ Marc J. Spears over the weekend. “I think this will be the first year they take guys with losing records.”

<strong>Defensive satisfaction</strong>

Texas’ defensive prowess was on display when the Longhorns held Kansas, the nation’s best field-goal converting team, to 26.7 percent shooting in the second half of Saturday’s win at Allen Fieldhouse.

“Our defense really set the tone,” said senior Matt Hill. “We got a lot of stops, which led to our offense.”

But the team’s defense has been a crucial ingredient to success all season, especially in conference play, where not a single Big 12 opponent has shot better than 41.5 percent from the field. The Longhorns have also held Big 12 opponents to a combined 13-of-59 from beyond the arc.

Freshman Tristan Thompson also leads the conference in blocks with 2.21 per game. That isn’t always a good thing, as the rest of the team must rotate when Thompson leaves his man to stop a shot, but luckily guards Cory Joseph and Dogus Balbay are playing lockdown on individual defense.

“I’m just trying to make him feel me,” Balbay said about his defensive strategy. “I don’t want anybody to get the ball comfortably and bring the ball down and see the court well.”

<strong>Parting shots</strong>

Texas swept the weekly conference awards announced on Monday. Jordan Hamilton averaged 22 points per game last week in wins over No. 13 Texas A&M and No. 6 Kansas to be named conference player of the week, while Tristan Thompson was named conference rookie of the week for his 15 points and 4.5 blocks per game.

Texas jumped to No. 7 in the most recent Associated Press poll. It’s the highest the team has been ranked all season after starting the 2010-11 campaign outside of the Top 25. The Longhorns are the highest ranked three-loss team.