Brown looks to help Texas navigate tourney

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J'Covan Brown wasn't sure the Texas Longhorns would be back in the NCAA tournament before the season started.

He's glad he was wrong.

Brown, a junior guard, was one of three returning players from a Texas team that was seconds away from a Sweet 16 appearance in the 2011 NCAA Championship. During the summer, the only players he saw in the gym were fifth-year seniors Clint Chapman and Alexis Wangmene.

Texas added six freshmen before August, headlined by point guard Myck Kabongo. Brown, though, was still not convinced he would get another shot at the Big Dance.

"When everybody finally got in before school started we had a lot of work to do, some of our workouts weren't good," Brown said. "We had to find ways to put it together."

Now, Brown and the rookie-dominated Longhorns are in the NCAA tournament for the 14th straight season. Eleventh-seeded Texas (20-13) will face sixth-seeded Cincinnati (24-10) Friday at Bridgestone Arena in an East region matchup.

"These six freshmen are a great group of guys and the outcome shows they are willing to do whatever it takes to win games," said Brown, who leads UT with 20.1 points per game. "It really was a great experience."

That experience began with a pedestrian non-conference performance and a 3-6 start in the Big 12. Texas rallied to win six of its last nine regular season games before advancing to the semifinals of the Big 12 tournament.

The Longhorns were on the tournament bubble for most of the year. But now that they're in, Kabongo and fellow freshmen Jaylen Bond, Sterling Gibbs, Jonathan Holmes and Sheldon McClellan are enjoying their first trip to the Big Dance.

"It's a great stage to play on and we've worked towards this the whole season," Kabongo said. "The (seniors) said to cherish this moment while we're here. It's a once in a lifetime experience. We're going to enjoy it and have fun."

Texas is also in unfamiliar territory as a tournament underdog. UT is an 11th seed for the first time since 1995, when they beat Oregon in the opening round.

The Longhorns, though, are fine with playing that role.

"I cherish it," said Brown, who has scored at least 20 points in all each of three NCAA tournament games. "People counted us out during the whole season, some thought we wouldn't make it. We're going to go out there and play and not worry about the critics."

Similar to the Longhorns, the Bearcats also had their doubts about a return to the Big Dance.

Cincinnati was a part of one of the low points in college basketball this season when the Bearcats brawled with rival Xavier on Dec. 10. Four Bearcats were suspended, including leading rebounder Yancy Gates.

Cincinnati regrouped to win 10 of its next 11 games and the team came out of the ordeal with a new take on the season.

"We came together as one," said senior guard Dion Dixon. "We rallied behind it, actually. We looked at it as a positive, not so much a negative. We handle adversity well."

The Bearcats are on another roll and have won seven of their last nine contests. Cincinnati advanced to the finals of the Big East tournament before losing to Louisville.

The Bearcats' success rests on Gates' broad shoulders.

The hometown senior is a force on the glass and in the paint and will challenge an injury-depleted Texas front line. Gates was third in the Big East in rebounding with 9.2 boards per game, including 3.4 on the offensive end.

"When he gives us low post presence and rebounding, it takes our team to another level," said Bearcats coach Mick Cronin.

The Longhorns are down to three forwards with Wangmene sidelined with a broken left wrist. That leaves Chapman, Bond and Holmes with the challenge of defending Gates, who Chapman compared to Baylor's Quincy Acy and Kansas' Thomas Robinson.

"He presents a lot of problems because of his size and he does a good job of getting position," said Texas coach Rick Barnes. "We're going to have to do our work early and not let him establish the position he wants, and we're going to have to do it without fouling. When the shot goes up we have to make a great effort to keep him off the glass."

Texas is 5-1 in its last six NCAA opening-round games. UT's last early exit was in 2010 against ninth-seeded Wake Forest in New Orleans.