TULSA, Okla. (AP) – Rick Barnes begins each season with the goal of reaching the NCAA tournament and he’s done it in each of his 13 seasons at Texas.
The problem is that the Longhorns have reached only one Final Four during that stretch and that was eight years ago. Barnes insists he isn’t feeling any pressure to take Texas back for the first time since 2003.
“Years ago, I might have felt it but wouldn’t say it,” Barnes said. “But I’m telling you, do I feel pressure, no. Do I want to do it? No question about it, but I don’t feel the pressure.”
The Longhorns (27-7) enter this year’s tournament as a No. 4 seed after dropping four of their final eight games, including a loss to Kansas in the Big 12 championship. They face a difficult opening matchup against Oakland University, the high-scoring Summit League champion with a ton of experience against bigger-name opponents.
The No. 13 seed Golden Grizzlies (25-9) are second in the nation in scoring offense (85.6 points per game) and are led by center Keith Benson. The 6-foot-11 senior averaged 18 points and 10.1 rebounds per game this season, and he had 26 points and 10 rebounds in a 89-82 win at Tennessee on Dec. 14.
“I don’t think we’re scared,” Benson said. “We’re coming in with the mindset of getting the upset. We think that anybody can get beat.”
Oakland also lost by one to Michigan State on Dec. 11, another difficult test on a schedule that included games at Purdue, Illinois and Ohio State. The challenges are nothing new for the Michigan school, which reached the tournament last year as a No. 16 seed and was bounced by Pittsburgh in the first round.
Golden Grizzlies’ coach Greg Kampe saw a difference in his team’s celebration following the win over Oral Roberts in the conference championship game, and he expects the attitude to carry over against Texas.
“Last year, I heard we’re going to the Sweet 16, doing all this kind of stuff,” Kampe said. “I haven’t heard any of that. All I’ve heard is Texas. So I think there is a completely different mindset from this group who has been there.”
Barnes is also counting on a different mindset from his Longhorns, who lost in the first round as a No. 8 seed to Wake Forest last year. The early exit was another in a long line of tournament disappointments under Barnes, who has a 16-12 tournament record at Texas.
The Longhorns lost in the second round to USC the last time they were a No. 4 seed in 2007. Twice under Barnes, they’ve come one step short of the Final Four as a No. 2 seed – losing to fourth-seeded LSU in 2006 and top-seeded Memphis in 2008.
The one time they did reach the Final Four was as a No. 1 seed in 2003, losing to eventual national champion and Carmelo Anthony-led Syracuse in the semifinals.
Barnes doesn’t focus on the close calls as much as he does the fact Texas was there to begin with.
“It’s very hard, one, to get into this tournament,” Barnes said. “You go back and look, we have never taken for granted just getting to this tournament. Yeah, there’s been years when we’ve gotten here and we haven’t advanced and moved on the way we’d like to, but every team that ever gets into this tournament feels that way. We would never, ever take this for granted.”
Barnes said he has made sure his players don’t overlook Oakland. The Longhorns first saw film of the Golden Grizzlies’ while preparing for Michigan State, and sophomore Jordan Hamilton was impressed by what he saw.
“They can really shoot the ball and they’ve got a force inside (in Benson),” Hamilton said. “But if we come in and execute and do our thing, I think we’ll be OK.”
That all depends on whether Texas can shake its late-seasons struggles and return to the form that saw the school open 23-3, including wins over North Carolina and Kansas.
“To be honest, we totally forgot about that,” said Tristan Thompson, the dynamic freshman power forward for the Longhorns. “We’re not focused on what happened in the past. Situations happen, and we got the losses and that’s good for us to experience those heartaches.
“But now it’s tournament time. We know it’s a lose or go home situation, so now we’ve got to pull our socks up and it’s time to grind.”
Copyright 2011 by STATS LLC and The Associated Press. Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and The Associated Press is strictly prohibited.