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February 12, 2008

King: Texas rolls on despite loss of Durant

AUSTIN, Texas He still calls them. Routinely.

More than once each week if he's not talking with Texas coach Rick Barnes Kevin Durant dials up D.J. Augustin, Damion James or any of the other Longhorns he teamed with before Seattle selected him with the No. 2 pick in last summer's NBA Draft.

Texas' players said the conversations are filled with positive remarks and encouraging words but not advice. The Longhorns don't need it. As much as it misses Durant, Texas is proving more and more these days that it can get along just dandy in his absence.

That was evident Monday, when the Longhorns kept their Big 12 title hopes alive by defeating league-leading Kansas 72-69 at the Frank Erwin Center. The victory avenged a pair of losses to the Jayhawks last season when Durant was still in college.

"I don't see much difference," Kansas guard Brandon Rush said, "They were a great team with (Durant), and they're a great team without him."

But could they be even better?

When it comes to resumes, no team in the country is as strong as Texas. The Longhorns boast victories over three of the top six teams in this week's Associated Press Top 25 poll. Along with third-ranked Kansas, Texas has also defeated No. 4 Tennessee and No. 6 UCLA.

At 20-4, the Longhorns might not be the best team in the country, but they certainly snuck back into the discussion following Monday's win.

"Kevin moved on to bigger and better things, so we rolled with the punches," forward Connor Atchley said. "It's not like we didn't have other good players. We've got great point guards, great shooters, great big men. We're playing to our strengths."

Obviously, the Longhorns would be even better if Durant were still in the lineup. But even without him, Texas appears to be just as dangerous as it was at this point last season mainly because of the way its ancillary players handled their increased roles in the wake of Durant's departure.

One of those players is Atchley, a junior who entered the season having scored in double figures just three times in his 64-game career.

Atchley made all six of his shots including four three-pointers en route to a team-high 16-point effort on Monday. His performance was huge considering Augustin missed 12 of his 13 field goal attempts.

Augustin averages 19.7 points, but he scored just 10 against Kansas. Still, Augustin didn't hesitate when asked if he thought his team could win despite his dreadful offensive showing.

"Yeah," he said. "We've got a great team. It's not just about me. I don't have to score for us to win. There are so many other things I can do besides scoring. When I'm not hitting I've got to do other things to help my team."

He certainly didn't help the Longhorns at the free-throw line in the game's waning seconds. Rather than seal the victory with a foul shot, Augustin missed a free throw with Texas leading 72-69 with eight seconds remaining.

Kansas, though, wasted its opportunity to force overtime by botching the final play. Mario Chalmers' running, off-balance three-point attempt clanged off the side of the rim as time expired.

Moments earlier Texas guard A.J. Abrams had blocked a three-point attempt by Rush that would've tied the game with 58 seconds remaining.

Barnes said he couldn't have been more pleased with Texas' all-around effort.

"People keep saying we're one-dimensional, but we can play any way you want to play," Barnes said. "We can play little. We can play big. I haven't talked about it, because I didn't want to talk about it. I wanted people to think we were one-dimensional."

Barnes said he told his staff last month that February was "separation time" and that, for Texas to contend for the Big 12 title, the Longhorns needed to get better defensively. On Monday they held the Jayhawks to 43.5 percent shooting nearly eight percentage points below their average.

Texas also outrebounded Kansas 36-35 despite trailing in that area 23-13 at intermission. The Longhorns scored 18 second-chance points.

"We got our hands on some balls but we just couldn't grab them," said Kansas forward Darrell Arthur, who scored 22 points. "Balls were flying out of bounds and one hit off Brandon's head. We needed a big rebound, but we just couldn't get one in the second half."

As good as Kansas has been this season, the loss to Texas marked the continuation of a troublesome trend. Self has been complaining for weeks about the defensive intensity of his guards, who comprise what is often touted as the country's best backcourt.

In its previous two wins, Kansas gave up 25 points to Missouri's Keon Lawrence and a combined 68 to Baylor's Curtis Jerrells, Henry Dugat and LaceDarius Dunn.

The Jayhawks finally cranked up their perimeter defense against the Longhorns, but their offensive output was atrocious. Rush, Chalmers, Russell Robinson and Sherron Collins went a combined nine-of-31 from the field Monday. Rush took just three shots after the break.

Kansas' guards also had trouble getting the ball to forwards Arthur and Darnell Jackson in the second half. The duo combined for 35 points, but only 10 of them came during the final 20 minutes.

The Jayhawks fell to 8-2 in league play. Kansas State is 7-1. Texas is 7-2.

"We're still the favorites (to win the league)," Chalmers said. "That's what's in our minds. We think we're the best team in the conference."

Kansas might indeed have the best team, but let's be honest: The Jayhawks have played two high-quality opponents (Kansas State and Texas) all season and lost to both of them.

Kansas State touts the Big 12's best player in Michael Beasley, but the Wildcats have no experience in title races and could easily crack under a first-year coach.

Then there's Texas, which appears to be peaking at the right time. The Longhorns don't have any depth, and they've been maddeningly inconsistent. But the latter is a sign of youth that continues to affect Texas less and less as the season wears on.

That's a credit to Barnes and the way he's coached this group in the aftermath of losing one of the best college players in recent memory to the draft.

"They haven't missed a beat," Rush said.

Barnes has been in similar situations before. Seven players have left school early during Barnes' nine-year tenure in Austin.

Still, Texas is one of only nine programs to receive an NCAA tournament berth in its past nine seasons. And it's one of just five schools to reach the Sweet 16 four times in the past six years.

Perhaps that's why Barnes didn't seem all that appreciative when someone approached him after Monday's game and told him that he'd "just beat a really good team." Barnes fidgeted in his seat.

"Well," he said, "believe it or not, we're a pretty good team too."

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

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