T.J. Ford's transition from high school to college appeared seamless. He inherited the starting point guard job the day he committed to Texas, became the first freshman to lead the nation in assists, and then led the Longhorns to the round of 16 in the NCAA tournament.
"It might have looked easy, but it was really difficult at times," Ford said. "Everything I was doing was new. Teams were playing me differently every time out. College was totally different than high school. I didn't have the knowledge to understand how."
Texas (4-0) brings a savvier Ford and a No. 2 ranking to this weekend's BB&T Classic at MCI Center, where the Longhorns will tip off Saturday at 1 p.m. against George Washington. The two-day tournament showcases three of the last season's top five assist leaders: Ford (8.3 per game), Maryland's Steve Blake (7.9) and Notre Dame's Chris Thomas (7.6).
"It's a big weekend for us," Ford said.
The tournament is particularly special for Longhorns Coach Rick Barnes, who spent five years as an assistant at George Mason before becoming the Patriots' head coach in 1987, leaving for Providence after a 20-10 season. Barnes's nostalgia has grown in recent years. After coaching at Providence for six years and Clemson for four, he has not had a game in the Washington area since taking the Texas job in 1998.
"I remember recruiting against [Maryland Coach] Gary Williams when he was at American, I remember scouting [Notre Dame Coach] Mike Brey when he was in high school at DeMatha, and [George Washington Athletic Director] Jack Kvancz gave me my first head coaching job when he was at George Mason," Barnes said. "There are a lot of ties here for me. My time at George Mason was special. I think the years that molded me as much as everything were right there. It was the five best years I've had in coaching, as an assistant coach there. Those first five years were so important to me, in terms of learning the business."
This season, with all five starters and his sixth man returning, Barnes installed a motion offense to generate more scoring for a team that ranked sixth in the Big 12 last season with 78.1 points per game and still does not defend to Barnes's satisfaction.
In part, the switch required Ford to score more, one of the few criticisms of his game last season. Ford averaged 10.8 points per game, made just 41 percent of his shots and 15 percent of his 33 three-point attempts.
"He really believes he has the ability to average 10 assists a night," Barnes said. "He really believes that. What I've asked him to do is change his game. He's had to do that for me. He gets so much more satisfaction from an assist than a basket. He loves passing the ball."
Ford is a penetrator first, and that, he said, was the biggest difficulty adjusting to the college game. A star at Willowridge High in Houston, opponents aggressively defended Ford once he crossed midcourt. Once he got by his defender or the initial double-team, he was able to get to the basket effortlessly. His teams went 72-1 as he averaged nine assists per game over his final two seasons, winning the state title in Texas's largest enrollment classification.
"People ask me all the time if I was surprised with how well he played so quickly," Barnes said. "I would have been surprised the other way, if he hadn't done everything he had."
Ford's transition into a scoring threat has not gone completely smoothly this season. Although he has made 4 of 14 three-point attempts, bringing him within one basket of his season total last season, and he has 30 assists, he also has 23 turnovers. His 2:1 ratio last season was far more favorable.
"He wants me to be aggressive within the offense," Ford said. The motion offense "is helping with that. I'm all over the place, trying to do everything."
Though Barnes's concerns with his defense are growing, he is not worried about Ford.
"He's just got this incredible vision," Barnes said. "When he's at his best, you think his head can go 360 degrees."