The Texas Longhorns boast a media darling in sophomore point guard T.J. Ford, college basketball's Naismith national player of the year. And they're stocked with enough big men and sure shooters to compensate whenever a starter has an off night.
But under the paternal watch of Coach Rick Barnes, they've avoided the jealously that often undermines such talent-laden squads and accomplished something a Texas basketball team hasn't in 56 years: a spot in the NCAA tournament's Final Four.
It will take numerous seasons like this, of course, before Longhorns basketball is mentioned in the same reverential breath as Texas football.
But in his fifth season at Texas, Barnes has managed to take players of disparate skills and craft a unit with no glaring weak link. Making the Longhorns even more dangerous as they head to New Orleans, where Syracuse awaits, is the powerful bond among them that makes them function like the best of families, with each member knowing his role and taking pride in one another's success.
"That's really why we've made it this far -- because of the way we are with each other," center James Thomas said. "Coach Barnes -- he's like the father of the whole thing. We're all a family."
Added junior shooting guard Brandon Mouton: "I've been on a lot of teams that have won a lot of championships, but out of all the teams I've played on, this team is the closest. We're all brothers, and we carry ourselves like that on and off the court. We have each other's back. It's a great feeling knowing you have a team that you're loved by. We love each other."
The 85-76 victory over Michigan State that sent Texas to the Final Four ended with a hug between Barnes and Ford, who dribbled over to embrace the coach before the buzzer sounded. But on this team, affection is more than just a feel-good storyline.
It's what has enabled Barnes to shuffle his lineup to suit the man and the moment, bringing players off the bench without triggering the pouting and resentment that often vexes highly recruited athletes when their time in the spotlight gets curtailed.
Against Michigan State, Texas got 23 first-half points from subs Brian Boddicker and Sydmill Harris. Boddicker was first to acknowledge that Ford's ability to penetrate and draw multiple defenders freed him up for the open shots.
Ford, at 5 feet 8, 165 pounds, is a master of distributing the ball, happy to feed his teammates all game long without regard to any statistic but the final score. He leads the team with 7.4 assists per game but has struggled with his shooting -- particularly in the postseason. Still, Ford's other gifts -- and selflessness, above all -- make him a weapon, according to Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo.
"He knows his strengths, and he's got character," Izzo said of Ford. "Those kind of guys can take a team a long way -- guys that don't seem selfish, seem content to make other players better."
But it's not a love-fest all the time among the Longhorns -- especially in practice, where players and coaches alike point out weaknesses in each other's games. The critiques take all forms, from gentle suggestions to smart-aleck digs, such as in practice after the Longhorns' 82-78 victory over Connecticut, in which Ford hit just three of his 15 shots. During the walk-through the next day, Barnes overheard guard Royal Ivey crack to T.J. Ford: "It's 'T' and no 'J'!" mocking his teammate's lack of a jumper.
But when Ford's shooting woes continued against Michigan State, he got nothing but support for his efforts.
"My teammates really believe in me," Ford said. "They always say, 'As long as you put it on the rim, we'll go get it.' It was really positive. They kept saying, 'Stick with it! Keep driving!' "
Said Thomas: "In order for us to be successful, we have to learn how to take each other's criticism just like a brother would, and just like a father would speak to his son if he's doing something wrong."
Ford and Ivey, the Longhorns' starting guards, stand in sharp contrast. Ford is the linchpin of the Longhorns' offensive attack; Ivey is the defensive stopper, playing with his back to the basket and exulting in drawing charges more than sinking jumpers. But they've blended both of their contrasting games and personal styles to become the best of backcourt mates and pals.
Ivey, a wisecracking native of Queens, has taught Ford the East Coast way of wearing a baseball cap -- with the bill backward. He's also introduced Ford, who hails from Sugarland, Tex., to the street rap of 50 Cent.
While Ivey wants no part of the starched jeans and collared shirts that Texans wear, he loves the food. "The barbecue -- we don't have that in New York!" Ivey gushed. "It's great! It's different!"
Ivey is also losing his New York accent the more he hangs around Ford. After two seasons together, in fact, the two seem to share a private language. They sit side-by-side in interviews with their identical caps perched at identical angles and laugh at the same things until both can barely draw breath.
The affection extends throughout the team, bonding Yankee to Southerner, big man to little, black to white.
"We do everything together," Ivey said. "When we go to the movies, we go to the movies as a unit. When we go to eat, we go to eat as a unit. It's like when your family goes on vacation and you take everybody? Well, we take everybody. We call up everybody: 'You want to go to eat?' 'Do this?' 'Go here?' And it goes to our managers, too. We're just a big family. Everybody gets along with each other. You don't find that in a lot of teams."
On the basketball court, all this Longhorn unity creates headaches for opponents.
Izzo found as much when his Spartans faced Texas in the South Region final. Michigan State's defense, among the best in the nation, couldn't contain the Longhorns' shooters -- Mouton, Harris and Boddicker -- while keeping the pressure on Ford. And the Spartans never managed to get the Texas big men in foul trouble because Barnes kept going to his bench for fresh bodies.
"Sometimes when a sub comes in, you can take a breath," Izzo said. "But if you take a breath with these guys, you're going to get in trouble. And then they continually bring the big bodies in. That's going to help them [in the Final Four]. I think this team definitely has a shot if they can keep together and shoot like that."
Of course, the Longhorns haven't faced anything like Syracuse's pressing defense. And it has been 56 years since any Longhorns team has made it to the Final Four. But for the squad that's earned its trip to New Orleans, sticking together hasn't been a problem.
"It's all right for T.J. Ford to get all the publicity," Thomas said. "But we as a unit -- and he -- know he couldn't do it without us. We really just make or break each other."