A highly rated freshman class has helped Texas to a lofty early ranking, but one of the biggest reasons for the second-ranked Longhorns’ fast start is the emergence of a senior.
Center Dexter Pittman will try to lead Texas to a sixth straight win Thursday night as the team hosts struggling Southern California in the Big 12/Pac-10 Hardwood Series.
True freshmen Jordan Hamilton and Avery Bradley combined with redshirt freshman J’Covan Brown to give the Longhorns a lot to look forward to this season, and those three players have already contributed in support of leading scorer Damion James.
Pittman has also given Texas (5-0) a considerable boost. After spending most of his first three seasons as a reserve, he averaged 15.4 points and 10.4 rebounds in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments last March, and the 6-foot-10, 290-pound senior has picked up where he left off.
After totaling 21 points and nine rebounds in a 77-59 win at Rice on Sunday, he’s averaging 15.2 points and 6.2 rebounds and leading the nation in field goal percentage, shooting 31 of 38 (81.6 percent).
“Dex played the way we expect him to play,” Texas coach Rick Barnes told the school’s official athletics Web site. “The truth is we may have underutilized him. We took some 3-point shots when maybe we should have worked the ball through Dex some more and maybe got some easier shots.”
Brown added 15 points against the Owls, his fifth straight game scoring in double figures. Brown has switched his jersey to No. 50, which had been the number of starting guard Varez Ward before the sophomore suffered a season-ending thigh injury in warmups last week.
“Varez was a big part of this team. I just felt bad. I felt I had to pick up the slack,” Brown said.
The Longhorns cruised past Rice even though James was held to eight points on 2-of-9 shooting. James had been averaging 17.3 points.
Texas hasn’t needed a lot of points, matching the highest ranking in school history thanks in part to some dominating defense. Opponents are averaging 52.8 points - tied for fewest nationally with Memphis - and shooting 32.8 percent, which leads the nation outright.
That doesn’t bode well for USC, which has had trouble scoring during an uneven start. The Trojans (2-2) have already lost to Loyola Marymount and Nebraska at home, shooting 38.5 percent in Sunday’s 51-48 loss to the Cornhuskers, which began the series between the Big 12 and Pac-10.
USC is trying replace departed first-round NBA draft picks DeMar DeRozan and Taj Gibson, and first-year coach Kevin O’Neill has also taken over after Tim Floyd’s June resignation, which followed allegations that Floyd paid former USC star O.J. Mayo.
The Trojans may need big contributions from forwards Alex Stepheson and Nikola Vucevic as they try to counter Pittman and James inside. Both players are averaging double-doubles, with Stepheson totaling 13 points and 12 rebounds against Nebraska.
Stepheson sat out last season after transferring from North Carolina and missed the first two games of this season with a knee injury.
Guard Dwight Lewis was the only current Trojan to see action when then-No. 23 USC beat the Longhorns - ranked 11th and starring Kevin Durant at the time - 87-68 on March 18, 2007, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
This will be USC’s first road game of the season after the team went 2-8 away from home in 2008-09, losing its last five.