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Texas-sized trouble awaits Arizona in NCAA Tournament

How will Arizona fare against Texas?
Win by six points or more: 10%
Win by five points or less: 44%
Lose by five points or less: 17%
Lose by six points or more: 27%
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Texas freshman forward Tristan Thompson has been a force near the basket.
Photo by Mark D Smith-US PRESSWIRE

Defense and rebounding. The keys to a long NCAA Tournament run. Defense and rebounding.

The Arizona Wildcats haven’t been doing enough of either lately.

With that in mind, and upon first glance, there’s not much I like about the Wildcats’ NCAA Tournament game against fourth-seeded Texas on Sunday (3:10 p.m. Tucson time tip-off).

The good news: It’s house money now.

A Pac-10 regular-season title. One Derrick Williams’ game-saving block. Two Derrick Williams’ game-saving blocks. A triple-overtime thriller at Cal. A first-round NCAA Tournament victory.

A victory over Texas would be like slathering gravy over the whole, big happy season.

But we were talking about defense and rebounding.

Those are Texas specialties.

The Longhorns entered the week fifth in the nation in field goal percentage defense, allowing opponents to shoot only 38.3 percent from the field. They were 15th in rebounding margin at plus 6.6.

They are long, athletic and physical.

And experienced.

“If we come out tonight how we did, on Sunday it could be a long night for us,” Williams said after he swatted away the final shot in a 77-75 victory over Memphis.

“They’re a great team, and that’s the reason why they were top five at one point in the season,” Williams added about the Longhorns. “If we don’t come to play, just like I said, it could be a long night. But I don’t plan on that happening.”

Of course, nobody plans on that. Just how Arizona didn’t plan on being out-rebounded by eight in the second half against Memphis. Just how Arizona didn’t plan on allowing teams to shoot at least 49.1 percent in six of the past eight games.

Texas opened as a 5.5-point favorite. I’m thinking that number should be higher.

Javier Morales: Arizona’s chances against Texas not as remote as some believe

With a front line of Tristan Thompson, Gary Johnson and Jordan Hamilton, Texas will deploy the resources to hound Williams inside and outside. Thompson vs. Williams is one of the marquee individual matchups of the weekend.

See them battle in college Sunday; see them battle in the NBA next season.

(I did not know this until right now: Thompson, a true freshman, is two months older than Williams, a sophomore.)

Thing is, Thompson — who had 17 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high seven blocks as Texas held on to beat Oakland on Friday — has more help inside than Williams.

Arizona has been one of the nation’s best at defending the 3-point shot, but Texas will be happy to work inside the arc … and we all know the Wildcats’ ills when it comes to getting nasty around the basket.

Worrisome stat: In the Wildcats’ seven losses, they have been out-rebounded by five per game.

On offense, what we saw for long stretches against Memphis was Arizona careless with the ball and having difficulty getting good looks against the Tigers’ athleticism and pressure. That might only get worse against Texas.

Point guard Dogus Balbay, not a scorer, is regarded as an elite on-ball defender. Big 12 coaches voted him the league’s Defensive Player of the Year. Can MoMo Jones shake free? With Balbay and Thompson, Texas has two players who match up well, on paper, against Arizona’s top two scorers.

Defense and rebounding. Texas has the edge in both areas.

There’s always a chance Arizona can get hot from 3-point range. There’s always a chance the Longhorns get an inconsistent offensive performance from Hamilton, which often undermines the entire team’s effort, as it did late in the season.

There’s always a chance that Texas has one of its noted poor days at the free throw line. There’s always a chance Arizona simply catches Texas on an off day.

But those are all longer odds that the Longhorns winning comfortably behind the twin pillars of defense and rebounding.

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