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March 3, 2007

Game of the Week: Texas at Kansas

Texas is hoping the encore is even better than the main event.

After a thrilling 98-96 win in double overtime over No. 7 Texas A&M on Wednesday, the Longhorns could claim a share of the Big 12 title against No. 3 Kansas on Saturday.

With a win, though, Kansas will win the outright conference title and bolster its chances for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. A loss could mean dropping to a No. 3 seed in the Big 12 Tournament. It would also be only the second win by a Big 12 South team in Lawrence (The first being Texas A&M on Feb. 3).

Whatever the outcome, the play of Texas freshman Kevin Durant always makes the game a must-see, and chances to watch Durant in college could end sooner rather than later.

For Kansas coach Bill Self, the matchup will be something of a role reversal. Last year, the Jayhawks started three freshmen and two sophomores. Texas coach Rick Barnes has one-upped him in 2007 by starting four freshmen and one sophomore.

Of course, if that one extra freshman is Durant, it makes a big difference.

"They are even a little younger than we were last year," Self said. "Both teams are incredibly young. Our team got a lot better as we went on and Texas is doing the same thing. But Texas has one thing that our team did not have last year, something no team has. It may be easier for some of their guys to know you can pencil in 25 points and 12 rebounds even on an off-night."

No. 15 Texas (22-7, 12-3 Big 12) takes on No. 3 Kansas (26-4, 13-2 Big 12) at Allen Fieldhouse on Saturday at noon Eastern. The game will be televised on CBS. We'll take a look at the head-to-head matchups in our Game of the Week breakdown.

Game of the Week: No. 15 Texas (22-7, 12-3 Big 12) at No. 3 Kansas (26-4, 13-2 Big 12)
Kevin Durant vs. Julian Wright
As all of Texas' opponents have tried to do, Kansas will make its top priority to limit the damage from Durant, who had 30 points and 16 rebounds against Texas A&M on Wednesday. Look for a team effort from the Jayhawks in stopping the freshman. When Durant (6-9, 225 pounds) plays in the lane, Wright (6-8, 225) is a better fit as a defender, but when Durant plays the perimeter, look for Brandon Rush (6-6, 210) to guard him. Offensively, Wright has helped to pick up the slack for the slumping Rush. Wright has shot 70 percent from the field and averaged 15 points per game in the last two games.
Edge: Texas
Damion James vs. Sasha Kaun
If Wright focuses on Durant, that would leave the center Kaun (6-11, 245) working against the smaller and quicker James (6-7, 227). James was one of Texas' heroes in the win over A&M on Wednesday, scoring a career-high 22 points and shooting 7 of 10 from the field. Kaun's minutes have dwindled through the year, with more playing time coming from freshman Darrell Arthur. Kaun, who has scored in double digits in the last two games, could get the quick hook again for a more favorable matchup between Arthur (6-8, 225) and James.
Edge: Texas
Justin Mason vs. Brandon Rush
Rush was a preseason Big 12 player of the year candidate but is no longer in the discussion, especially after the last couple of weeks. Although he remains solid on the defensive end of the floor, he has struggled offensively. Over the last five games, he's averaging 9.2 points per game and 35.7 percent from the field. Over the last two, it's even worse. He's only made four of his last 15 from the floor. In order for Kansas to win, it needs him to be a factor in the offense and in limiting Durant. Mason is a defense-first guard who is 0 for 7 from the field over the last two games but had 10 rebounds against Oklahoma on Feb. 24.
Edge: Kansas
A.J. Abrams vs. Mario Chalmers
As Texas' only sophomore starter, Abrams is the veteran of the bunch. At 15 points per game, he's also the team's second-leading scorer. In recent games, Abrams has answered coach Rick Barnes' harsh criticism to improve his defense. One of Kansas' best defenders, Chalmers leads the Big 12 in steals and creates much of his offense from his defensive prowess. He has been even more valuable during Rush's recent slump. Chalmers has averaged 17.7 points per game over the last three games. Chalmers could also defend Texas guard D.J. Augustin.
Edge: Kansas
D.J. Augustin vs. Sherron Collins
As good as Durant has been this year, it's easy to overlook Augustin, but the freshman point guard has been almost as important to the Longhorns' success. He leads the Big 12 in assists but is also adept at driving to the basket to score. He has topped 15 points in six of the last seven games while also getting the ball to Durant. Collins has been a key performer off the bench for Kansas since Big 12 play began but has struggled somewhat since being moved into the starting lineup for the injured Russell Robinson. Oklahoma held him scoreless on Monday. Kansas doesn't need him to score as much as it needs him to defend and run the offense, utilizing all of the weapons around him.
Edge: Texas
Texas bench vs. Kansas bench
Kansas' bench has been one of its strengths all year with freshmen Darrell Arthur (pictured) and Sherron Collins both contributing. With Collins now in the starting lineup, former starting point guard Russell Robinson will come off the bench. After sitting out one game with a foot injury, he scored seven points in 19 minutes in the win over Oklahoma. Arthur has also contributed quality minutes, averaging 10.5 points per game. Juniors Darnell Jackson and Rodrick Stewart give Kansas some experience off the bench. Like its starters, Texas' top reserves are also young. Sophomore Connor Atchley (pictured) (6-9, 225) and freshman Dexter Pittman (6-10, 193) give Texas some size that is not found it the starting lineup outside of Durant. Junior J.D. Lewis and senior Craig Winder also see occasional minutes at guard.
Edge: Kansas
Coaching Matchup
Both coaches will have to be ready for a fast-paced, high-scoring game. Texas' Rick Barnes has exceeded expectations by contending for a share of the Big 12 regular season title despite losing all five starters from last year's Elite Eight team. Despite the team's youth, it didn't buckle in the double-overtime win over Texas A&M on Wednesday. Doing the same on the road might be difficult. Kansas' Bill Self has led an inconsistent team capable of beating any team in the country one night but struggle against Oklahoma the next.
Edge: Texas

Prediction: Kansas 77, Texas 73
Prediction record: 6-3



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