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Feisty Longhorns pass first true test

ARLINGTON, Texas -- He stopped himself. Three or four words shy of a rim-rattling quote sure to set message boards and bulletin boards afire, Damion James paused.

Asked why he thought people have undervalued his Texas team, James shrugged his shoulders.

"I don't know," he said. "You'd have to ask them but I do wonder, what do they think of us now? I know how good we are and I think maybe we even deserve to be …"

Stop.

Change direction to the safer, canned logic of how the Longhorns could be something special but they have a lot of work to do and yada, yada, yada.

Except by the grin on his face, the glimmer dancing in his eyes and the angry chip digging a hole on his shoulder, it was quite obvious what James wanted to say: Maybe, just maybe, Texas could be the best team in the country.

Certainly no one today can argue that the Longhorns belong among the small handful of teams that, come April, could lay official claim to such a statement.

In a game billed as a test of Texas' legitimacy, the Longhorns left little doubt they belonged, out-heeling North Carolina at its own game and winning 103-90.

The Longhorns tilted every strength the Tar Heels were supposed to have in their favor -- running faster, scoring more quickly, attacking the boards with more authority and feeding the post with better results in a complete statistical upset: winning points in the paint (52-42), second-chance points (27-11) and fast-break points (16-8). And most impressive, Texas outrebounded the Heels 60-41, including 29-12 on the offensive glass. The 29 offensive boards were the most by any UT team in any game this decade.

"All week, everyone's telling us how North Carolina has the best front line in the country, how they like to run, how they do this and do that," James said. "Well, we just beat them at their own game. So what's that say about the Texas Longhorns? Are we legit? We know we're legit."

It's pretty hard to be the second-ranked team in the country and feel undervalued, underappreciated and disrespected.

Yet the Longhorns did, and with good reason.

They headed to the Dallas area hearing more about what they weren't than what they were.

There was credence in the complaint. In its first nine games, Texas played exactly two teams with an RPI better than 50: Western Carolina and Long Beach State.

But the criticism overlooked two key points. For starters, the Longhorns may not have played anyone terribly tough, but they didn't exactly struggle, either.

They did what good teams are supposed to when faced with lesser competition: they annihilated it.

The closest anyone got in the first nine games? Iowa, which lost by 16. The Longhorns won by a staggering 31.7 points per game, never so much as toying with anyone.

More important, the "Who has Texas played?" argument ignores a fundamental and critical fact: who Texas is.

"To me, by the end of this season they have a chance to be the best Texas team since Rick [Barnes] has been here," Roy Williams said. "And that's including a team that went to the Final Four."

The Longhorns are the sort of team built for April success, mixing that perfect cocktail of experience, talent, toughness and attitude. They are ridiculously deep -- Barnes went to 12 guys against Carolina -- and are as good inside as they are out.

And all of it was on display against the Heels.

Four guys topped the 20-point mark, two of them on the inside and older (seniors James with 25 and Dexter Pittman with 23) and two of them on the outside and younger (rookies Avery Bradley with 20 and J'Covan Brown with 21).

Bradley, an electric rookie, blew open what had been a tight game at the end of the half. After James scored on an offensive rebound, Bradley hung around to pester the Heels' inbound, swiped the ball and scored the bucket. That fast, the Heels went to the locker room down 13.

"Sometimes I tell my coach when I see certain things, plays that I think I can make because they've been making lazy passes or whatever," Bradley said. "So that's what they had been doing and I just took a chance."

And then when the Heels made it interesting, cutting what had been as large as a 17-point lead to just four in the second half, the older guys took over. James scored on an and-one and Pittman followed on the next possession by putting back an offensive rebound, one of his 12 for the day. Just like that, 82-78 became 87-78.

With James, this is nothing new. The four-year starter leads the team in scoring and rebounding. The fast talker and borderline trash talker remains the heart and soul of the Longhorns, his decision to come back after checking out the NBA this summer a real sign to Barnes of what could be.

"He wanted to come back to this team because he knew it could be something special," Barnes said. "He's grown up as much as any kid I've ever been around."

In this particular game, though, the real revelation was Pittman.

A few weeks ago, Barnes pulled Pittman into a private boot camp after the senior asked him what he needed to do. He had played well but not as well as Barnes thought he could.

"Do you want me to tell you or do you want me to show you?" Barnes said to Pittman. "I told him, 'because I'm tired of telling you.' So I took him into one of our side gyms and I showed him."

Barnes wouldn't say exactly what he did, but did explain that he wanted to mimic how Pittman might feel late in the game when he stepped to the line. As in exhausted.

"There was a lot of running," Barnes smirked.

The result: In a fast game that would have had him calling for oxygen a few years earlier, Pittman played 26 minutes.

"At one point, at maybe the under-four-minute timeout, he was saying that he wanted to come out," Brown said. "I told him, 'You can't. If you come out, I'm coming out.' I told him he had to suck it up because we needed him, so he didn't come out."

Instead he put up his first double-double of the season.

"I kept hearing how they had this seven-headed monster with all these big men and 7-footers," Pittman said. "Well, I'm the only 7-footer we got, so I took that as a challenge."

Frankly, the game was a personal challenge to all the Longhorns. Though Barnes deflected any thoughts that this was a statement game, it was a statement game.

And Texas, which will have a chance to crow again on Tuesday when it hosts Michigan State, stated its case loudly.

This is a team that belongs -- belongs in the conversation for national champion contenders.

Is it the best team in the country?

"Oh, I don't know," James demurred. "I know I love this team, so I'll leave that to y'all to decide. I think we're pretty good."

And then James paused one more time and smiled.

"I think we play Kansas, don't we?"

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.