Posted March 16th, 2018
It doesn’t seem all that long ago, but this year marks the 15th anniversary of the 2003 Final Four, the greatest season in Texas basketball history.
The Longhorns’ third Final Four appearance and its first since 1947, 2003 was peak Rick Barnes Era basketball. Texas went 26-7 and finished 13-3 in the Big 12, good for second-place in the league, then defeated some of the biggest programs of the day and handful of legendary coaches en route to the Final Four.
T.J. Ford won most National Player of the Year awards over the likes of future basketball hall of famers Dwyane Wade (Marquette) and Carmelo Anthony (Syracuse) — he actually split one with Nick Collison of Kansas– and would go on to establish himself as one of the greatest players in the history of the program. The Longhorns retired his number several years later.
Let’s take a look at the 2003 season.
The Longhorns were supposed to be great in 2002-2003. They started with the No. 4 preseason ranking and never fell out of the top 10 of the Associated Press poll. The Longhorns started the season with a 77-71 win over No. 16 Georgia and rolled until back-to-back losses, including to then No. 1 Arizona (led by standout Luke Walton) on the road.
Texas didn’t lose again until conference play, when No. 6 Kansas, led by All-Americans Collison and Kirk Hinrich and coach Roy Williams, beat them 90-87 in Allen Fieldhouse. A game later, Texas beat No. 9 Oklahoma State, led by coach Eddie Sutton, in Austin 78-65.
Texas finished the regular season with one of its best wins, a 76-71 victory over rival No. 6-ranked Oklahoma in Norman.
If it sounds like there were some good teams in the Big 12 back then it’s because there were. The Big 12 would have a member school make every round of the NCAA Tournament. Kansas reached the National Championship Game. Texas and Kansas reached the Final Four, Oklahoma (a No. 1 seed) joined them in the Elite Eight, Oklahoma State and Missouri joined them in the second round. Only Colorado failed to win a game in the tournament. The No. 10-seed Buffaloes made the field largely based on home wins over Kansas and Texas.
Leading the way for the Longhorns was Ford, who averaged 15 points, 7.7 assists and two steals per game. Brandon Mouton, James Thomas, Brian Boddicker, Royal Ivey, Brad Buckman and Sydmill Harris all averaged at least 6.2 points, while Jason Klotz chipped in with 4.3 per game.
Texas was one of two Big 12 schools to receive a No. 1 seed, despite the Longhorns’ early exit from the Big 12 Tournament against Texas Tech, coached by Bob Knight.
The Longhorns played UNC-Asheville in the opening round and won 82-61.
That set up a game against College Basketball Hall of Fame coach Gene Keady and the Purdue Boilermakers. Texas won 77-67. Next up was Connecticut, coached by Hall of Famer Jim Calhoun. The Huskies were a year away from winning its second national title, but the 2003 team, featuring notable 2004 heroes like Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor and Hilton Armstrong fell to the Longhorns 82-78.
The Elite Eight game was Texas and No. 7 seed Michigan State. The Spartans, coached by Hall of Famer Tom Izzo, had upset No. 2 seed Florida 68-46 and beat No. 6 seed Maryland en route to the Elite Eight. With freshman Chris Hill as the leading scorer, the Spartans’ run ended against the Longhorns with a 85-76 loss.
It was the first Final Four appearance since 1947 for the Longhorns.
Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls wrote: “While America figured Texas would be the least likely top seed to be wearing Mardi Gras beads like Deginald Erskin did as he climbed the ladder to cut down the net in the postgame celebration, Barnes’ club instead was the only survivor.”
The 2003 Final Four was one of the most star-studded Final Fours of that decade. The two National Player of the Year winners, Ford and Collison were there. So was the game’s best freshman, Anthony, the biggest breakout star of the tournament, Wade, and that doesn’t include All-Americans and future All-Americans like Kansas’ Hinrich and Wayne Simien, Syracuse’s Hakim Warrick and Gerry McNamara and Marquette’s Steve Novak.
Future Hall of Fame coaches Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Kansas’ Williams joined one of the best young coaches in college basketball, 36-year-old Tom Crean, and one of the best established coaches, then 48-year-old Rick Barnes.
Marquette, the Midwest’s No. 3 seed, became one of the hot picks to win it all after it thrashed No. 1 seed Kentucky in the Elite Eight, 83-69.
Syracuse, meanwhile, was rolling along and had one close call, a 79-78 win over No. 10 seed Auburn, who upset No. 7 seed Saint Joseph’s in overtime in the first round before stunning No. 2 seed Wake Forest in the second round. The Orange, then a member of the Big East, demolished Oklahoma 63-47 in the Elite Eight to advance from the East Region, which was played in Albany, New York — a three hour drive from Syracuse’s campus.
Kansas had underachieved for much of the 2002-2003 season. A returning 2002 Final Four squad loaded with All-Americans and McDonald All-Americans was the preseason No. 2 team. They would fall all the way to No. 20 in early December before surging at the end and grabbing a No. 2 seed. Kansas’ run almost never happened as No. 15 seed Utah State nearly had the upset of the tournament in a 64-61 game. That woke up the Jayhawks, who would beat Arizona State 108-76 in the second round, Duke 69-65 in the Sweet 16 and No. 1 seed Arizona 78-75 in the Elite Eight.
Some of the storylines from the Final Four? Here’s some headlines from the Statesman that week:
“Kansas fans: Carolina blue not Roy’s color” : Williams left Kansas a few days after the Final Four to take the UNC job, thus exposing the Big 12 to Bill Self Syndrome later that April.
“Freshman Anthony: Syracuse’s spark plug”: This was pre one-and-done, and no one had seen a freshman like Anthony dominate basketball since maybe Wayman Tisdale 20 years earlier.
“Last time in New Orleans wasn’t easy” : Texas was crushed in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Temple in 2001 in New Orleans.
“Local stores banking on UT title T-shirts”: Welp.
“Forget football: Texas hooked on hoops”
“These are the days to be a Longhorns fan”: The last two headlines are because Texas had both the men’s and women’s teams in the Final Four at the time.
In week where the Statesman staff was churning out tons of copy, this feature from former Statesman scribe Kevin Robbins gave fans some insight into the program’s best player, Ford. Robbins wrote: “T.J. Ford, who turned 20 two weeks ago, might have been the most interrogated teen-age basketball player this year in any state not spelled O-H-I-O.”
By the way, that player in Ohio? That would the Akron sensation LeBron James. Ford was only a sophomore and hadn’t announced his plans for the NBA. He would enter the NBA Draft following the Final Four.
Once the games arrived, there were some letdowns. The buzz surrounding Marquette looked laughable when the Jayhawks scored 59 points in the first half — 59! — and went on to beat the Golden Eagles 94-61.
The next game was Texas-Syracuse. The two schools played even in the first half with Syracuse leading 48-45 at the break. But there was no stopping Anthony. He finished with 33 points, 14 rebounds, three steals and he shot 63 percent from the field.
Ford couldn’t match him. The National Player of the Year scored 12 points and threw 13 assists. Ford took only eight shots in the game. Mouton was the game’s leading scorer with 25 points on 9-of-23 shooting.
Syracuse won 95-84.
After scoring 33 points, Anthony doesn’t need any advice, but here’s some anyway for the sleek, velvety Syracuse freshman.
Go pro, Carmelo.
Because he didn’t, there are no more games tomorrow for Rick Barnes’ wonderful team that wrapped up the most glorious season in school history by reaching the final weekend. Here’s betting it won’t be another 56 years before the Longhorns return.
The Orange beat Kansas the following Monday 81-78 for Boeheim’s first and so far only national title.
Texas hasn’t been back to the Final Four since, reaching the Elite Eight twice since 2003 but not since 2008. Ford was picked eighth overall by the Milwaukee Bucks and had an injury plagued career that included a scary spinal cord injury in the 2004-2005 season. He retired in 2012 and went on to finish his degree at Texas.
Anthony and Collison are still in the NBA, and in fact, are teammates this season on the Oklahoma City Thunder. Anthony is a likely first ballot Basketball Hall of Fame selection along with Wade. Both are considered two of the 10 or 15 best NBA players of the last 15 years. Anthony was taken third overall by the Denver Nuggets and Wade fifth by Miami Heat.
Barnes coached at Texas for another 12 years before parting ways with Texas in 2015. He took over Tennessee and led the Volunteers to the NCAA Tournament this season.