TULSA, Okla. -- For his introduction to March Madness, Texas freshman Tristan Thompson was presented the challenge of guarding 6-foot-11 Oakland senior Keith Benson, a guy some think will be selected in the first round of the NBA draft in June.
Actually, Thompson volunteered for the challenge, saying he wanted to guard Benson. He embraced the opportunity to guard him one-on-one, with little in the way of double-team support. And he ultimately dominated the matchup.
No freshman nerves. No need for a life preserver from his teammates. No fear of giving away height and experience to a big-time player.
“When you play March Madness you want to play the best of the best,” Thompson said.
Thompson was the best of the best Friday in the BOK Center. The Canadian showed why he’s first-round material as well, putting 17 points, 10 rebounds and a career-high seven blocked shots on the board in an 85-81 Texas victory. Most importantly, he showed Benson who was the boss of the paint, rejecting several of his shots and limiting him to a hard-earned 15 points on 6-of-15 shooting.
“If I’m a fan watching that game, I’m watching two future NBA players battling each other,” Oakland coach Greg Kampe said.
The pros will love Thompson whenever they get a hold of him. He’s a legit 6-foot-9 and talented, but he’s also first-team All-Effort. He relishes doing the dirty work that some big men shy away from. He’s not a woofer, preener or pouter.
That attitude, combined with his defensive presence, has helped make Texas a dramatically improved team over last year. The Longhorns control the paint as well as any team in the country -- and as an added bonus, they get along with each other, too.
Neither was necessarily the case last season. With those improvements, this is a legit national title contender.
Just ask Kampe, whose under-seeded team is really good. The Grizzlies have played a bunch of national powers and can make some comparisons.
“We play everybody in the country,” Kampe said. “I know who is good and I know who isn’t. And that Texas team is as good as anybody. Texas can win a national championship. ... Ohio State and them, they’re right there neck and neck. We’ve played them both, and they’re a great team.”
For 30 minutes, Texas looked like championship material. For 10, Texas looked like it can find a way to lose a tight game with elimination on the line.
The Horns let a 16-point second-half lead shrink to five in the final minute, and Oakland guard Reggie Hamilton had a shot to cut it to three go halfway down and come out. It would have been a brutal collapse on Texas’ part.
But it didn’t come to that, and the fact that this was a competitive game throughout is more a credit to the quality of the Grizzlies than a criticism of the Longhorns.
“It’s a team I thought could have done something in this tournament, and we just got a bad draw,” Kampe said.
Both teams did. Neither probably deserved to lose in the first round.
“If there is any team that really got a bad [seeding] deal, it was Oakland,” Rick Barnes said. “I’m telling you, we just won a game against an outstanding team.”
It took an outstanding game from Texas’ fearless freshman center to do so.