Horns' hopes hinge on freshman trio

They haven't been the Fab Three, not by any stretch, but if the Texas Longhorns expect to get to the Sweet 16 -- heck, if they hope to play past Thursday -- these three freshmen will need to start acting like it.

The 2009-10 season is walking the plank of desperation, on the edge of going down as the most crushing in Texas hoops history and arguably one of the more disappointing storylines from a national perspective in a long, long time. At 17-0 and ranked No. 1 in mid-January, the Longhorns looked fabulous, inevitable Final Four locks.

Now, unranked, conflicted and quite possibly mentally sapped, the eighth-seeded Longhorns (24-9) face the No. 9-seeded Wake Forest Demon Deacons (19-10) in New Orleans on Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Even with three senior starters in Damion James, Dexter Pittman and Justin Mason, it appears as if Texas will go only as far as its three ballyhooed freshmen -- Avery Bradley, Jordan Hamilton and J'Covan Brown -- can take it.

Unfair pressure on freshmen? Surely. But, this is the one-and-done era -- and Bradley just might be that -- where the future is always now. Unfortunately for Texas, the trio that coach Rick Barnes hoped to integrate into the starting lineup long ago have only managed to turn back the clock.

"Not just for us but our whole team," said Bradley, the steadiest of three. "I'm pretty sure all the freshmen, the transition coming into college is way different, and that's what we learned, we just learned it in different ways and at different times. It took a few of us to learn it a little longer, but we're still getting there."

Time is running out. Bradley will be in the starting lineup against Wake Forest, also a curious team that has fallen on hard times of late, losing five of its past six. Hamilton will come off the bench for another 20 minutes or so of completely unpredictable play. And Brown, well, he won't have much of a clue whether he'll see two minutes or 20.

If the tournament is all about great guard play, Texas could be in big trouble right away. Wake Forest senior point guard Ishmael Smith, the Demon Deacons' second-leading scorer, averages 13.3 points and 6.0 assists. Freshman C.J. Harris and senior L.D. Williams are behind Smith in scoring, respectively, meaning Wake has three guards among its top four scorers.

NBA prospect Al-Farouq Aminu, a 6-9 sophomore forward, leads the Deacons in scoring (15.7) and rebounds (10.7).

Of course, if the Horns get past Wake, freshman sensation John Wall and No. 1 Kentucky likely await.

The Longhorns haven't fared well against strong backcourts and especially against senior point guards. Think Kansas, Texas A&M and Baylor. The Longhorns are 1-4 against those teams, with the losses coming by 12, 16, 15 and 19 points.

"Where we're at right now," Bradley said, "all we can do is get better, and that's what we need to do and that's what we're going to do."

Easier said than done.

Of Texas' 10 conference wins, including in the Big 12 tournament, only three came against teams with winning conference records, one against Texas A&M and twice against Oklahoma State. In each, Texas got needed production from at least one of its freshmen.

In the win at Oklahoma State, Hamilton couldn't miss from long range and scored a season-high 27 points, and Bradley added 10. In the second win, those two combined for 24 points. In the overtime win over A&M, Brown scored 14 points.

For much of the season, Bradley is the lone consistent contributor at both ends, but his shooting percentage has dipped to about 32 percent over the past eight games -- he still leads the freshmen in shooting percentage at 43.9 percent -- and Barnes has become frustrated at Bradley's hesitancy to shoot the open 3-pointer.

For a team that has struggled to get the ball inside to Pittman, the perimeter game is imperative.

"If he starts knocking down shots -- I've been watching tape of Wake and their opponents, so much of it gets down to shooting the ball, making shots -- it makes us that much more effective," Barnes said."

However, Bradley's slumping shooting percentage is nothing compared with the problems for Hamilton, a lanky swingman who had more turnovers (five) than field goals (4-of-16, 2-10 on 3-pointers) in the Big 12 tournament. Hamilton, averaging 9.8 points, has dipped to 40.8 percent shooting.

Brown played just three minutes in the first-round win over Iowa State, and in 16 minutes in the quarterfinal against Baylor, he misfired on 6 of 7 shots, including 5 of 6 from beyond the 3-point arc, and is now shooting 34.5 percent from the field and 28.1 percent from deep.

When Dogus Balbay was lost for the season to a knee injury on Feb. 20, many figured it was time for Brown to take charge of the offense. He hasn't been able to stick, but Barnes said he's hopeful that a fresh start to the season also can be that for his beleaguered, young point guard.

"He's proven that he can help us," Barnes said. "I just would love to see him, along with all of our guys, just play to their ability and let it go, and if he'll do that, he certainly can help us."

Jeff Caplan covers colleges for ESPN Dallas. You can follow him on Twitter or leave a question for his weekly mailbag.