For the last 35 years, Marty Blake has been identifying top college and international talent as the NBA’s Director of Scouting. A former general manager of the St. Louis and Atlanta Hawks in the 1950s and ’60s, Marty will be sharing thoughts and observations from the road as he crisscrosses the country identifying top collegiate talent throughout the season leading up to the 2006 NBA Draft in June.


YES DOROTHY, COLLEGE BASKETBALL IS ALIVE AND WELL – IN TEXAS

As my plane from Atlanta made its final long glide to the tarmac of Austin, Texas, my final destination after a long week of watching some of the nation’s top teams play, I began to ponder my last scouting trip to that state’s capital.

It must have been in the 1980s.

It had to be with Bob Ferry, then General Manager of the Washington Bullets.

I remembered a trip like that. We passed up a Saturday afternoon invite to see the Longhorns play a football game in order to visit the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library.

Ferry and I shared an interest in past presidents. He once arranged a special visit to the White House during the Kennedy administration for my wife, Marcia, and our family. I regretfully missed the event.

After spending a couple of interesting hours in the Johnson conclave, I also remembered hitting Dallas the next day – a city then knee-deep in snow. Only the experimental genius of the unflappable former pivot – he brought a small bale of India rope and attached it around all four tires because every store was out tire chains – allowed us to slowly drive to the airport and get home.

Abe Lemons may have been the head man at Texas then. He started there in the summer of 1976 and, two years later, led the Horns to a 26-5 mark. Bob Weltlich replaced him in 1982 and Tom Penders took over the helm of the team in 1988.

Penders stayed a while before the current leader, Rick Barnes, came on board 10 years later. He is what the politicians call the incumbent.

If it were Abe in charge, it must have been a funny trip. He was a joyous man who brightened up our days whenever we had a chance to spend a few moments with him. But more about Lemons as we approach the NBA All-Star Game.

Maybe it was Penders.

Today is Thursday and tonight I will see the first of two NBA Development League games, both involving the visiting Albuquerque Thunderbirds and the Austin Toros. Joining me in Austin was Dave Shepherd who covers the Southwest for us.

Dave and his family are victims of Hurricane Katrina. They lost their new home to the flood waters and are planning to rebuild the house which was located on the banks of the Mississippi in that state. The Shepherds now reside in Houston and Dave will join me for the D-League contest.

He is a former high school and college coach and knows every prospect at every level through this vast region.

Austin is an amazing city. There are more than 1,200,000 people living in the Austin surrounding area and nearly 700,000 live within the Austin city limits.

The well-known PBS show of that name no longer exists although this has to be one of the great music cities in this country. The annual South by Southwest Musician Jamboree features bands from all over the state and country with every form of music available for more than 100,000 people who attend every year.

I stay at a relatively new Hampton Inn which, the manager advised me, was “built from scratch.” Visiting D-League teams stay here. The front façade reminds me of New Orleans and Antoine’s, a favorite eatery for many travelers who, like my wife, Marcia and I, were heartbroken at the near destruction Katrina brought to the Big Easy.

Austin is a mix of new money and old money (and plenty of both) and from the look of downtown, it is one of the fastest growing cities in the world.

The city abounds with glimmering new buildings that reminds me of the fascinating new structures you see downtown in Chicago, New York and San Francisco. Like many other American cities, flight is not out of but returning to downtown areas. Huge loft-type structures and high-priced condos are springing up all over.

Who says – Thomas Wolfe – that you can’t come back to the inner city.

If Nashville is the Athens of the U.S., then Austin is the Paris of our nation – country style.

This is a culture-oriented city with numerous art galleries, outstanding local plays and playwrights, many Broadway touring groups, the library devoted to President Johnson, etc. You get the picture. And music, music, music of every variety.

But I am here to check the state of basketball. Yes, Dorothy is indeed alive and well.

Down El Paso Way, Doc Sadler has the Miners fighting Memphis for the Conference USA crown. Doc replaced Billy Gillespie who has done a fine job in rebuilding Texas A&M. Under the Doctor, UTEP had a great season last year.

The General, Bob Knight, has won more than 100 games in his five seasons at Texas Tech and his squad has bounced back from a slow start to once again threaten the leaders. Lubbock is often called the City of Upsets. Down Corpus Christi Way, former South Alabama coach and JUCO legend, Ronnie Arrow, has put together a fine squad which, after a couple excellent seasons as a Division I independent, will join the Southland Conference next year.

Penders is bringing Houston back to respectability.

The kingpin of the state, however, is the University of Texas, still basking in the excitement of their recent NCAA grid title.

Their hope is that lightening will strike twice in the same season.

Coach Rick Barnes is in his eighth season there with a 161-79 mark entering this season and had to get another win this past Saturday afternoon against Texas A&M.

That Saturday, I was to meet Scott McConnell, the very amiable Texas basketball sports information director, a couple of hours prior to game time. My visit was delayed by an early morning (5:00 AM) fire only a few blocks away from my hotel. A night club burned and collapsed, almost taking two nearby condo buildings down with it. It was still smothering and, being a stats guy, I found out it took five ladder trucks, 27 fire engines and 70 fire fighters to put out the blaze.

McConnell took me on a tour of the refurbished Frank C. Erwin Center – a majestic edifice that recently underwent a $55 million dollar overhaul. The basketball facilities are second to none – both men’s and women’s teams have 9000-square foot practice gyms, opulent locker rooms and a 4,100 square-foot strength and conditioning area which would be the envy of many Division I football teams. Every creature comfort is available to the cagers of both teams.

The Erwin Center was very impressive, as was its adjoining enclaves.

Texas was 6-1 in the Big 12 and 18-3 overall coming into this game and averages 77.5 ppg over the past 11 outings. They had allowed only 54.2 ppg. Included in this skein were non-conference wins over high-ranked Memphis and Villanova.

The Horns started three underclassmen – the junior forward PJ Tucker and two sophomores, the guard Daniel Gibson and the center LaMarcus Aldridge.

A&M is in a rebuilding mode and was 13-6 overall and 3-6 in the Big 12. They were the only Big 12 Conference team to have all of their games decided by 10 points or less. That was to change this afternoon.

They started three guards – junior Acie Law IV, the sophomore Dominique Kirk and the senior Chris Walker (who is still recovering from summer knee injury) – and rounded out the lineup with the junior Marlon Pompey, who would play the four spot, and the sophomore big guy, Joseph Jones, who was to eventually turn in one of the great games of his short college career. I was joined by four scouts from other NBA teams – Seattle’s General Manager Rick Sund; Atlanta scout Gary Fitzimmons; Memphis scout Tony Barone Jr. and Scott Pruneau of Golden State.

Texas jumped to an early 8-2 lead, extended it to 10 points midway through the first half, and eventually would extend that margin to 13 at halftime.

Tucker, for Texas, had his usual team-leading 12 markers while Jones, doubled by two defenders almost from the get-go, had eight points for the visitors.

Texas’ lead grew to 18 shortly into the second half, when the young A&M cager Jones exploded. He started a personal streak of eight straight baskets that would eventually lead to only six points separating the teams at 70-64.

The crowd finally came to life.

Following two free throws by Buckman and an aggressive move by Jones that was called an offensive foul (his fifth personal), Texas’ Aldridge made his only hoop of the game to move the lead to 10 points with 3:10 remaining. As sometimes happens when a team is trying to comeback, the game turned into a free throw shooting contest.

Jones’ previous career mark was 35 and it appeared he would break it this game. He made 11 of 16 field goal attempts, hit 9 of 11 from the line, grabbed four rebounds and had two assists and three steals.

Tucker easily led Texas, going 8-16 from the field with a similar 9-11 from the line, a game high 12 rebounds and one assist.

The senior guard, Kenton Paulino, was impressive with an almost perfect afternoon. He has started all 21 of the Longhorns games this year.

On Saturday he scored 19 points, close to his career high of 20, achieved earlier against Iowa State. He was 4-6 from the field, 3-5 from three point range, 8-8 from the line (all in the second half), and he had four assists and three steals.

Texas has five guys who can put points on the board but does not have much depth at any position. Nor does A&M, but the Aggies have help on the way and expect to start two freshmen next season. The A&M freshman, Josh Carter, who is 6-5 and 175, was forced into action for 34 minutes. He was 2-10 from the field and missed all five of his long-ball attempts. He did convert two of three free throws and had three assists and two rebounds.

Texas has four more home games against three away contests, including another meeting with A&M March 1 at College Station.

The top four Big 12 teams get an opening round bye. Texas seems a cinch to be one of the top four, maybe even the first one.

But, unlike some recent years, the Big 12 is tough from top to bottom and this tourney is a three-four day battle. And remember this year is the year of the upset.

Marty Blake's Top 10 College Teams

  1. Connecticut – next game is key on Monday, Feb. 13 at Villanova
  2. Duke – won last two games by a total of five points
  3. Memphis – a free spirit at home; close ones on the road
  4. Villanova – we’ll see them vs. UCONN Feb. 13
  5. George Washington – has won 11 straight
  6. West Virginia – Big East topper will go down to the wire
  7. Michigan State – Kingpin of Big 10
  8. Texas – finally get help in the post
  9. Tennessee – beat Florida at home and Kentucky at Rupp Arena
  10. Gonzaga – won past two games by a total of three points; Stanford upcoming