By BETH RUCKER
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) With six freshmen, Texas coach Rick Barnes planned on the Longhorns needing more than one year to come of age.
He didn't figure to use that as an excuse to miss out on the NCAA tournament.
"I think we were in a lot of learning situations, and we told them we would never use the fact that being a freshman team is an excuse because you go back to last year's national champion (Connecticut). They started four freshmen. We can't use that," Barnes said Thursday.
And the Longhorns didn't. Instead, they grew up quickly and earned the program's 14th consecutive NCAA bid. The 11th-seeded Longhorns will face No. 6 seed Cincinnati Friday in the second round in the East region.
The Bearcats know a thing or two about growing up. Their progress wasn't as much about age as it was maturity.
Cincinnati was without junior guard JaQuon Parker for the first seven games because of a groin injury and suffered three early season losses. That included the 76-53 romp by Xavier better known for the trash talking and bloody brawl between the teams.
"We had to take some losses and get embarrassed and have our season really be put on the brink of extinction," Bearcats coach Mick Cronin said. "I give all the credit to our players because it was at that point that the leadership on our team basically said, `We're going to start playing hard, we're going to buy into hustle, rebound, defense, toughness and play hard enough to win."
Cincinnati (24-10) responded to the embarrassment by winning 10 of its next 11 games and defeated a nation-leading seven ranked teams this season - including No. 2 Syracuse in the Big East tournament semifinals. The Bearcats lost 50-44 to Louisville in the tournament championship.
"Our back was against the wall. We were shorthanded and had to make it all work once the suspended guys got back," said senior forward Yancy Gates, whose six-game suspension was the harshest of the punishments doled out after the brawl. "I think we pretty much found our way."
The Longhorns (20-13) found themselves shorthanded nearly a year ago after losing all five starters from the 2010-11 team that finished second in the Big 12.
When offseason workouts started there were a grand total of three players - seniors Alexis Wangmene and Clint Chapman and junior J'Covan Brown. Barnes eventually added six freshmen and a pair of walk-ons.
"Some of the workouts weren't good, but we just had to find ways to put it together, and these six freshmen we battle with every day," Brown said. "They're a great group of guys and work hard. I think the outcome shows that they wanted to do whatever it takes to win games."
Having Brown around sure hasn't hurt. The guard leads the Big 12 in scoring with 20.1 points per game, hitting 41.7 percent of his shots and 36.7 percent from 3-point range.
Brown has been his best in some of the Longhorns' biggest games this season, logging 24 points, seven assists, six rebounds and three steals against No. 7 Kansas on Jan. 21 and 32 points and five assists against No. 6 Baylor on Jan. 28. In three career NCAA tournament games, Brown has averaged 21.3 points while converting 29-of-31 free throws.
"I don't think people really understand how hard it is to score 20 points a night, night in and night out or do what he does," Barnes said. "I can assure you that every team that we played this year, he has been the focus of their game plan, so he goes out every game with a big bulls eye on his back ... but he's been pretty darn consistent all year."
Cincinnati come to rely on Gates as one of their leaders, in part because of the way the senior has matured since his suspension. In 17 games since then, he has averaged 11.9 points and a team-best 9.1 rebounds and has five double-doubles.
It's the maturity and commitment and toughness Gates and the rest of the Bearcats have come to show down the stretch of the season that will help them make a run in the tournament, Cronin said. But just in case his players had forgotten that, he took them into Fifth Third Arena before leaving for Nashville to gaze at the two NCAA championship banners hanging from the rafters.
"If we don't win, it's our own fault. It's because we're not tough enough," Cronin said. "We've got enough talent. We've got more wins over ranked opponents than anybody in the country. I just think you've got to believe that you can win it, and I think my guys need to realize that it's possible, and it's happened at the University of Cincinnati. We've got to believe that it's going to happen again."
Updated March 15, 2012