Rick Barnes doesn’t hand out game balls, but if he did, reserve center Prince Ibeh would have received one after the Longhorns’ victory at Temple last Saturday.
Of course, had Barnes offered one to Ibeh, the 6-foot-10-inch sophomore might have swatted it away.
That’s what he does.
Ibeh blocked three shots during the overtime period — and made a tip-in at the other end — enabling the Longhorns to gain position for Javan Felix to win the game 81-80 with a 3-point basket.
“Prince was terrific,” Barnes said.
The Longhorns are a surprising 8-1 this season, and one reason for that is the defense that Ibeh and starting center Cam Ridley provide around the basket.
Texas averages 7.8 blocked shots a game, which ranked fifth nationally in the most recent NCAA statistics. Ridley has accounted for 3.0 per game, second-best in the Big 12, in 24.4 minutes a game. Ibeh ranks third with 2.3 — in just 14.3 minutes.
Ibeh does more than just block shots. He induces opponents to change the trajectory of their shots or avoid shooting altogether.
“We’ve had other coaches say that they can’t believe our zone when he’s in the middle,” Longhorn assistant coach Chris Ogden said. “It’s tough to score in there.”
Born in London, Ibeh moved with his family to Amarillo at age 5. They moved to Dallas when he was 10, and Ibeh didn’t play basketball until his freshman year at Naaman Forest High School in Garland.
“Before that, I played football,” he said. “Wide receiver. I was 6-5. The basketball coach came to me and told me that I was going to be too tall for football. He said they were going to start going for my knees.”
Ibeh was ranked among the top 60 college prospects nationally as a senior, but that was based more on speculation than accomplishment. He averaged a modest 8.5 points and 8.4 rebounds as a senior, but he did block nearly five shots a game, impressive stuff that comes naturally to him.
“He has a tremendously quick first jump and second jump,” Barnes said.
Ibeh is less advanced on offense. He averages 5.6 points.
One issue is that Ibeh doesn’t have good hands. Indeed, if Barnes tossed him that game ball, Ibeh might drop it.
Another problem is poor free-throw shooting. Ibeh converted just 37.5 percent as a freshman. Some of them veered to the right, appearing as if somebody were playing a cruel trick on Ibeh by opening an air vent.
This season he has improved to 48 percent, still far below average, but the ball appears to be traveling a straighter path to the rim. One reason for the better-looking shot is that Ibeh has been working with strength coach Todd Wright to compensate for a broken right wrist he suffered years ago. Ibeh said the injury never properly healed.
“We’ve done a lot to work on range of motion,” he said.
Though Ibeh has the size and athleticism to eventually make an impact on offense, he’s much more of a sure thing on defense, especially if he can learn to avoid fouls. Ibeh ranks eighth on the Longhorns in minutes played but has committed the most fouls, 30.
Alleviating that vice won’t be easy at a time when the enforcement of rules prohibiting hand-checking on the perimeter is a high priority in college basketball. The new emphasis creates less inhibited paths to the basket for driving guards. And Barnes said that sometimes one foul by Ibeh leads to another.
“Prince has a real competitive mean streak in him,” Barnes said. “There are some fouls that go against him where I understand why he gets frustrated, but what happens is, he allows that frustration to carry over. He has to be able to control his emotion a little bit more.”
Longhorn guard Demarcus Holland, a teammate at Naaman Forest, said Ibeh is still learning to give the maximum effort necessary for improvement in all areas.
“He needs to do that every minute that he’s out there on the floor,” Holland said. “I keep reminding him about his potential.”
TEXAS STATE AT TEXAS
7 p.m., Saturday, LHN, 1300, 98.1
Texas State (3-6)
*assists per game
Notes: The Longhorns and Bobcats have had one common opponent this season. Texas State lost to Stephen F. Austin 64-57. Texas beat the Lumberjacks 72-62 after trailing by seven in the first half.