Ford has been immersed in basketball since he was a young child. His parents, Leo and Mary, put the sport at the center of their family life while raising their three kids (T.J. is the middle child) in the Sugar Land section of Houston. A fixture in the city's adult rec leagues, Leo would bring his son along to games, where little T.J. (full name: Terrance Jerod) amused himself by dribbling during warmups and timeouts. As a schoolboy, T.J. led Willowridge to back-to-back 5A state titles, winning the last 62 games in which he played. Then he confounded those who assumed that because college basketball in Texas had been so mediocre for so long, he would light out for Cincinnati or Louisville. Instead he has helped make the Longhorns a fresh alternative to perennial powers Kansas, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State in the Big 12.
Perhaps nothing illustrates Ford's leadership instincts better than a moment late in Texas's opener, a 77-71 defeat of Georgia at Madison Square Garden. With 8.4 seconds left and the Longhorns up by four, Barnes ordered Ford to shoot two technical foul shots. Next thing the coach knew, a Longhorn toed the line—only it wasn't Ford, a 77.5% free throw shooter as a freshman, but junior guard Brandon Mouton, a 75.6% free throw shooter the previous season who was 4 for 4 from the line during the game.
"What the...?" Barnes barked.
"Brandon needs to keep his confidence up," Ford replied. Mouton knocked both shots down. The episode tells you two things: why Ford's teammates love him, and that once a game begins, Barnes runs the team in name only. "He's extremely aware of what's happening around him," says Barnes. "In games he's always asking, 'Are you seeing something I need to be seeing?' "
For reclaiming the point guard position in all its old-fashioned purity, for giving the Longhorns chemistry to match their depth, for reconfiguring the balance of power in the Big 12 and for flouting the Samson legend, Ford is SI's Player of the Year. Whether he's also Model of the Year, well, that's up to Motor Trend.