NCAA shortcomings haunt Barnes
Editor’s note: This is the second in a three-part series looking at the player, coach and team facing the most pressure in the NCAA tournament.
A few weeks before the end of the regular season, Rick Barnes stood in the middle of the Texas locker room and asked his players a question.
“Have you guys lost your confidence?” Barnes said.
The Longhorns had just surrendered a 22-point lead in a loss at Colorado, and seven days earlier they’d fallen at Nebraska. All of a sudden a team with a comfortable cushion in the Big 12 standings – a squad once ranked as high as No. 3 in the Associated Press poll – appeared to be melting down at the season’s most critical juncture.
So there Barnes stood, questioning his team’s mental state less than three weeks before the start of the NCAA tournament.
“We’re good, coach,” the Longhorns assured him. “We’re fine.”
Barnes, for his own sake, can only hope they’re right.
Not many – if any – of the 68 coaches in this year’s NCAA tournament are facing as much pressure as Barnes, whose fourth-seeded Longhorns open the tournament against No. 13-seed Oakland in Tulsa on Friday.
Barnes is 321-122 in 13 seasons at Texas, where he’s won three Big 12 titles and a spot in the 2003 Final Four. Recently, though, Barnes and the Longhorns have drawn criticism for their shortcomings in March.
Texas has advanced to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend just once since 2006, and it’s not as if the quick exits can be blamed on a lack of talent. Even with Kevin Durant on the roster, Texas couldn’t get past the second round in 2007. Barnes’ squad went to the Elite Eight in 2008 before losing in round two to Duke the following year.
The 2009-10 campaign was particularly troublesome. Texas earned a No. 1 national ranking after winning its first 17 games. But then the Longhorns went into freefall, dropping 10 of their final 17 contests, including a first-round setback against Wake Forest in the NCAA tournament. Texas’ 24-10 record was a major disappointment for a squad that featured three players who were chosen in the NBA draft just a few months later.
Barnes said he realizes people are disappointed Texas hasn’t fared better in the postseason as of late. If anything, the frustration stems from the lofty expectations that he and Longhorns fans have for the program each year.
“I’m not going to apologize for where we’ve set the bar,” Barnes said. “I’ve tried to tell them that (winning and losing) shouldn’t be the most important thing in their lives. I want us to have fun. But I think the fun is in the execution.”
And for most of the season, Texas executed about as well as anyone in the country.
The Longhorns won non-conference games away from home against teams such as North Carolina, Illinois and Michigan State. They lost by just two points to eventual Big East champion Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden and then pulled off one of the most shocking wins of the season by becoming the first team in 69 games to defeat Kansas at Allen Fieldhouse.
Even more amazing is that Texas accomplished the feats with two freshmen (forward Tristan Thompson and guard Cory Joseph) in the starting lineup.
“They’re better than advertised,” Barnes said of the freshmen. “With how we ended last year, I don’t think anyone thought we’d be where we are. It’s a real compliment to our seniors. It’s a real compliment to our team.”
It also speaks well of Barnes, who has taken the Longhorns to the NCAA tournament in each of his 13 seasons in Austin. While other tradition-rich programs such as UCLA, North Carolina, Connecticut and Florida have struggled in recent years, Texas has been among a handful of programs that hasn’t experienced any slippage. Barnes has never coached a team that failed to achieve a winning record in the Big 12.
“I’ve always thought the sign of a great program is consistency,” Barnes said. “I tell our team every year: ‘Our goal is to get to the NCAA tournament.’ The more you get there, eventually it’s going to click for you.”
The Longhorns hope that moment comes this season. Once again, though, Texas has its share of doubters thanks to some shaky play down the stretch.
After opening Big 12 play with 11 straight victories, Texas lost three of its final five games of the regular season, which allowed Kansas to propel past Texas in the conference race.
Texas’ bad luck continued when it fell to the Jayhawks in the title game of last week’s Big 12 tournament. Barnes’ is now 0-6 in league championship games, and four of those losses were against the Jayhawks.
The more Texas loses, the more fans respond with their here-we-go-again tweets and remarks on message boards. At times the only person who doesn’t seem worried is Barnes, who said this team doesn’t have the same chemistry issues that plagued a 2009-10 squad that featured Damion James, Dexter Pittman and Avery Bradley.
“This team has been pretty resilient,” Barnes said. “I’ve had teams like the one last year where, at this time of the year, it wasn’t in a good place. I’ve had other teams that weren’t in a good place that went out and won a game and got on a roll. You just never know what’s going to happen.”
Longhorns guard J’Covan Brown said Barnes has done a good job of keeping Texas in the right frame of mind as the tournament draws closer and closer. And Gary Johnson indicated that this squad has a level of cohesion that hasn’t been there in years past.
“There are no chemistry issues,” Johnson said. “When things don’t go well on the court, guys tend to act of their character a little bit. But that happens with every team. For the most part, guys are good. I think everyone realizes that, with the next loss, it’s over.”
If that indeed occurs, Barnes hopes its three weeks from now in Houston – the site of the Final Four – instead of this week in Tulsa.
“Do I think we can beat anyone in America? Absolutely,” Barnes said. “I’ll be shocked if we don’t bounce back and play the way we’re capable of playing.
“Who knows? Maybe this will be the [year] where we get hot and get rolling.”
It’d be good for Texas.
And great for Barnes.
Coming Wednesday: Can Ohio State live up to lofty expectations?