heathen mecca of California."
Misery loves company. Among the many members of your extended family who you really wish were not, one of the most universally unpleasant strains is the Old Maid Aunt. Viirulent and embittered, she resents her siblings' successes and blames them for her own life not turning out the way that she hoped, though as everyone else knows, she simply didn't wander far enough from the nest. At family gatherings she's prone to harrumph poutily at the normals sharing in good times -- ready, always ready, to swoop in on tough times like an F5 tornado, with every bit as much noise and ability to disrupt the peace. Whether addressing concerns trivial or severe, she seems to exist solely to lob snide, unsympathetic grenades from a turret she never leaves. She's Rapunzel's worst nightmare come to life: no one ever came to rescue her from a lonely, loveless life..
Why this morning might I mention the Old Maid Aunt? Here's a hint: One might think of the Longhorn fan base as an extended family. You with me? Then answer me this: What's the only kind of fan who's worse to be around than a supporter of an opposing team which beat the Longhorns? You guessed right: it's one of our own -- the dreadful Old Maid Fan. Distinguished from the difficult to please Skeptic, the Old Maids tend only to pop up when the team is down, and seemingly just to VERY LOUDLY AND FORCEFULLY alert the rest of the Longhorn family of their indignation.
After each and every single freaking rainstorm, the Old Maids come scuffling out from their caves to scold the various saturated parties -- a coach for his impiety towards rain gods, a player for the arrogant decision to purchase a convertible, and fans for daring to leave home without umbrellas. Whatever the problem and regardless of any mitigating circumstances or relevant context, the Old Maid greets Longhorns failure with single-minded determination to tear some sh*t down.
Within the hyper-developed culture of our Longhorn football family, a slump by the team brings entire factions of fans to nuclear verbal warfare -- the Old Maids just one breed among the large gang maliciously jeered as Haterz. And because the internet totally sucks in this way, the possibility for discourse is foreclosed before it even has a chance to begin, as the Haterz return fire and defame as Sunshine Pumpers those who don't share their outlook. Verbal warfare ensues, before the cycle repeats itself over and over and over again... As awful as an obnoxious fan of a rival team can be, few things can roil the sports fan soul like the wackjobs in your own backyard.
Though Texas' 2005 CFB national title and recent run of success mercifully have calmed the out-and-out wars down to mostly avoidable skirmishes on the periphery, the Longhorns' up-and-down, good-not-great, oftentimes-frustrating 2009 basketball season has opened up an ugly new front in this same, tired struggle. As Texas has skidded down the back half of its schedule, Old Maids have been popping up at every stumble along the way, criticizing players and coach with equal vigor and offering more apocalyptic pronouncements than a Ronald Weiland sermon. Game threads during losses have bordered on frightening and petty disputes about the team's problems have been commonplace. For the first time since this blog launched in 2004, basketball discussion has become increasingly contentious.
Because AW and I have to stay sane for the remainder of this season, I'm gonna lay out a few simple points of order. First, a few points related to BON community standards, which we've been derelict in mentioning for too long, then second, a couple thoughts on the team and program meant to anchor some of the recent discussion.
NOTES & GUIDELINES FOR SANITARY BASKETBALL FANDOM AT BURNT ORANGE NATION
It's meant to be a community. Though we appreciate very much the growth of the BON community over the years, quite a few new members have joined in the conversation during this up-and-down basketball season. We've seen a little bit of everything, from wilfully ignorant rants about the team/coaches, to accusations of Deloss Dodds puppeteering, to truly unpleasant back-and-forth sniping among members in disagreement. While during this site's early days there was a shared sense of community among the readers and commenters, we've not emphasized expliticly enough of late just how fundamentally important it is to the community we want. One of the reasons we started this site was because we couldn't hear ourselves think on most UT internet message boards.
With that in mind, internalize the importance of dialogue and discourse when you interact with fellow members here. To disagree is healthy and welcomed, and it's expected that people will be emphatic and colorful in making points they care about. Spirited back-and-forth disagreements are par for the course, so long as the debate is carried on with a base level of civility. Likewise, the in-game and post-game threads exist in part to allow for real time venting. So when we talk about community standards we're not talking about draconian rules of order for this fan board, but a very basic level of courtesy for fellow fans and some commonsensical judgments when posting. Details are below.
Think before you post. And, yes, read before you post. If, as an example, you plan to write a criticism of a BON blogger or bloggers (which is fine), as a courtesy to those of us who grind out the hours writing content day in and out, please take the time to read what it is we've been saying (or not saying). Prior to posting, think about what you want to say and how you want to say it. Criticisms, suggestions, and questions are genuinely welcomed. Contrarily, accusations which betray a failure to take the time to read and/or think before posting do no one any good.
This goes for writing FanPosts, FanShots, or comments. Make a reasonable effort to read the rest of the community's postings. Your link may have been posted already and there's a thread open where you can jump in to discuss without double-posting. Honest mistakes will be made, and that's fine. Just make the effort and we'll all be okay.
Finally, and most importantly, if you read something by another community member that you strongly disagree with, please take a second to ask yourself if you care enough to engage the reader in a discussion about it. If your sole purpose in commenting is to call them an idiot, don't respond. If you want to take on what they've written, go for it. Just have the courtesy to refute the argument, rather than the author. Easy as that.
Rick Barnes is open game for criticism. And poor criticisms of Rick Barnes are open game for the same. Though we're big Rick Barnes fans overall, you don't have to read too many BON postgame reviews following losses to understand that he's not at all immune from criticism. Nor do we hold a monopoly on Rick Barnes critiques. Though this post is meant to address the recent abundance of disturbing hoops talk, they're still far outstripped by the number of thoughtful, reasoned complaints and criticisms -- about players, the team in general, or Barnes himself. It's welcomed and appreciated.
With that said, whether it's because there are so many casual Texas basketball fans or because fans are just frustrated with the team's inconsistent play the last two months, I've been dismayed to see a steady creep of Barnes digs that are all too reminiscent of the ones we heard about Mack Brown during his first 8 years in Austin. The best of them seem simply to miss huge chunks of a bigger picture, while the worst seem to me -- no joke -- like little more than manifestations of anger-management issues. Truthfully, the latter are probably best ignored, while the former are likely to be challenged.
Believe me when I say I could have a very, very long chat with a fellow fan about the things I think Rick Barnes doesn't do well and must improve. For that matter, I've got a long list of criticisms of Mack Brown, as well. And to the extent you've got your own, as opposed to an anger itch that needs scratching, this is as good a place as any to discuss. I'll just conclude by noting that for those who want to take what I consider to be very big leaps from Rick Barnes' demonstrated weaknesses to conclusions about his long-term ability/inability to accomplish something, expect a sizable number of dissenting opinions, like this lengthy reply I wrote out earlier this evening. That's where the "Barnes is very much on the right track and can win a national title" crowd is coming from. (More on this in Point 5 below, as well.)
Keep it relative & strive to maintain perspective. When DJ Augustin turned pro, we knew heading into the season exactly the major challenges this particular group of players would be battling to overcome. And in particular, clearly at the very top of the list, each of us knew the point guard situation and the options available to Rick Barnes: start a not-ready Dogus Balbay for perhaps the toughest non-conference slate since Barnes arrived, or start the top five players and give AJ Abrams the first shot at playing out of ideal position. All of us thought it a lose-lose proposition, and after the Notre Dame disaster I honestly thought Texas was as likely as not to miss the NCAAs this year.
To his credit, Rick Barnes made lemonade from lemons, squeezing a team MVP performance from Justin Mason in the non-conference season and picking up wins versus UCLA and Villanova in the process, all while bringing along Balbay best he could. Though that overachievement certainly legitimized Texas as an NCAA tournament team, it was a MacGyver job as opposed to a fundamental repair. After the subsequent messy three-game slide during conference play, Balbay's emergence has helped keep the ship afloat (including a third key win, this time over OU), though once again without fully addressing the problems fundamental to this particular roster of players.
Put another way, one might choose to fault Rick Barnes for failing to make this merely good team great, or, in the alternative, accept the season's successes as satisfactory, in light of the challenges. You're entitled to either view. I take the latter view, disappointed that this team hasn't been able to take the big step forward, but not particularly down on Barnes for the effort along the way.
Again, try to keep some perspective: My hopes last year were for a strong enough regular season to make the #1-seed in Houston a possibility. Had that Texas team battled inconsistency and failed to challenge for the conference title and a high protected seed, I'd have considered it a massive disappointment, but Barnes' team accomplished all that it could, earning that #1-seed and only losing when in the Elite Eight they faced an impossibly big/athletic team.
Finally, to conclude the point, though Texas' guard situation has proven to be an insurmountable barrier to making our usual run at the Big 12 title, this program has achieved such status that -- except where there exists a tangible prize like that which last year's Houston Regional provided -- NCAA Tournament seeding isn't high on my concern list. Goal one for the season is to compete for and win the Big 12. Goal two is not, as with the vast majority of programs, just to make the NCAA Tournament field, but to be good enough to beat in succession the kinds of high quality teams that every team -- be it a #1 or #10 seed -- must in order to make a Regional Final and, especially, Final Four.
Though this year's Texas team has down the stretch not given us any reason to believe that it is in fact good enough to win three or four straight games against quality competition, if this group were to have gelled down the homestretch, it would have at best still entered the Tournament a #4-#5 seed. Though that would have afforded the team an easier opening round opponent, it would have battled a #4 or #5 in the second round (or a team good enough to beat one of them), and a #1 seed in the third round. There's no easy road to the Regional Finals and Final Four. So for me, then, I'm satisfied that (barring a collapse) Barnes during this down year appears to have gotten this team to the NCAAs, where Texas either will or won't advance deep in the tournament by beating high quality teams equivalent to those they would have had to defeat no matter their seed. I'm disappointed that this team hasn't quite been able to elevate to something more. But it's relative.
Remember that Old Maids are reactionary. Keep your eyes on the prize. While talking on the phone a few days ago with Barking Carnival's Scipio Tex, I got into explaining the reasons why I so immediately and wholeheartedly loved the decision to name Muschamp the Head Coach-In Waiting. There are a dozen reasons worth discussing, but ultimately, the long and short of it is that the vast majority of fans, thanks largely to vapid sports journalists, grossly misunderstand what it is that a great coach is and is not. The myth of the Genius Head Coach is at best a terribly unfortunate analogy, and in reality, almost always simply a lazy and fundamental misunderstanding of why coaches succeed.
Though the particularities that help a coach thrive vary among different sports, and across different levels of competition, commonly shared among successful coaches is not a mind of staggering genius, but instead -- above all else -- strong communications/people skills and the ability to conceive of, develop, and sustain complex systems. Let's start with college football. Recall Charlie Weis' now infamous remarks prior to his first season on the job at Notre Dame, in which the former Patriots offensive "mastermind" declared, first to his players, that "every game you will have a decisive schematic advantage" and, a few weeks later to the collegiate coaches who had just waxed him on the recruiting trail, "They've had the advantage in recruiting because I came late. Now it is X's and O's. Let's see who has the advantage now."
The NFL "dud" Pete Carroll still has the advantage, that's who. Whatever Wes's proficiency putting together a play book and game plan, he failed miserably in effort and execution to build a comprehensive, sustainable system that addressed talent acquisition and talent development.
Or take an example closer to home -- Mack Brown. For years we heard over and over the same two things about Mack: (1) his supposed poor game day and "big game" coaching abilities (translation: Not a genius!) and (2) that his strength was "merely" in the areas related to building Texas to a consistent Top 10 program. That bit of conventional wisdom was all jumbled up -- Mack Brown was as strong a college candidate to win lots of big games, including a national title, precisely because of the supreme job he was doing putting together a monstrous machine (system).. A supposed genius who doesn't build a truly elite system won't achieve anything; a coach supposedly lacking in game day mental gymnastics but who builds a masterful system will win and win big.
The principle is equally applicable in college basketball. Though, like in football, game day strategy and coaching are key components of success, the ability to develop and sustain an elite program-wide system is the real mark of greatness. While college basketball far more so than football allows for the possibility of a non-elite (talent) team to catch lightning in a bottle, the difference between Tom Penders' 1988 Elite Eight appearance and Rick Barnes' 2006 Elite Eight run speaks volumes. Penders' run with the BMW trio is a perfect example of a coach's lightning in a bottle season, Barnes' 2006 run is, to begin with, just one of three since he arrived in Austin 11 seasons ago. And beyond that, the 2006 team wound up an odd combination of strong top-end talent which would fade in and out with Daniel Gibson's willingness and ability to play strong basketball at the point. Though they never quite clicked into true top form, their level below that was good enough to get the team within an overtime loss of the Final Four.
That illustration not only captures the difference between the program strength Rick Barnes has built and the singular, fleeting shot at greatness for Tom Penders, but also calls to attention another reason why the systemic strength we're discussing is so critical -- the nature of the tournament. The truth is that winning a national title requires recruiting the right talent, the right ability to develop players, and... the right amount of luck. Though first-round upsets of true national title contenders never happen, all you need to know about the perils the rest of the way is that when all four #1-seeds made the Final Four last year, it was the very first time it had happened in tournament history. Not only is it quite the challenge for a #1 seed to win four straight games just to get to the Final Four, but once there, they've got to win two more games over the best of the best. That suggests two things to me: (1) a whole lot of things have to go right for you to wi a national title, and (2) given that, there's tremendous value/necessity in being able to knock consistently on the door. Ask Roy Williams.
Assuming one doesn't want to put one's top prize fate in the hands of Lady Luck land her unpredictable whims, or the improbability of flukily catching of lightning in a bottle, a great college head coach is one who develops a program that's frequently a contender for a Final Four run. From here it's not difficult to see why Andrew and I aren't particularly prone to despair when one only one Rick Barnes season every four years or so winds up a clear non-contender for the Final Four. And, even as we lament this team's failure to elevate into true contender status, a new swarm of outrageous talent awaits to start a new sprint towards potential greatness. No one knows whether the 2009 class will remain together for the arrival of each of our 2010 and 2011 blue chippers for the next Final Four run and shot at the national title. All that I know is that if Rick Barnes stays in Austin and runs the program for the next 10-20 years as he has the last 10, he's as good a bet to win a national championship as any coach in the country.
Eyes on the prize.