In every other respect, Rick Barnes has been the perfect coach for the Texas basketball program -- he's recruited well, drawing blue chips like TJ Ford, Kevin Durant, and DJ Augustin to campus, he's instilled a toughness into the program with his emphasis on defense, his helped improve the facilities with the construction of Cooley Pavilion, and hired Todd Wright, the best strength and conditioning coach in the country.
The only problem? That confounded "random ball-screen offense," a source of frustration for Texas fans for years and fodder for Bill Simmons, who has roundly criticized Barnes at every opportunity since Kevin Durant's time at Texas. Leaving little margin for error, the offense needed an otherwordly point guard to make it run at any level of efficiency and even then it failed to have even a remote answer to Syracuse's zone defense when Jim Boeheim's squad packed the lane in the 2003 Final Four and dared Ford to make an outside jumpshot.
A more fluid offense featuring much better player movement and more purposeful screening was cause for notice, even after two games against poor competition. Something had changed, it seemed. However, there wasn't any official evidence of a major change in offensive philosophy leading up to the start of the season or even anything mentioned by the coaching staff after the first two games.
Now there is some evidence, courtesy of Scipio Tex, via an attendee of Rick Barnes' basketball camp on Sunday. The news is overwhelmingly positive. More than simply looking at his coaching decisions in terms of how hard he rode his players and the way that affected their confidence and performance on the basketball court, Barnes reportedly took a long, hard look at his philosophy on the offensive end of the floor. Or complete and total lack thereof.
An off-season conversation with Bobby Knight resulted in the elder statesman telling Barnes point-black that his offensive philosophy isn't good enough to help him reach the next level as a program. While it's frustrating to some extent that it took a conversation with Knight and the utter collapse over the second half of the season last year to come to such a realization when it had been apparent to even casual Texas basketball fans for years, the point is that changes have been made.
And those changes were quite profound, as the early play on the basketball court has helped indicate. Here's exactly what happened:
Equipped with feedback from mentors and friends, Barnes contacted every NBA team and asked the scouts, coaches, and GMs who the hardest team in the league to prepare for was offensively and the universal answer was the Utah Jazz.So Barnes and his staff spent six weeks in Utah learning the Jazz system over the summer and decided to make that the base of our new offensive identity with a simultaneous commitment to pushing the ball in transition. All rebounders who can handle have carte blanche to initiate the break and any big man who can’t or won’t run or slows down the break will not play. The offense is simple enough for college, but it also can be sold to elite recruits as a NBA system that makes them ready for the league.
Indeed, the Jazz offense has been a personal favorite to watch over the years, as it runs with precision and effectiveness. For Texas fans, the offense, should it pay dividends (and it should), will be a pleasure to watch. It's an offense that uses a variety of sets, screens, and motion to get shots in the lane and going to basket. Of course, it also includes the staple of Rick Barnes' previous "offense," the timeless pick and roll, run so effectively for so many years by John Stockton and Karl Malone and then Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer. In that sense, it's a system that will continue to prepare point guards for success in the NBA.
For the purposes of further education, here's an excellent, in-depth look at how the offense works. Of all the offenses that Barnes could have chosen, the Utah Jazz offense has already paid dividends, as opposed to motion offenses that often take teams several years with which to become comfortable. It also doesn't rely on individual play like the dribble-drive motion used by John Calipari at Kentucky or bigs who who are triple-threats from the elbow (with an emphasis on passing and shooting) like the Princeton offense. In other words, it's a perfect offense for Barnes to install.
As mentioned, the offense also features an emphasis on pushing the ball in transition without waiting to make outlet passes -- the off guard, small forward, and, if capable, the power forward will all be encouraged to get the ball up the court as quickly as possible.
Combined with a strength and conditioning program that already has Texas basketball players in better shape than most programs in the country and Todd Wright's new-found emphasis (read Scipio's post for more insights) on strengthening the feet of his players, the Longhorns should be in a position to run some teams out of the gym and recruit ball-handlers in the frontcourt.
Undoubtedly there will be a learning curve for the Longhorns, and the first major test of that will be against Illinois on Thursday night, but the new offense could spell the end to the only major complaint about Barnes and reinvigorate Texas basketball recruiting, which has had some recent hiccups.
Yet, after having complained for years about Barnes not having an offensive philosophy, it seems almost too good to be true that he has finally adopted an offensive system.
As a result, as long as Barnes can avoid the same mistakes he made last season -- and his willingness to look long and hard at himself and the program over the last few months bodes well in that respect -- then the Longhorns may be able to make the leap to an absolutely elite program capable of consistency challenging for national championships over the next few seasons.
Now, if only Mack Brown will use Barnes' long, hard look at himself as a guide, maybe the football program will be in a position to reap similar dividends next season and beyond.