Texas Basketball Report 3.5: Death By Suffocation

It’s been the political equivalent of an intervention: in recent weeks, Democrats have been bombarded with advice about how they should reinvent their economic agenda. The electorate, we hear, wants Barack Obama to be more of an economic populist but less of an ambitious reformer. He has to aggressively create jobs but also be less spendthrift. This advice may be contradictory, but then so are the economic opinions of the many angry voters who are animating what’s being called the new populism. Whereas the economic populism of the eighteen-nineties and the right-wing cultural populism of recent years represented reasonably coherent ideologies, this new populism has stitched together incompatible concerns and goals into one "I’m mad as hell" quilt. The people may have spoken. It’s just not clear that they’re making any sense.


--James Surowiecki, "The Populism Problem," New Yorker
, Feb. 15, 2010

Substitute a few words and that could be a lead to a Texas basketball column, couldn't it?

It’s been the basketball equivalent of an intervention: in recent weeks, Rick Barnes has been bombarded with advice about how he should reinvent his basketball program. The fan base, we hear, wants Rick Barnes to do more to fix his players but also less, to get them to play loose. He has to aggressively press and run but also cut down his rotation. This advice may be contradictory, but then so are the basketball opinions of the many angry fans who are animating what’s being called the Lost Season. Whereas the disinterested lowering of expectations in the 1980s-90s and the patient appreciation of recent years represented rational reactions to the state of the program, this recent season has stitched together incompatible concerns and goals into one "I’m mad as hell" quilt. The fans may have spoken. It’s just not clear that they’re making any sense.

Uncanny, how easy that was. The comparison ends right there, though; this is not a column calling out the fringe element of the basketball fan base for unhelpful Rick Barnes bashing. (That annual chore is done.) Quite the opposite, this post is about all the avalanche of legitimate criticism that's been heaped on Rick Barnes and this 2009-10 Texas basketball team.

I've been perplexed for several weeks now, not because I can't see the problems for myself, but because I couldn't make sense of them all together. It's seemed fair to say that Barnes needs to drill the mistakes out of these players and that he needs to get this team to play loose again. It's seemed fair to say that Banes needs to make fewer substitutions and shorten the rotation, and that Barnes is playing _____ way too much, where the blank can justifiably be filled by all but two or three players on the team.

Pull out any one of the many criticisms out there right now and in almost every case I'd be nodding with disappointment: Yup, that's an issue. Criticism [A]? Yup, that's an issue. Criticism [Not A]? Yup, that's an issue.

In part because my offline world has just been bananas, it's mid-February we're only on TBR 3.5, but the other big part of that is that I've really been struggling to sort this all out. I'll sit down to think about what to address, and I come up with the same things everyone else is, and have to pause. It's felt like staring at an encrypted message without the decoder.

After the Missouri game, I decided I'd force myself to write TBR 3.5, with a fresh approach to the team's problems. For two hours, I headed one direction, working on a year-long sketch of the team's struggles. But as I neared the end of the road, with everything laid out in front of me, I hit the brakes, turned around, and headed the other way. I finally had a theory about the big mess of problems.

CHARTING THE ISSUES

Baffled by the laundry list of issues plaguing the team, I'd decided after the Missouri game to chart out Texas' problem course across the season. A sampling from November:

Month Problem Fault / Issue
November Varez Ward injury None
November Free throws All
November J'Covan TOs At this point, assuredly Brown. Wasting possessions with avoidable mistakes.
November Poor first halves
Texas successfully wearing teams down in second half with depth, defense, and rebounding, but the approach out the gate is often haphazard. Some fault probably with having freshmen players, but clearly some preparation issues on the coaching side.
November J'Covan TOs At this point, assuredly Brown. Wasting possessions with avoidable mistakes.

My intent was to compile a season-long chart, group/categorize the issues, and analyze which were likely here to stay, and which, if any, might be cured in time for a season-saving surge down the homestretch. I'm not sure why I thought discussing it that way would resolve the conundrum that had been perplexing me for weeks, because this is just a different presentation of the same puzzle: How do you analyze whether and how Texas might loosen up, when in the next sentence you're also asking whether and how Texas might get focused? It's the same exercise that's been taking place in one post-game chat after another, only in a bigger stadium. We're still running in circles.

 

WHAT'S DIFFERENT ABOUT THIS PICTURE?

When I finally realized I was stuck in the same problem, I stopped, stared, and tried to think what else might be done with the information. I cynically considered posting a picture of Martin Luther hammering his laundry list of complaints on the church door. Or perhaps better, I'd write about how remarkable it is that this team is struggling under more problems than either the 1999 or 2009 teams did -- certainly since January 1st we were, anyway. Those teams were limited from the get-go, but finished stronger than they started. For crying out loud, the '99 team had 7 scholarship players and started the season 3-8, yet rallied to a 13-3 conference record to win the Big 12.

I had only thought about it out of cruel frustration, but when I paused to consider just how remarkable that really is, I realized it might provide the missing piece that explains what's been going on this year. Walk through it with me.

To start, consider that Rick Barnes has succeeded with both legitimately strong, talented teams, as well as with squads ranging from average-to-good. Shall we chart? Chart.

SEASON RECORD TOP 4 PLAYERS
NCAA TOURNEY
1998-99 24-9 (13-3 1st) CHRIS MIHM
FIRST ROUND
IVAN WAGNER
KRIS CLACK
GABE MUONECKE
1999-00 24-9 (13-3 2nd) CHRIS MIHM SECOND ROUND
IVAN WAGNER
GABE MUONECKE
CHRIS OWENS
2000-01 25-9 (12-4 2nd) MAURICE EVANS FIRST ROUND
CHRIS OWENS
DARREN KELLY
GABE MUONECKE
2001-02 25-12 (10-6 3rd) TJ FORD SWEET 16
BRANDON MOUTON
ROYAL IVEY
JAMES THOMAS
2002-03 26-7 (13-3 2nd) TJ FORD FINAL FOUR
BRANDON MOUTON
ROYAL IVEY
JAMES THOMAS
2003-04 25-8 (12-4 2nd) BRANDON MOUTON SWEET 16
ROYAL IVEY
PJ TUCKER
BRIAN BODDICKER
2004-05 20-11 (9-7 5th) DANIEL GIBSON FIRST ROUND
KENNY TAYLOR
JASON KLOTZ
PJ ALDRIDGE*
*Both PJ and LA missed 1/2 season
2005-06 30-7 (13-3 1st) PJ TUCKER ELITE EIGHT
LAMARCUS ALDRIDGE
DANIEL GIBSON
BRAD BUCKNER
2006-07 25-10 (12-4 3rd) KEVIN DURANT SECOND ROUND
DJ AUGUSTIN
AJ ABRAMS
DAMION JAMES
2007-08 31-7 (13-3 1st) DJ AUGUSTIN ELITE EIGHT
AJ ABRAMS
DAMION JAMES
CONNOR ATCHLEY
2008-09 23-12 (9-7 4th) AJ ABRAMS SECOND ROUND
DAMION JAMES
DEXTER PITTMAN
JUSTIN MASON

 

A useful way to group these teams is by expectations, rated as Low, Medium, or High, the latter being a season where the fan base enters the season thinking the squad has a good chance to make the Final 4.

Low Expectations (Big 12 Finish, NCAA Finish)
1998-99 (1st / Rd 1)
2000-01 (2nd / Rd 1)

Medium Expectations
1999-00 (2nd / Rd 2)
2001-02 (3rd / S16)
2003-04 (2nd / S16)
2004-05 (5th / Rd 1)
2006-07 (3rd / Rd 2)
2008-09 (4th / Rd 2)

High Expectations
2002-03 (2nd / Final 4)
2005-06 (1st / Elite 8)
2007-08 (1st / Elite 8)
2009-10 (20-6, 6-5)

(Parenthetically, it's both a little amusing and pretty awesome that our entire fan base is disgusted with a 20-6, Ken Pom #9 basketball team. We've come a long way, and that's a good thing. That said, timing's everything, and we're rightfully freaked out because the team's just 3-6 after a 17-0 start)

 

WHY THIS TEAM? WHY NOW?

Reviewing Barnes' tenure is helpful any time someone calls for his head, but I also think it can help us theorize what's wrong with this year's team. One of the difficulties we as a fan base are experiencing right now is data overload. Each of the dozens of criticisms and complaints about weaknesses seems valid. Each of the dozens of criticisms about the coaching (on the right side of "Barnes sucks") seems valid. The way the team is playing, and how it's gone backwards to get here, all the complaints have a basis of some kind.

The problem arises when when you take such a large and diverse set of complaints together: you get a whole that's less than the sum of its parts. What would be helpful would be starting to clear out some of the noise, to see if we're able to learn something new from what's left.

To keep this already sizable post from going even longer, I'll leave out a long list of tests and just offer one example to show you what I mean, but with the information above you can test out any criticism you like, to see whether it seems likely to be one of the problems uniquely hindering this year's team.

Hypothesis: Barnes is struggling to coach this team because he lacks a point guard like TJ Ford or DJ Augustin.

Evidence: The evidence is mixed, and depends what you're asking.

  • Two of Barnes' three previous High Expectations teams were led by that pair of brilliant point guards, both made the Elite Eight, one the Final Four.
  • The '05-'06 squad was run by the average PG Kenton Paulino (and in fact was a whisper-thin squad on the perimeter, generally, starting two guards, Paulino and Gibson, with just a single perimeter sub who averaged more than 7 minutes per game, freshman AJ Abrams). While this does show that Barnes has proven capable of being Final Four competitive without an elite PG, this '05-06 squad just barely met expectations by making the Elite Eight. The Regional Final loss to LSU showcased a terribly disappointing offensive performance, and I would argue this adds additional weight to the "needs a brilliant PG to go deep" hypothesis.
  • With that said, if the question is just whether Barnes needs a Ford or Augustin to succeed, the answer is clearly 'no'. Barnes has succeeded with a lot less than he's working with this year.

 

Application: It seems fair to say that if Barnes wants to achieve the highest levels of success, he'd better keep finding great point guards, as this year's squad, should it fail to reach the Elite 8 or beyond, will be the first of Barnes' 4 High Expectations teams to fall short of that mark.

With that said, the lack of a top point guard cannot explain either (a) why the team is fading as the season wears on, or (b) why it is tracking towards Barnes first-ever Big 12 season below 9-7.

The point of the exercise isn't necessarily to eliminate a criticism, but to isolate the ones that are unique to this year's team. Take, for example, the critique that this year's team is struggling because the half court offense is terrible. There is absolutely no disputing that this team has played lousy half court offense much of the year. But it's also true that virtually all of Barnes' Texas teams have played lousy half court offense. It's an issue for this year's team, but it's not what we're looking for.

After thinking through a lot of these, four things stand out to me:

(1) This year's team is struggling with more (on-court) things than any other Texas team under Barnes.

(2) Every previous Barnes squad at least held steady over the second half of the season, and the vast majority improved.

(3) No team in the record even closely resembles this one in terms of frequency of mental errors. Nor, for that matter, in terms of displaying so many different flavors of mental error.

(4) The only other team that featured as much frustration and general unhappiness as this year's team was the 2004-05 squad, but their disappointment was in large part a reaction to suffering a steady stream of setbacks -- most notably, losing PJ Tucker (grades) for the first half of the season, and when he finally made it back, losing Lamarcus Aldridge (injury) for the second half. Unless starting 17-0 and ascending to #1 is an equivalent setback, something else is going on with this team.


DEATH BY SUFFOCATION

What might explain the issues that are uniquely plaguing this year's team? Barnes' well-established weaknesses won't do; he's been coaching with those for years, managing to get to the Elite Eight or beyond in his three high expectations years, averaging 11 conference wins per season in his six mid-range expectations seasons, and 12.5 wins (including a conference title!) in his two low-expectations years. It's the same Rick Barnes throughout; something's different this year. 

One possible theory would lay the blame more or less entirely with this year's players, an explanation we can't test nearly so well as when evaluating Barnes. If it is at least possible that the kids are mostly to blame, it seems an enormous stretch given the raw talent and returning experience. We've all been considering that theory throughout the year, and I'd wager it doesn't pass anyone's smell test.  

Another possible kind of theory would be one that places most or all of the blame with the coach, There's no question  a Barnes-centric theory passes the smell test for many fans, but this post is nothing if not an effort to explain why the many criticisms that were being offered seemed at the same time agreeable and lacking. The problem I'm concerned with isn't that fans vary in how much they value 'typical Rick Barnes', it's that this isn't him.

Something's different this year, something wrong.

My theory is that Rick Barnes has gone all-in with this season in a way that I can certainly understand but which, if I'm right, has produced disastrous unintended consequences.

It almost seems too simple to have been worth such an enormous introduction, but the entire point is to show why -- despite the voluminous amounts of appropriate critique we've come up with -- it was missing something. I won't try to pretend that I know that this is what's going, but I can say that if my theory is right, it provides numerous explanations for many of the perplexing, confusing things that we're seeing. For example:

1. The steady decline in confidence of an undefeated team.  When a team opens the season 17-0 and ascends to the top of the polls, you keep an eye on the team to try and make sure their swelling confidence doesn't distract them the need to deliver their best effort, all the time. By the time Texas got to 17-0 and #1, it looked like a team that wasn't sure how it got there, or now that it was there, how it could possibly remain. How does that even happen?

Rick Barnes has pushed his teams hard before -- even too hard, by his own admission. But this year has been unusual in a couple of ways. For one thing, it hasn't seemed a purpose-driven component of a larger season exercise. You may recall D.J. Augustin's January slump during his sophomore year, and if you do, you probably also remember Barnes taking his foot off the pedal, taking the team to the movies to relax, and considering the mission accomplished. By contrast, this year's push has been extreme, punishing, and relentless.

The best explanation for why Barnes pushed this team so hard, so fast, and never let up is that he, like a lot of us out in the stands, saw this year as a national championship chance. Barnes knows better than anyone how difficult it is to have the stars all align for you, and this year, really, was the first time it had happened. I've written many times about his many near-misses. I wonder whether he saw everything come together just right for the first time ever and has been trying way too hard to make the most of it. We talk all the time about the bad results that flow from players pressing too much; well, coaches can press too much too.

2. The visible frustration, negative body language, and lack of drive.  Each of these things are of course related. You don't train a basketball player like you domesticate a wild animal; you work and reward, break down and build up. Watching Barnes handle this team reveals no shortage of working, criticizing, correcting, and breaking down. That's not a problem if the rewarding, reassuring, complimenting, and breaking up are also taking place outside our view. Maybe I'm wrong and it is, but the negative body language, frustration, and lack of drive we keep seeing from the players on the court suggest either that there's no building up going on, or if there is, not enough of it. They react like a team that's only hearing what it must do better. There's nothing fun about the game when it's all about what you can't and aren't doing. And it's not long before you forget that you're out there to play and win, you lose your drive, and you're just living within the bubble of the things the coach is screaming about.

3.  The curious personnel decisions.  When the BON authors pow-wowed before the season began, near the bottom of the list of worries was Barnes' ability to bring the team along in the right way, and at the right pace. We dropped footnotes to various points in the record, saw no reason this would be handled any differently, and moved on. But here we are in mid-February and Barnes hasn't handled this team in a way we understand. No one confuses Barnes for a tactical pro, but it would be equally disingenuous to suggest what we've seen this year is somehow typical of him. One of the most important reasons Texas has gone to 11-straight tournaments and been one of the Top 10 programs over the last decade is that Barnes handles freshmen well and tends to get a lot out of them.

This year, Barnes has not seemed to do well bringing along J'Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton. It's not that he was wrong pointing out their many mistakes, it's that he personally guaranteed that those mistakes carried lasting consequences. He seemed to lack confidence that his goals could be achieved while bringing those two along out on the floor, and now the wheels are coming off and we're not where we'd be if we'd just done this all along.

Now, Rick Barnes has been involved with this kind of complaint before. You remember: "When will Mack Brown learn to trust and develop his young players like Rick Barnes does in basketball?"

How much of a bizarro year has this been? Consider this: Trips Right's Missouri game recap decried the belated development of Jordan Hamilton because: "bleed for the program kids Balbay and Mason play like shells of their former selves for the last two months and steal minutes."

The Mack Brown 2003 parallel fits neatly with my theory. Barnes is desperately trying to manage a high expectations team, instead of to coach and develop it. Barnes is under similar expectations this year that Mack Brown began to feel in the early 2000s. Brown stumbled before he learned to run. Coming out of the gate, Rick Barnes has just faceplanted.


CONCLUSION

That's more than enough to illustrate my take on what's happening with this year's team. In the end, though for a reason our criticisms hadn't focused on directly, my explanation winds up placing the blame squarely on Rick Barnes. It's very disappointing for us fans, but it'll be worse for Rick Barnes after he realizes we choked because he was suffocating the entire team. It's not an easy thing to overcome, and many coaches can't do it at all. Mack Brown got there and then fell immediately into relapse, and had to do it again.

As fans, our long-term focus now turns to looking at ways Rick Barnes handles and learns from his mistakes. The decade building the program featured a strong, clean record leading up to this year, but assuming there's no miracle reformation in this team, his first performance in the spotlight has been a bad one. It is especially discouraging in that the record strongly suggests that a repeat of his coaching performances to date would have made this team competitive for the Final Four, and yet -- to end with a faintest of silver linings -- it is at least a better sign for the future that this team failed because Barnes tried too hard and screwed up.

*As a final note, no, this season is not over. The established failure is the mistakes already made that have us scrambling on February 19th to pull together enough to finish at 8-8 or 9-7 in conference, looking nothing like the championship contender we all thought we could see.

We are, though, still a good basketball team. As I wrote in the Mizzou recap, usually what you see in mid-Febuary is what you get in mid-March, but hey, if our biggest problem to date has been Barnes trying too hard to make this work, at least a big part of the solution is the easiest imaginable: chill, go out, have fun, run around, and play ball. We'd be a dangerous March team if we just said screw the last two months and just started having fun with it.

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