It wasn't too long ago that we were pointing to the lack of transfers from the Texas program as something for which Rick Barnes deserves credit -- a positive sign indicating his strong standing with his players. But with Sheldon McClellan's announcement that he will join Jaylen Bond in transferring from Texas this summer, it's only fair to ask now whether Rick Barnes is starting to lose his grip on the program.
A Troubling Trend Line
The question is particularly relevant when considered in the broader context of recent events, which reveals a troubling trend line. Although they sputtered a bit down the stretch, I actually thought Barnes delivered one of his best coaching jobs with the 2010-11 team, which got absolutely hosed -- first by the Selection Committee, who inexplicably slotted Texas as a No. 4 seed, and then by an overzealous official against Arizona, who inexplicably blew his whistle after 4 seconds.
There's room to debate when the troubles started, but after Tristan Thompson, Jordan Hamilton, and Corey Joseph all departed for the NBA following that 2010-11 season, Texas has been going the wrong direction. A tremendous individual season by J'Covan Brown helped Texas scrape out an NCAA Tournament bid as a No. 11 seed, but the frustrating loss to Cincinnati marked the fourth consecutive season that the Longhorns failed to advance to the second weekend of the Tournament.
This year, they didn't make it at all, and mercifully were put down by Houston in the opening round of the CBI, ending a season that was miserable from start to finish and netted the Longhorns their first losing record since Tom Penders' limped out of Austin in 1997. The loss to the Cougars came just hours after super-blue chip Julius Randle spurned his home state team to play for a Kentucky team where he may or may not be the best recruit in the class.
One week later, Sheldon McClellan confirmed what was obvious from the way he played against Houston: he'd checked out and would not be returning to play for Rick Barnes and Texas.
From Bad to Worse?
The scary thing for Rick Barnes is that it's not at all obvious how he's going to be able to reverse the negative momentum. Consider, first of all, that he will not have Myck Kabongo back next season, either; the sophomore point guard hasn't made a public announcement yet, but I can assure you that it's a certainty he's leaving.
Setting aside the fact that Juice Lewis very well could decide to transfer out as well, the loss of McClellan and Kabongo alone is plenty problematic. For a group that was terrible offensively without Kabongo, and good-not-great when he returned, losing its offensive engine and top two scorers is literally the last thing it needed. If Lewis does in fact depart, a Texas team that averaged 66 points per game this season will be without 39 of them next year. And while I'm bullish on Texas' incoming class (particularly if Yancy-Harris signs, as I think he will), there's no Kevin Durant or TJ Ford in the group likely to be capable of elevating the entire team as a freshman.
What happens if Texas struggles again next season? Truthfully, Rick Barnes should probably root like hell for the football team this fall, if only to avoid a fed up fan base concluding before the hoops season even begins that everyone must go if Texas is to escape the morass of mediocrity in which its athletics program is currently mired.
A great football season might alleviate some of the fan pressure, but the more important questions relate to the health of the underlying fundamentals of the basketball program, and whether Barnes is starting to slip and needs a change of scenery. It's very hard to sustain success over a period as long as Barnes' tenure in Austin, and where previously Barnes and Texas enjoyed the positive feedback loops associated with a virtuous cycle, the program now must contend with the self-reinforcing negatives of a vicious one.
Who's to Blame?
Jeff Haley and I will be conducting a comprehensive discussion on Rick Barnes here in the next few weeks, but in the meantime, I'll leave you with this: notwithstanding Barnes' overall track record -- which, absent context, offers little or no justification for replacing him -- my view of the current situation finds me far more disconcerted than I would have even imagined I could be as recently as November.
And a big part of that has to do with McClellan's departure. Believe me, I understand all of McClellan's shortcomings and I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for Barnes to coach him -- with all that ability, but no real ability to harness it consistently or efficiently, in no small part due to things within his own control. But watching this season unfold, it was every bit as clear that Barnes was handling McClellan the wrong way. And that the two things -- McClellan's struggles and Barnes' handling of him -- were not unrelated.
Some players respond well to being challenged in the way that Barnes challenged McClellan; some need to be punished to get points through to them, and respond well to being broken down. But that doesn't work with everyone. That isn't to say that some need to be coddled, but rather that some need to be taught differently. At the very least, for some the process of being built back up is at least as important as, if not more so than, the process of being broken down.
I'm not entirely sure what the deal with McClellan is. Maybe he has undiagnosed ADD, or something else that causes him to struggle staying focused mentally, but he's a good kid who I think does try hard and wants to do well. And when you punish a kid like that and claim that it's because he isn't trying hard and doesn't want to do well, you're not going to get through to him. And eventually you're going to lose him.
I think that's what happened with Barnes and McClellan. I think that (1) Barnes was genuinely trying to push McClellan to be hist best -- to teach him and improve him by breaking him down -- and (2) McClellan isn't an unmotivated slacker but someone who legitimately struggles with concentration, and who needed help learning how to be more confident than he did punishment for not yet knowing how to maximize his ability. In other words, there was a mismatch between what Barnes was teaching and the instruction that McClellan needed.
Maybe I'm wrong about McClellan, but I don't think so, and in any case it was very clear that Barnes didn't know which buttons to push with the kid. And with Sheldon McClellan, I think it was a very costly and unfortunate mistake. There are times when it's appropriate to blame the player, and others when it's appropriate to blame the coach. In my mind, a substantial amount of McClellan's transfer is on Barnes.
And that's a bad sign for a program already heading in the wrong direction.