Game review of the horrid performance in Norman is to follow. But first...
Amazingly enough, Texas' performance in Norman, which was pitiful in too many ways to count, was not the most frustrating part about today. It's shocking anything could be more frustrating than watching a favorite team lose like Texas did, but it turns out that, at least for me, even more frustrating are many of the critical reactions to it: Jordan Hamilton is a bum who shouldn't play... Jai Lucas is a waste of space who should go back to Florida... And most of all, Rick Barnes is an idiot, underachieving coach.
This may not be the best space to pick this fight, but like I said, I'm frustrated by a lot of it, and I've got the conch shell, so I'm speaking my piece. While the Barnes bashing didn't reach a fevered pitch until today, the rumblings began immediately with Texas' loss to Kansas State, picking up steam each of the last three weeks. The variations on the Rick Barnes criticism touch on a dozen different flavors, but they need not be addressed one by one because, at least in my view, there are unifying elements among them that we can focus on instead.
My argument is relatively straightforward:
- First, leave the straw men in the barn, because this is not about being a "Barnes apologist", "sunshine pumper", whatever. The problem is not in fans' identifying weaknesses and analyzing failures; nor is there any desire on my part to divorce them from Rick Barnes, or to shield him from critical scrutiny. Quite the opposite, to the extent problems and weaknesses are properly identified, we want to see them being discussed, and if you've read this blog for any period of time, you know that Wiggo's and my archives are littered with negative evaluations. Hell, you need only to read the Oklahoma game review that I'm publishing right after this rant. I've got nothing nice to say about the job Rick Barnes did today.
- There's nothing at all frustrating when the identification of problems and weaknesses is accurate, measured, and deserving of discussion. Rather, what gets me is when an additional step is added in at the tail end, in which substantial big picture conclusions are proffered as though they naturally follow from those rightly identified problems.
- The byproduct of the practice is that meaningful evaluation of Rick Barnes effectively becomes neutered. There are no standards to anchor the substantive discussions about weaknesses that we should be waging, and the spillover so saturates the discussion pool related to overall job evaluation as to make it an ocean of talk radio. What's the use of calling in to make a good point? In such an atmosphere, the utility of good points is limited to their being different from bad ones.
- Substantial portions of the Texas basketball fan base exist in such an atmosphere. When expectations were low, lack of critical scrutiny produced among many fans inflated opinions of Tom Penders and his accomplishments. Now that expectations are high, haphazard torrents of critical scrutiny are unloaded on the program, skewing the opinions of many about Rick Barnes and his accomplishments. The end product differs, but the absence of perspective is the same.
- I've hypothesized that these attitudes are the result of large portions of the fan base being semi-attached. It explains both how fans can be overly-content when the program isn't raising their expectations, and how they can miss the forest for the trees when the program provides a reason to invest their emotional capital.
- The upshot of (1) - (5) is that discussions about Rick Barnes' weaknesses frequently spill over into conclusive assertions about his overall worthiness, often enough to have a widespread distorting effect on fans' perception of the coach. Maybe I'm being uncharitable to Texas fans and this is what happens everywhere, all the time, about everything (there's some truth to that, no doubt), but I remain convinced that, at least among some, it's reflective of looking at things through a lens fit for something other than college basketball.
There's no other way to explain the skeptical scrutiny that would lead someone to announce that his beef with Rick Barnes dates back to 2005, when he "[took] the wrong direction in recruiting." As though to further make my case in point, the poster later offers to clarify what he meant, explaining that Rick Barnes should be recruiting only kids who play their ball in Texas.
From this explanation one of two things could be true: either (A) the poster is more or less clueless about the national character of college basketball and recruiting, or (B) he has a well-reasoned argument for why his strategy might be more successful than Barnes' has been.
Even if the latter were true, there's still an enormous incongruity between the poster's argument (that a Texas-only recruiting strategy might be superior) and his conclusion (that he doesn't like Rick Barnes as Texas' coach). It's a perfect example of jumping from the realm of 'discussion of a perceived weakness' to 'ultimate conclusion about overall worthiness', offered without explanation or justification.
In actuality, the poster has no such well-reasoned argument for why his Texas-only strategy might be more successful. Instead, he simply cherry picks Texas' non-recruitment of Willie Warren, explaining that if the poster had been Texas' head coach, "[he] would have heavily pursued Willie Warren two years ago. I realize he was an OU lean all along, but why not pursue him. Instead, we got a guy who plays wonderful defense but can’t hit the broad side of a barn on offense in Dogus." (Ergo, Rick Barnes sucks.)
The argument is empty enough as it is, but the poster could have at least qualified his pronouncement by announcing that his beef dates back to 2007. But 2005? Really? So the argument is: "Starting when Rick Barnes recruited Kevin Durant (Maryland) and DJ Augustin (Louisiana), I lost faith in him as Texas' coach."
I don't like to make a habit of singling out readers with whom I disagree, but in this instance I simply chose one among many. You could crawl through today's game thread and pick out any of a dozen others. They all frustrated me equally, even though several of them contained perfectly valid, well-articulated critical analysis of a problem or set of problems. They're all parts of the same whole, and it's unfortunate, because it makes difficult (if not impossible) engaging in meaningful, targeted critical analysis of the team, the program, and the coach. Even if I'm completely wrong about the underlying cause, the indisputable effect is a rush of sweeping conclusions and premature obituaries. Overwhelmingly, such proclamations merely serve to blur the character of the issues under examination, as well as the justifiable scope of the inquiry.
The reason my frustration boiled over today is because we're actually in the midst of a troubling skid that legitimately demands critical examination. This was supposed to be the year when Barnes had the returning pieces to make a national championship run; for 17 games, it looked like we were going to do just that, but in just a three week span we're not only well off the path to Indianapolis, but Houston, too. There's no doubt that this stretch of poor play raises numerous questions, but I submit it equally beyond doubt that it provides no conclusive answers -- not even about this season, let alone the competence of Rick Barnes as head of the program. Come April, it's conceivable that reasonable people might disagree about what an early NCAA tournament exit said about Barnes' ceiling as a coach, but at the very least such discussion is at this time still premature, and can be fairly characterized as speculative, counter-productive, and exceedingly narrow.
What we know is this: Rick Barnes has the Texas program in position to be consistently competitive for Final Four berths, a fact that carries so much weight as to nearly preclude any conclusion that favors replacement. Even if one were to present a strong, well-reasoned analysis for believing that Rick Barnes is incapable of winning a national title, the fact still remains that the odds are against a replacement exceeding the level Barnes has already achieved. Worse, replacement begets the opportunity for regression, perhaps substantial regression.
Take all that together and it seems to me that positive contributions to discussion of Texas basketball right now not only should, but necessarily must, be focused more narrowly on evaluating problems within the framework of a Rick Barnes administration. Every reactionary attempt to leap ahead, to a place we arguably never should or will head, just adds noise.
And if you must indulge, please, pick up the phone. Give Colin Cowherd a call.