A fitting end. There will be more than enough time in the coming weeks and months to continue the year-long conversation about Rick Barnes. But first... first, we have to lay this on the feet of the players on this year's team, who have only themselves the blame for leaving New Orleans first round losers: I hurt for Damion James, who missed the free throw to win the game in regulation. I hurt for J'Covan Brown, who missed a pair of free throws in OT that would have all but sealed the game, extending Texas' lead to six. I hurt for Gary Johnson, who missed both free throws with Texas up by one with ten seconds to play.
The list of reasons this team is one and done in the NCAA Tournament is a long one, but in the end, these guys had a chance to wrap up a first round victory for themselves and they blew it. They blew it with each missed rebound. With each failure to get back in transition. And most of all -- and most fittingly -- with each missed free throw down the stretch.
Though over the coming weeks and months we as fans will spend plenty of time discussing the failures of this team on a macro level... tonight, the truth is that this team will fly back to Austin blaming themselves, too. They know that they blew it. They know that they choked.
I have no doubt we'll have plenty to debate about the big picture failures. But let us not make any mistake about it: whatever blame belongs to the coaches, the players on this team will have to move on knowing they failed themselves, too.
Beat on the boards. The only reason the missed free throws even mattered was because Texas got slaughtered on the boards -- on both ends of the floor -- all night long. Wake Forest out-rebounded Texas 56-31, cleaning up 80% of Texas' misses while scooping up 45% of their own. There's your difference in the game. And like the free throws, it's a facet of the game that was within Texas' control.
Again: we mostly have ourselves to blame.
Looking ahead. James, Pittman, and Mason are gone for sure, so now we wait to see whether Bradley and/or Hamilton will return for another go-round. Assuming all three will-be sophomores return, Texas will be a guard-oriented team with the upside of a group like this year's Kansas State Wildcats. Without question, we'll be a very questionable team if you look at our frontcourt, but truth be told, if there's a lesson of 2010, it's that Rick Barnes is going to be as successful as are his perimeter players.
Assuming Texas wasn't likely to beat Kentucky anyway, the silver lining of tonight's game is that if everyone returns, the 2010-11 team is going to be an impressive guard-oriented group revolving around Brown, Hamilton, Bradley, and a host of other athletic players who are most likely to thrive in the way that a Rick Barnes team needs to successful. We should be ready to run, to press, and to funnel everything through our guards as the playmakers. However sad it is that we couldn't make things work with Pittman, at least Barnes won't have to spend another season struggling to try to do something he's not capable of doing.
Over the summer, the hope has to be that Barnes signs Corey Joseph and that Bradley, Hamilton, and -- most of all - Brown develop into perimeter players who consistently give Texas the high quality minutes that they only sporadically were able to produce as freshmen. And that means Rick Barnes learning from mistakes made this year, learning how to teach and build a team that can fly on its own. Barnes must understand that getting the most out of these kids will often mean getting out of the way. Teach them and coach them... but trust them.
What might we take from this terribly disappointing season? I don't doubt that some will conclude from this disappointing season that Rick Barnes is limited and that we should consider looking for an upgrade. Tonight, I will say this: we can no longer dismiss those who think as much as irrational screamers.
Nevertheless, my take on the situation is as follows:
- Rick Barnes' baseline success rate is something most programs desperately want, and struggle to attain.
- There are but a handful of fan bases who would consider Barnes' current success rate (without more) as unacceptable.
- While Texas is one such fan base where football is concerned, it neither is nor (arguably) should pretend to be one where basketball is concerned.
- The foregoing is not to say the goals for Texas basketball should be perceived to be any less than they are for football, only that the approach we take to achieve them will (and should) be different. That is, in terms of aggressively acting to achieve program goals, the same kinds of measures that are deemed both worthwhile and necessary for Texas football and Kentucky basketball may not necessarily be deemed appropriate for Texas basketball and Kentucky football.
- The critical difference between them is not that our aspirations for Texas football exceed those for UT basketball, but that the approach we are willing to take to football is not appropriate for hoops: The interest and demand of our football fan base, which might justify going through what Kentucky basketball went through in letting Tubby Smith go, is not applicable to how we evaluate the Texas basketball coach. That is, it is possible to share the same goals for each sport (competing for conference and national championships) without believing it realistic and wise to gun for one (hoops) as aggressively as we would the other (football).
- Recognizing this difference is not about a willingness to accept less with the hoops program. It is about understanding and appreciating the meaningful differences between the two sports, generally, and at Texas, specifically.
- In both cases, they amount to roughly the same thing: Were Texas to decide approach being the top dog in basketball with the same rigor as it does football, its options for doing so would be limited to a trying to hire Bill Self, Mike Kryzewski, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, or Jim Boeheim. (Calipari is out as a character we wouldn't want associated with our brand.) Beyond those five guys -- each of whom has won national championships -- the best of all the rest roughly are, or aspire to be, at Rick Barnes' level. Everyone else beyond those five have failed to prove themselves at a level superior to Rick Barnes' level of achievement at Texas. They would be lateral replacements, hired on our hope that they simply needed to be at Texas to rise into that super-elite upper echelon.
KEY CONCLUSION: Unless Texas is so hyper-committed to investing in basketball superiority that it's willing to make a run at buying one of those five proven gems, there is no compelling argument for replacing Rick Barnes. Indeed, the more productive discussion is centered on where Rick Barnes is right now relative to those championship winners, focusing on whether and how he can grow into a title-winner like Boeheim and Williams did over time.
- Though I would not put it past us in football (perhaps the biggest reason especially to appreciate Mack Brown's particular style of resurrecting and empowering the program), we simply are not hyper-obsessed with basketball such that we'd plunge into and endure the kind of drama that, say, Kentucky has over the last four years (firing someone like Tubby Smith and culminating in the hiring of a coach -- John Calipari -- most of us would be nervous having as a representative of the University of Texas).
- Once we cut through all the disappointments of this season and the important discussion of weaknesses/failures, what we really want is to understand is how we can achieve our goals with Rick Barnes as our head coach. Because at the end of the day, there is not much of a case for replacing him. There just isn't. He's our guy, and to upgrade would mean so committing to hoops that we unloaded the treasury on getting one of the truly guaranteed upgrades. Perhaps some of you will advocate we do just that, and if so, I won't hold your aspirations against you. I'll just note that even if we wanted to make such a commitment, I'm not sure any of those guaranteed upgrades could be bought to come play second fiddle to Mack and Muschamp in Austin, Texas.
- In the end, Deloss Dodds and Texas have a coach who succeeds at a level that -- unless we're going to make that big, expensive move to try to get one of those exceptionally proven few -- neither is going to be, nor should be, replaced.
- All of which means this: We not only need to talk about Rick Barnes' weaknesses, but also about how he can overcome them and succeed -- here, at Texas. Express all of your concerns. But either make the case for why Texas can, should, and will upgrade to one of the super-elite coaches or think about how you want to see Barnes do better. Feel free to fight for the former, but I recommend the latter, because that's reality, and as awful as we all feel tonight, at the end of this season, it's the basis of any future fulfillment you're going to enjoy from this program heading forward.
What I want heading forward. Obviously, you can count me in the camp of those accepting that Barnes is our guy. As bitter as I am about this season, I can't really make a good case for replacing him unless it's with someone I know we either can't or won't hire in his stead. My concern, then, is on Rick Barnes learning, growing, and improving as a coach in the same way that Mack Brown, Roy Williams, and Jim Boeheim have over their careers. On my mind tonight:
Point guards, point guards, point guards. Rick is who he is and -- by far -- the single most important takeaway from this season has to be that nothing can be as important as having elite ball-in-hand guards on the team. Guys like TJ Ford and DJ Augustin don't grow on trees, but if consistently matching their caliber will be tough, it should nonetheless be Barnes' top priority. It's generally true that all championship-level teams will need a strong point guard, but it's especially true that Barnes needs a top-notch ball-handling guard (or two) to compete even for Final Fours.
Learn to let them learn. Throughout his career, Barnes has struggled at times to trust guys to develop and learn on their own -- his idea of "letting them grow" being to refuse to call a timeout when the opposition is ready to run us out the gym. But looking ahead, getting it right means Barnes must take a more holistic, season-long approach to developing players and the team. It's great that Barnes has had some special leaders who've pushed back and provided a counter-balance to his desire to drive-and-demand the team into the ground, but if Barnes is to be an elite coach -- not just a good one -- he needs to be systematically choreographing it all on his own.
Self-evaluate and get stronger. How much does Rick Barnes miss Ken McDonald? Frank Haith? And irrespective of whatever those two added, what are Rick Barnes' weaknesses that he simply must be aware of and actively seeking to strengthen? Just like I don't care which way Mack Brown gets to BCS Bowls, I don't care whether Rick Barnes gets to Final Fours as a B+ coach with A+ assistants or as an A+ coach without any help. Indeed, what I love about Mack Brown is how he has reacted to his failures, which is far more important than being relatively less fallible to begin with.
More than ever, that's what I want to see from Rick Barnes heading forward. We know who he is and what he can and cannot do. What remains to be seen now is whether, and if so how, he is able to learn from and build upon his failures. Twelve years into his tenure, he's accomplished enough, at a consistent enough level, that there's not really any doubt of his worth as a good, steady, revenue-producing, solidly-competitive coach. We've been damn lucky to have him here and to establish that as our baseline. It's neither to be undervalued nor taken for granted.
But quite separate is the question of whether there is more. Whether there can be more. The question is not whether Rick Barnes has weaknesses -- every coach does, even the best ones -- but whether they are blind spots.
I have no doubt that no one will feel worse about the way this season turned out than Rick Barnes. He will feel like he failed Damion and Dexter. He will feel like he failed the fans. And more than anything, he will feel like he failed himself and his own goals and expectations. He will hurt, and he will doubt....
And then, his future will be shaped by what he takes from it all. What he learns. How he changes. The things he does to help himself. He'll need to learn what it means to try to be the best without thinking it possible to demand it -- from himself, or into a team. That's one of the things that makes Bill Self so special. If Rick Barnes is to elevate to that level, it's something he'll need to improve. With or without a great point guard, he's got to learn how better to build up a team with a balance of demanding standards and rewarding love.
It doesn't particularly matter the form the adjustments wind up taking or how they come about -- whether he evolves as a taskmaster himself, or brings aboard others who fill the gaps -- but that Barnes has the security, wisdom, and foresight to understand the need to seek out, understand, and improve upon his own limitations.
That will be the difference between Rick Barnes spending 20 very good years here and his becoming at Texas what Jim Boeheim became at Syracuse. I know that he's 'very good' enough that we are going to (and should) keep him in Austin. What I don't know, but have to hope, is that he's capable of learning and evolving from this year's disappointment, to become something better and stronger in the future.
It will always be tough to complain much about Rick Barnes, Very Good Head of the Program. And yet, when it's all said and done, it will be tough to be less than disappointed if that's all he ever is.
For both his sake and our own, I hope there's more than this.