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Texas Basketball: A Successful Season Ends Too Soon

Painful as the Texas-less Sweet 16 was to watch, by the conclusion of the regional finals Sunday afternoon, I finally began to reach the acceptance stage of grieving.  Still... just so we're clear:

So Texas pretty much should be in the Final Four.

Good?  Good.

Now after thanking reader MauryJacks for putting that video together for us, beyond the jump a few final thoughts on the basketball season.

The Arizona Loss

What a mixed bag.  The first half was an epic disaster offensively, and relatively encouraging on defense. Regarding the latter, we did an excellent job smothering Williams in a clear strategic decision: "We're not going to let Williams dominate us. The rest of you Cats need to hit some shots."  Unfortunately, they did, drilling 6 of 11 first half threes.

I don't necessarily fault Barnes for the strategy, even though my personal preference heading in was the opposite.  I had thought it better to give your best shot at handling Williams one-on-one, accepting that he's so talented that he's going to get his 25 points, but live with it because you didn't let anyone else doing anything.  That's more the approach we took in the second half, and with better results, but it's too simple to say Rick got it wrong. The fact is that Arizona was more balanced than most realized, and we saw what happened to Duke when they let Williams get going. As well as Williams' teammates played this tourney, it was a true pick your poison situation.

In any event, we played well enough defensively to win the game. We lost the game in the first half in a forgettable showing that gave Rick Barnes' critics loads of ammo with which to shoot him.  Arizona threw double teams at our guards on high screens and double teams on Tristan Thompson virtually every time he touched the ball.  Early in the season?  We were handling that just fine, because we had movement, we had cutters, and we had quick passing. By the end of the season, that was gone. We were stagnant and we were too slow to react.  Early in the year?  We were an offense that played great team basketball.  By the end of the year we were an offense that needed an elite point guard.

And in the second half, that's exactly what we got from J'Covan Brown. He's not exactly a true point, but as I've been saying for a long time now he's the best pure player on the team, and he did a masterful job of taking over and running the show. And if he'd just gotten up the floor a little quicker on the final play, we're probably headed to Anaheim.

Which, of course, brings us to the disastrous end game.  First, the five second call isn't on Barnes. I've seen him draw up plenty of clever in-bound plays (remember the buzzer beating three to Mouton in the corner?), and the one to get the ball to J'Covan was adequate, if uninspired. At the very least, we should have gotten a timeout to regroup and draw up another. Which, I'd wager heavily, leads to us winning the game.

Of course, I'm not sure what Hamilton was thinking calling a timeout there anyway. I haven't heard one way or the other whether it was an ordered timeout, but it doesn't seem likely. I think Hamilton just panicked a little - reacted without thinking. Just like he didn't think on the very next play when he loafed on the inbounds. And on the play after that, when he failed to tackle Williams and gave up a three-point play. Hamilton had a great year, but he had a dreadful game against Arizona.

I'm more disappointed with Barnes for the final play of the game.  Under the circumstances, we should have been playing for a chance at a put-back on a miss, which meant, first of all, that J'Covan should have raced up the floor.  Second, everyone in the building knew J'Covan was going to drive it. The right play there was to have him take it to the rack and surprise everyone with a pass instead of a shot. Regardless, had Brown just gotten up the floor fast enough, Gary Johnson is headed to the line to win it.

So we probably lose anyway. 

Sigh... This was a hard loss to swallow. We didn't play great, but we played well enough to win. We should have beat Arizona, a team that proved how good it is in destroying Duke. I rather think we would have beat the Blue Devils, as well. And we know from experience that UConn is beatable. It was in many respects a damn good season for Rick Barnes and these Longhorns. But it will be one which we look back upon and wonder what could have been.

Rick Barnes

I've actually been pretty pleased with the bulk of the commentary in the aftermath of this season. I expected a lot more "Barnes needs to go" sentiment, and there's been plenty of that, but not amongst the folks who are paying attention. That's encouraging, and more than that, important, because the debate about Rick Barnes shouldn't be about whether he should be the head coach, but about what he needs to do to improve.  That's largely what I saw at both here and at Barking Carnival.

Still, for those of you who don't quite get it, let me be direct: Replacing Rick Barnes doesn't make sense. Look around and recalibrate your understanding and expectations. The best team in the country this year (Ohio State) lost in the Sweet 16.  The preseason favorite to win it all (Duke) got slaughtered in the Sweet 16. Kansas had a path of 16, 8, 12, and 11 seeds to the Final Four. They're at home. The recently popular replacement candidate Jay Wright? Was lucky to make the tournament and went home after one game. One seed Pittsburgh? Out early once again.  Jim Boeheim? Missed the tournament two out of the last three years, and didn't make the second weekend this time around. 

Each year, the anxious fans just point to the guys on a good run. Which is fine, except the fact is that inevitably they, too, will wind up in the preceding paragraph -- the disappointment list -- soon enough themselves. How about Jim Calhoun? Hell of a coach, but of course last year he lost in the second round... of the NIT.  Brad Stephens?  Goodness knows I'm not going to take anything away from him (incredibly impressive), but the point here is not that he's not great but that tourney runs are a product of lots of things, including luck. The Bulldogs were incredibly fortunate with a game-winning buzzer beater in the opener versus Old Dominion, and even more fortunate in the jaw-dropping finish versus Pitt.

And how about Shaka Smart and VCU?  I'm loving every second of this, but they only made the tournament at all because the field expanded to 68, and even then were fortunate to have gotten a bid.  And while I've truly enjoyed this run they're on, it's a run of good play and good fortune. Go watch the above video again. Either they were lucky to have a ref that allowed them to get the ball inbounds to hit the game-winner versus FSU (down one point), or Texas was unlucky to have a ref determined to call a turnover. And hey, the Rams have just been plain hot.  A 36% three point shooting team is shooting nearly 45% from downtown in the tournament. Shaka Smart seems like a great coach. But he's riding the wave as much as he's directing it.

All of which is really just to say that NCAA Tournament success is the result of a lot of factors, some of which a coach controls, and some not.  And what this really boils down to is whether you have a coach who performs well in the things that he can control. 

1.  Does he perform well enough in the regular season to get into the NCAA Tournament?

2.  Does he perform well enough to compete for a high seed and more favorable early match ups?

3.  Does he have the capability of putting together teams that can reach the Sweet 16 with sufficient regularity?

4.  Does he have the capability of putting together a team good enough to reach the Final Four?

That's more or less the calculus.  And by that standard Texas has a very good coach.  If we were to tier head coaches on these factors, Barnes would not be in the very top tier (between 5-10 coaches, depending on how you weight various virtues and deficiencies.  But looking then to the second tier, Rick Barnes pretty much tops that list as one of the leading candidates to break through to that most elite tier. Hell, if he'd gotten a little bit luckier with the timing of some of his early NBA departures, odds are he'd be there already.

The case against Rick Barnes, then, is what? One argument seems to be that he's not in that top tier. Fine, and agreed. But unless you harbor fantasies of Texas replacing him with one of the handful of coaches who already is, then replacing Barnes does not, in fact, improve Texas position. 

"Okay," the response goes, "but Barnes will never get in to the top tier and I want someone who can."  This involves two empirical questions -- (1) Can Rick Barnes get to the very top? (2) Can Coach X get there? -- and I cannot say definitively that you are wrong.  But neither can you say definitively that you're right.  The best one can say is that Coach X seems to be more likely to get to that top level than Barnes. But the list of coaches for whom that plausibly can be argued is slim, because the fact is that Barnes's resume is superior, both in past performance and indicators for future top-level success.

Ultimately, it boils down to the fact that we watch Barnes and know very well his deficiencies and limitations.  And we have experienced intimately his failures.  But if we were fans of Coach X, we would know just as well his deficiencies and limitations, and in experiencing just as intimately his failures, would be similarly frustrated and discouraged.  It's understandable that fans get frustrated and disappointed, and believe me, I do, too. 

But the question is not whether Barnes is a very good coach.  The question is what does he need to do to improve and do even more.

And that is always why I scoff at those who throw the "Barnes is off limits from criticism" straw man at me.  Barnes criticism is not only fair game -- it's the proper focus of conversation. Criticism of Barnes is welcomed. Weak conclusions drawn from those criticisms are rejected.  Simple as that.

Looking Ahead

That is at least where my focus lies.  I'm happy to have Rick Barnes as a head coach at Texas, but that's based both on what he has proven he can do and, most important, my perception of his ability to grow and succeed heading forward.  Indeed, this past season was, despite the gutwrenching ending, a particularly encouraging one in that respect.  We saw this year that Rick Barnes is willing to evaluate himself critically.  We saw that he is willing to make changes.  We saw that he is interested in improvement.  That's an important reason for rejecting the conclusion that Barnes has hit some kind of ceiling.

The first question Barnes should ask himself is if he has surrounded himself with the right assistant coaches. He has a pair of excellent recruiters in Terry and Sprinmann, but I think he'd be wise to look hard to bring in someone whose specialty is in the game itself. Someone who not only understands the game, but excels in teaching it. 

Second, Barnes needs to understand and embrace the importance of a lead guard. It's not quite enough to say that Barnes needs a great point guard. Mainly because it's really quite clear that almost all the great college teams each year feature excellent point/lead guard play. I think the more poignant argument revolves around a coach's ability to recruit, develop, and feature guards like Shelvin Mack and Brandon Knight.  T.J. Ford.  D.J. Augustin.  Myck Kabongo.

We saw just how important J'Covan Brown was to the win in Lawrence and near-win against Arizona. While Barnes certainly has things to work on as a coach and teacher, teams benefit just as much, if not more, from having a lead guard who can do the directing from the floor. Barnes needn't be a game planning genius if he's got guards on the floor who can be conductors.

Looking ahead to next year, Kabongo's arrival is huge in that regard, as will be the return of J'Covan Brown.  Add in Cory Joseph and Texas has the guards to be a great team. How high the team's ceiling is depends on whether Thompson or Hamilton return.  If they both come back, Texas will be a favorite to play into a No. 1 seed. Barnes has been on the cusp before. Maybe we'll get lucky with both and this will be the year we break through.

All told, this season was both a success and a disappointment.  There were very encouraging developments, and disappointing setbacks.  Despite the ending, it was, at least to this fan, one of the most enjoyable seasons and teams of the Barnes era.

Hook 'em