A disastrous first half dropped Texas into a 15-point first-half deficit against visiting Oklahoma State, and while they managed to close that gap with a fierce second half rally -- highlighted by Isaiah Taylor scoring the final 6 points of regulation -- it ultimately resulted in a costly home loss for the slumping Longhorns. It was the fourth straight loss for a team that played Kentucky tough in Lexington even without its star point guard and was ranked in the Top 10 heading into Christmas.
The trouble for this team seemed to start six weeks ago, with another overtime loss on its home floor to a Stanford team that, while solid, the Horns should have won. Taylor's return from injury two games later provided a welcome boost of energy in a road win over Texas Tech, the team has been out of sorts ever since, with tonight's loss being the team's 6th in 8 games. Concern about falling out of the Big 12 title race has quickly been replaced with concern that this team may fall out of the NCAA Tournament field.
Is this really the same group tabbed in the preseason as a Final Four contender?
This team's slide has been equal parts confusing and frustrating. It's been difficult to pin down the source of the team's struggles, whether Cam Ridley's oddly bad start to the season or the team's subpar play on its home floor (where they've now dropped three contests this season). And given this team's proven potential and promising blend of talent and experience, it's been upsetting to watch this group slide into a prolonged slump.
Before continuing, let me address the topic that is certain to dominate the discussion in the comments: Rick Barnes' future at Texas. BWG even pulled the trigger on writing Barnes' eulogy.
I get it. I'm not objecting to any of it. I'm just not going to talk about it. Not right now.
Why not? It's simple: I don't really care. Right now -- not after the season, but right now -- I do not much care to speculate about whether Barnes should be retained as the coach. I'll have plenty of time to decide that after the season ends. And right now that is the thing that I really care about: the end of this season.
Part of the reason I feel compelled to spell that out explicitly is because it's tempting to allow feelings about whether it's time to replace Barnes after this season to color your view of the remainder of this season. It's understandable, but I would encourage any diehard Horns hoop fan to set aside the evaluation of Barnes' viability as the head coach in future seasons when evaluating the remainder of the season at hand. Doing so is critical to constructively analyzing the team playing in burnt orange and white right now, this season.
It's important because whatever one's feelings about Barnes' future after this season, for my fellow diehards who live and die with these teams and care immensely about this group finding success this season, among all the frustrating and dispiriting signs, I also see a couple important reasons to be hopeful about the team's potential to rally down the stretch.
First, let me theorize about the nature of the team's struggles right now. From my vantage point, and as the gobs of turnovers would seem to support, this group is self-pressuring. They're thinking too much. When good teams are playing well, they're doing just that: playing. Reacting. Flowing. Pick your favorite descriptor, but they're all getting at the same thing. And it's much the same on the flip side, where this group is stuck: Overthinking. Tight. Hesitant.
That is in no small part a poor reflection of Barnes, and indeed this very problem was the one concern many of us harbored about Texas' 17-year head coach and the upcoming season: the last time the roster stars aligned, Barnes was wound tighter-than-a-drum and wound up suffocating the group's sizable potential. Had he evolved in ways that would enable him to maximize this current group's potential?
The team's current slide discouragingly suggests that the answer to that question is no, and it may well be what dooms this group's once promising season. It may well be what dooms Barnes' future at Texas.
However, I'm not giving up on this season -- this team -- just yet. I know everyone's focus is on the negative right now -- how could it not be? -- but having acknowledged what's ailing this team and the disaster they're courting with their recent play, there are five reasons I'm not giving up all hope just yet.
1. They're showing their potential in stretches. Tonight the team was once again doomed by a miserable first half, but in rallying to battle back they for stretches played to their potential, playing suffocating defense and finding success offensively by attacking the rim. And in this regard the team's struggles feel qualitatively different than those of the 2012-13 team that missed the NCAA Tournament. That team was a broken mess, through and through. This team is battling consistency. The former is incompatible with success. The latter, however, can plague a quality team. Quality teams can overcome inconsistency problems to find ultimate success. This team may or may not jell and finish strong, but the potential for success remains. That's not trivial.
2. Isaiah Taylor is finding himself. As a whole, we're dysfunctional on offense, but there have been some encouraging signs at the individual level. Most importantly, the further he gets from the injury that cost him 10 games, and in an unfortunate way the more the group as a whole struggles to flow cohesively, the closer Isaiah Taylor is getting to being the elite player that he is. That's an incomplete development for the team's success -- we need an elite Taylor leading a strong and cohesive team -- but nonetheless, having the best version of Isaiah Taylor is a necessary if not sufficient ingredient to the team's reaching its considerable potential.
3. Cam Ridley isn't broken. After a mystifyingly awful start to the year that begged questions about his health, over the last six weeks Ridley has played a lot more like the breakout player from a season ago. As with the team as a whole, consistency has been a fatal flaw, but there's certainly nothing wrong with Ridley's game or health. Just off the top of my head I can recall a half dozen plays where Ridley's finished at the rim with athleticism that surprised the hell out of me.
4. Myles Turner can be an impact player. He's a freshman, and one with a ton of development still ahead of him, but he's proven himself further along the developmental curve than most of us anticipated, and consequently, more capable of being an impact player than seemed possible prior to his arrival. In some ways that makes the team's underwhelming season all the more disappointing, but nonetheless, when looking at what's possible for this group down the stretch, it's important as a factor to be considered.
5. Barnes isn't operating in a blind spot. Now for the part that will make some of you howl: even bearing a healthy share of the responsibility for what's plaguing the team, Barnes was a source of encouragement for me tonight. Again, setting aside whatever this season ultimately says about his future here, right now -- looking only at this team's capacity to rally to a strong finish this season -- after the game tonight I heard some important things I desperately wanted to hear from Texas' head coach.
Far and away the most important in my mind, Barnes' post-game comments made clear that he understands the problem. I can't say my confidence is running high with respect to whether or not he's going to succeed in getting this team where they need to be, but as a counterpoint to BWG's attempt to analogize Barnes current position with Mack Brown's final days: the critical difference is that where Mack Brown's inability to fully understand the root problems causing the cracks in his program's foundation guaranteed the failure of his attempt at revival, I see no comparable blind spot plaguing Barnes.
See if you feel the same way I do about Barnes' post-game comments tonight:
Those are plays that we make in practice. If the guy's open you have to give him the ball. It's a fine line. Mentally players want to win. There's no doubt about it, but you can't ever be hesitant playing any game. We have a group of guys that work at it but we can't doubt ourselves in games when the ball has to move. Our real problem has been consistency.
At halftime I told them that we have to go out and believe in what we're doing and you guys have got to play and we have to flow with all five guys. In the second half I thought our guys were terrific defensively.
I have no doubt in the group of guys we have here. What it goes back to is the fine line with execution. All five guys have to be playing together. All five guys have to be fluid. We talked yesterday about what we were going to run to start the game and that I can't explain. But I do know that I have a group of guys that are hurting, and I hurt for them. But I also know that I have a group of guys that if we can put it altogether we can be awfully good.
Well I think all we have is tomorrow. We get up tomorrow and I will tell you that I thought our guys responded with what we tried to get done....That's part of athletics and you see some things happen and you don't know why and sometimes you over think it, and I'm not going to do that. It would have been great for us to try and find a way to win that game tonight because of where we were and what we've had to deal with. Now it's up to me and my staff to make sure they know that if we put it all together we could go on a run and do this, but it's not about a run right now it's about tomorrow and bouncing back.
This season may continue its southward trajectory and Barnes may well be doomed, but it's not because he doesn't understand what's wrong. There's no "Clap louder!" securing Barnes' fate, allowing us to write his obituary and start the clock on the imminent end.
That Barnes understands the problem is relatively encouraging. Maybe he can get this group going, maybe he can't, but it's important that he properly understands what it is that's holding us back and needs to be fixed.
I'll close this out with one more post-game quote from tonight that reinforces the point I'm trying to get across. It's not from Barnes, though. This is what Isaiah Taylor had to say when asked about whether Barnes was down on the team in the locker room after another loss following a miserable first half.
He's not down, not down at all. None of the coaching staff are down. They are glad that we have fight in the second half. They were just reiterating that we have to have that fight the whole game. We have to come out the first four minutes of each game and have that type of fight and attitude.
Again, we'll find out in the next six weeks whether Barnes is able to get this team to find its groove and play to its potential, but Taylor's quotes tell me that Barnes understands the problem and the appropriate message for a group struggling in the ways this one is.
The end may be nigh for Rick Barnes at Texas, but to finish where I started: right now, I really don't much care. When it's all said and done, I may favor his replacement or retention, and either way it doesn't matter a lick as to how I feel right now. Right now all I care about is this team and this season.
Here's to hoping the silver linings portend better times to come.
Because time is running out. And right now, that's all that matters.
So let's go, boys: stop thinking and just play. Play like you know you're going to win...
And you will.