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Rick Barnes' Future At Texas: Is It Time To Make A Change?

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The past 17 seasons of Texas basketball have been the best in the program's history, but following a season of disappointment, the end of an era may be upon us.

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

I love college basketball, and UT hoops in particular. Like, as much as most diehard orangebloods love Texas' football team. I've never slept in a line just to get tickets for a UT basketball game... but that's because it's never been necessary.

I owe my hyper-fandom to my father, a shooting guard with a devastating jumper good enough to play small college ball at Oberlin College in Ohio and stories for days about playing pick up games with Chuck Daly while getting his PhD at Duke. My memorabilia collection includes rings from Texas' 1986 Southwest Conference championship in basketball and 1988 national title in swimming, both of which my Dad received as a member of UT's Athletics Council during the late 1980s. Indeed, he served on the committee that wound up hiring Tom Penders to replace Bob Weltlich as the head basketball coach.

I lived and died with BMW on their run at the Final Four. Standing in the Alamodome watching TJ Ford & Friends cut down the nets was as special and surreal a moment in my sports fan life as singing the Eyes of Texas in the Rose Bowl with 50,000 other Longhorns fans after 41-38. I lost my mind when Paulino's three sailed through the rim to send us to the Elite Eight, and I was frighteningly bitter when Glenn Davis's three-pointer effectively ended our season in overtime two days later.

So... you're saying that you enjoyed UT basketball's best moments? Didn't we all, PB?

Fair enough. Let me add a little depth, then. I followed Turkish basketball for a considerable period of time, simply because I couldn't let go of PJ Tucker.1 I once called a BON reader a "weeping vagina" for his whiny, nonsensical comments about Barnes. I barely breathed watching Texas' quarterfinal match up against Iowa State in 2011, when the team needed a win to get into the NCAA Tournament. And I exchange more emails with coaches, scouts, and other observers across the state than I do members of my own family.

For the record, I'm not proud of that last one, but it hammers home the point: I am deeply invested in Texas Longhorns basketball. Over-invested, if we're being honest. I'm one of those Longhorn blasphemers who openly declares a love for UT basketball equal to that for Longhorns football.

So whatever else you might say about me and my views, understand that my opinions are those of a hyper-invested diehard who cares far too much about the success of the program than is justifiable for a creature with a finite window of existence. When my day comes and I'm looking back at my life from my death bed, the odds are I'll regret how much time and energy I devoted to Texas basketball.2

In other words, I've given this a lot of thought. And the opinions I've held -- those reached in previous years, as well as the one I'm offering today -- have never been motivated by any protectionist sympathies for Rick Barnes.3 I want what's best for the Texas basketball program -- period, full stop. And although I think the decision is not nearly as clear cut as many would like to believe, following Texas' 54-48 defeat to Butler in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, capping what was ultimately a disappointing season relative to expectations, I count myself among those who would support Patterson were he to make a change.4

Let's take a few minutes to look at how we got here -- what Barnes has done well, and where he's fallen short, and how both inform the direction Texas should go.

I. From Penders to Contenders

I enjoyed the Tom Penders era, which may not have had national championship upside but was fundamentally interesting and entertaining -- Penders' team earned the "Runnin' Horns" moniker right away, as UT's scoring average exploded to 94 points per game during Penders' first season, a full 24 points higher than the 70 the Horns averaged in Weltlich's final season.

I have a lot of fond memories from the Penders era.  I recall being mesmerized by the offensive wizadry of some of the freaks Penders brought to Austin -- guys like Travis Mays, Terrence Rencher, and Reggie Freeman. The Penders era taught me how satisfying it can be to watch a freshman develop over four years from observing Sheldon Quarles (or "Q-Tip," as my father and I affectionately referred to him) transform from a painfully awkward skinny freshman to a solid two-way contributor as a senior.  I also credit Penders -- with an assist from Strollin' Nolan Richardson -- with teaching me how to properly engage a hated rival. Penders was also charismatic and interesting, and to this day I remain in awe of his mastery of the art of deflection -- only Tom Penders could convince you following a December home loss to Long Beach State that the Longhorns had just fallen to a team that was going to prove to be a darkhorse Final Four contender.5

The Penders era was fun... until it wasn't, and following the Luke Axtell fiasco that capped a disappointing season overall, UT Athletics Director Deloss Dodds had no choice but to make a change. Right about the same time Dodds plucked Mack Brown from North Carolina to take over the football program, he reached into South Carolina to grab Clemson's Rick Barnes to be the Longhorns' new head basketball coach.

II. The Transformation of Texas Basketball

Texas' move to the Big 12 in 1996 presented an opportunity for the basketball program to elevate its stature. And Rick Barnes quickly proved he was up to the task.

Not unlike the drastic change on offense that accompanied Penders' arrival in Austin, with Barnes UT experienced a similarly drastic makeover on the defensive end, where for all their offensive brilliance the Longhorns had been in a decade-long hibernation. Perhaps most importantly, however, Barnes began to fulfill on the program's promise as a destination for the talent-rich state's elite players.

Barnes got off to a great start, immediately demonstrating his knack for coaching up a moderately talented roster, rallying his inaugural Longhorns squad from a 4-8 record earned during the non-conference season to a 13-3 run through Big 12 play that earned UT a shocking conference championship and a return to the NCAA Tournament, where they received a No. 7 seed. The following season, Barnes nearly repeated the accomplishment, guiding a still-thin roster to another 13-3 conference record that was second only to the loaded Iowa State team led by Marcus Fizer and Jamaal Tinsley, as well as another invite to the NCAA Tournament, this time as a No. 5 seed.

Barnes' third season was an interesting one in several respects. In terms of results, the 2000-01 closely mirrored the previous two seasons, as Texas posted a 25-9 overall record, went 12-4 in the Big 12, and earned another mid-range seed in the NCAA Tournament (No. 6). Like Barnes' first Texas team that as a No. 7 seed fell to 10th-seeded Purdue, the 2000-01 Horns were eliminated in the opening round by a higher seed, falling to John Chaney's 11th-seeded Temple Owls.

Texas Longhorns Basketball under Rick Barnes, 1999-2001

Click to enlarge.

Although not documented in the table above, it's worth noting that each of Barnes' first three teams finished the season on a surge: heading into the NCAA Tournament, the 1998-99 squad had won 10 of its last 13 games, the 99-00 group finished with 9 wins in its final 11 games, and the 00-01 squad was on an eight-game winning streak before losing in the Big 12 Tournament championship game to Oklahoma.  Also worth noting is the fact that the Longhorns won a conference title and posted the best conference record of any Big 12 team, its 38-10 mark better by a full four games than the next-best performances held by Kansas and OU. Notwithstanding that regular season success, Barnes' first three teams were unable to win a Big 12 Tournament Championship, twice exiting in the semifinals and once in the championship game.

The one-and-done NCAA Tournament appearance was disappointing, but once the sting from a season-ending loss ran its course, the Longhorns fan base was buzzing with anticipation for the season ahead. The future of Texas basketball may never have looked brighter than it did heading into the 2001-02 season. Although the Horns were losing leading scorer Maurice Evans to the NBA, Chris Owens along with all four members of Barnes' solid 2000 recruiting class -- Royal Ivey, James Thomas, Brandon Mouton, and Brian Boddicker -- were returning, and they would be joined by Barnes' first high elite recruit: a five-star point guard out of Houston named TJ Ford.

III. The Golden Years

Ford's arrival marked the beginning of a nearly eight year stretch that represented the Golden Years of Texas Basketball. With his infectious smile and goofy-looking dreadlocks, Ford led the Horns to the Sweet 16 in his freshman, then created Texas-sized expectations for 2003-04 by announcing he'd return for his sophomore season. He led Texas to its second consecutive Sweet 16, then won two more to deliver Texas its first-ever trip to the Final Four.

During the seven-year period constituting the Golden Years, Barnes led Texas to the Sweet 16 a full five times, with three trips to the Elite Eight. Along with Ford's Final Four team, year two of the Aldridge-Gibson class and year two of the Durant-Augustin class (without KD, who'd left for the NBA) won three NCAA Tournament games to make the Regional Final. At the conclusion of the 2007-08 season, Texas basketball had completed a seven-year stretch bested by only four or five schools in the entire country, with an average season record of 26-9, 12-4 in the Big 12, and an average NCAA seed of 3.7.

Somewhat oddly, by the time Memphis -- one of the best teams in the 21st century -- dispatched Texas in the 2008 South Regional Final, Barnes had been tagged as a lousy coach and NCAA Tournament failure. Including enough Longhorns fans that I wondered if I was blogging about Kansas basketball instead of Texas. Barnes' performance record during the Golden Years tell a different story than the caricature he was often portrayed as:

Texas Basketball 2001-07 Under Rick Barnes

Click to enlarge.

The only thing you could arguably call a 'blemish' on the seven-season stretch Barnes completed in 2007-08 was Texas' so-so performance in the Big 12 Tournament. Considering that conference tournaments basically don't matter, it's difficult to see what Barnes' critics were so upset about. Nearly 26 wins per season, two conference titles, a consistently high NCAA Tournament seed, and better-than-average performance in the NCAA Tournament relative to seed.

Wait, what? Are you suggesting that Barnes' reputation as an NCAA Tournament choker wasn't deserved?

Well, yeah. We'll get to Barnes' subsequent slump, when the evaluation gets a lot murkier, but I think it's worth taking a moment to look at Barnes' performance during the peak Golden Years, when he was still being caricatured as a flop.

The table below charts Texas' performance in the seven NCAA Tournaments between 2002-08, listing for each season UT's seed, the number of expected wins for teams with that seed,6 and the Longhorns' actual number of wins in that NCAA Tournament.

Rick Barnes Performance Against Seed Expectations (PASE) Table, 2002-08

The data in this table gives us three important data points. First of all, during the seven-year period being examined, Barnes' Texas teams played well enough in the regular season to earn, on average, between a No. 3 and a No. 4 seed. Related to the first point, the data shows that Texas' success during this period was consistent: the Horns were a No. 6 seed in 2001, the season before TJ Ford arrived, and a No. 8 seed in 2005, the season Lamarcus Aldridge was lost to injury, and in the other five seasons were a No. 4 seed or better.

The data also tell us that Rick Barnes' teams were not underperforming relative to their seed.  Based on UT's seeding during these seven years, Barnes' teams were expected to win 13.46 games. In actuality, they won 15, underperforming relative to seed expectation just once, in 2007, when Durant and Co. drew a terrible match up in the second round with USC, a big and physical team built to punish UT's light frontcourt. In each of the other six seasons, Barnes at least met or exceeded the expected performance for his team's seed.

Barnes' performance during the Golden Years wasn't the second coming of Tom Izzo or anything, but it was plainly, irrefutably above average: the number of NCAA Tournament games won by Texas during the Golden Years (15 wins) exceeded the average number of wins for its seeds (13.46).

Looking for some context for those numbers? Look up, to the top of the conference and the head coach who's won at least a share of the past 11 regular season Big 12 titles: Bill Self. No one comes anywhere close to insinuating Bill Self is anything less than a great coach -- nor should they. Self is fantastic, and obviously so. His teams have owned one of the premier conferences in the country for more than a decade, and he's won a national title...

...which is not to say that his teams have been lights out in the NCAA Tournament. Actually, they've been, well, pretty average. The tables below chart KU's Performance Against Seed Expectation (PASE) under Bill Self between 2004-15, with data for all seasons listed in the left table and -- for convenient comparison -- data for his peak seven seasons (2007-13) listed on the right.

Kansas NCAA Tournament Performance Against Seed Expectation Under Bill Self (2004-15)

Taking into account all 12 of KU's seasons under Self, his Jayhawks have been, on average, a No. 2 seed, expected to win 28 games. In actuality, they've won 27, giving Self a PASE of 0.96 for his KU tenure (27 wins / 27.98 expected wins = 0.96 PASE). Limiting our look to the best seven-year span during Self's tenure (2007-13), Self's KU teams performed a little bit better: with an average seed of 1.4 and 20 expected wins, they won 22, giving Self a PASE of 1.11 over that seven-year span (22 wins / 20 expected wins = 1.11 PASE).

Rick Barnes' PASE during the Golden Years? Texas was expected to win 13.46 games, but actually won 15, giving Barnes a PASE of... wait for it... 1.15. Or to put his performance in additional context, consider that following the 2008 NCAA Tournament, Texas was one of just five schools to advance to the Sweet 16 in five of the previous seven seasons, joined by programs with head coaches that no one was calling a flop: Duke, Kansas, Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Gonzaga.

Had Barnes been able to maintain the level of performance he established during the Golden Years, the only point to discussing all this would be to illustrate how unfair the criticisms of him were.

But of course he hasn't been able to maintain that level of performance. Not even close.

IV. The Seven-Year Slump

One important consequence of Barnes' success at Texas across the seven-year period that represented the Golden Years of Texas basketball was that it created heightened expectations. When you start winning consistently at the highest level, fans understandably adjust their expectations upwards to meet it. And that's a big reason why Barnes' job is on the line today.

In the seven years since DJ Augustin's 2008 run to the Elite Eight, the Longhorns have been far less successful than they were during the Golden Years, in both the regular season and NCAA Tournament.

Texas Basketball Performance Between 2009-15 Under RIck Barnes

Texas has fallen sharply from the elite levels Barnes' teams established between 2002-08. Over the past seven seasons, Texas has won just 64% of its contests overall (down from 74% during the Golden Years) and has been only slightly better than a coin flip in Big 12 play (winning 55% of its conference games, down from 73% during the Golden Years). The dip is reflected in UT's final ratings in both KenPom (No. 33, down from No. 18) and the SRS (No. 25, down from No. 15), where the Horns have dipped down to No. 33 and No. 25, respectively, after rating No. 18 and No. 15 across the Golden Years.

Barnes missed the NCAA Tournament entirely following the disastrous 2012-13 campaign, and the average seed in the six NCAA Tournaments his teams have played in between 2009-15 has been 8.0, more than 4 lines worse than the 3.7 it averaged between 2002-08. Even with fewer wins expected based on those seeds, the Longhorns' performance has been below average, winning just three Tournament games where 4.93 are expected.

Stepping away from the pure metrics to a more subjective evaluation, I would characterize just two of the past seven seasons as successful. Though he doesn't get much credit for it because of its bitter ending, the job Barnes did assembling and developing the 2010-11 squad was in my mind one of the best coaching jobs of his 17-year Texas career. Likewise, I was very impressed with the job Barnes did guiding last year's group to a 3rd place finish in the Big 12 and No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Both teams were hosed by the NCAA Tournament committee, and especially the 2010-11 team, which should have been a No. 2 or No. 3 seed but wound up a No. 4 playing out west against an outstanding and also underrated No. 5 seed, Arizona. Throw in an official who can't count to five, and you have an all-time NCAA Tournament hose job.

Notwithstanding the relatively disappointing conclusions to the 2011 and 2014 seasons, I think it's fair to say that both highlighted Barnes' strengths as a coach and were reflective of the reasons a program should value having him as a head coach. Whether or not it's time for Barnes and Texas to part ways, to say that he's washed up as a coach would go too far. If he's done at Texas and still wants to coach, he'd be a strong hire for a long list of programs -- even at his age (62 years old).

So will he be available?  Though the minds of many fans are firmly made up, from where I'm sitting the decision for Steve Patterson isn't as clear cut as many make it out to be.

V. The End of an Era?

Like it or not, there are good reasons to favor retaining Barnes another season. If Patterson is 50-50 on whether or not to make a change, the deciding factor could well be the desires of the returning roster of players -- including the incoming class of freshmen. Even if Myles Turner turns pro, as seems likely, Texas will have a strong roster with Top 10 potential. If a roster with at least the potential to make a Final Four run is the cost of making a change, can you really let Barnes go? It's not like he's never taken a team there before...

Some of you won't see this as a difficult decision at all, but I suspect Patterson will find this to be a very tough call. Indeed, looking at the long-term horizon, the most prudent course of action may well be to give Barnes one more shot with his current crop of players -- particularly if (a) the current roster would be compromised by a change and (b) there is no clear-cut replacement candidate who we know would accept our offer. Both factors are critically important to Patterson's decision, even if he's otherwise a lean towards making a change.

Even if the returning roster would suffer no negative impact from a coaching change, the necessity of identifying -- and signing -- an outstanding replacement is a necessary component of any decision to make a change. If you can't get the right guy to step in for the 2015-16 season, there is absolutely no harm in waiting to make a run at the right replacement for 2016-17, while giving a coach with three Elite Eights and a Final Four on his resume one more shot with the talented roster he's assembled.

Those are the reasons we could very plausibly see Rick Barnes on the sidelines come November, and I'll be honest, I wouldn't be nearly as upset as most will be. That being said, should Patterson opt to make a change, I've reached the point where I'd support the move.

There are two reasons I'd support a decision to make a change. The first and less important of the two, is that Barnes has lost the fan base. Now, to be fair, at least in my view a non-trivial amount of the ill will towards Barnes is... misguided, shall we say. Listening to some Texas fans complain about Barnes, it's difficult not to conclude that they don't watch much college basketball, because a lot of the complaints are of deficiencies that are not a product of Texas' head coach but of college basketball players, generally.  Developed back-to-the-basket skills are an aspiration for 24-year-old NBA players; the players who possess those skills while in college are few and far between. Replacing Rick Barnes will not change this.

Barnes also suffers from an astonishing number of what I would characterize as illegitimate criticisms. For example, I routinely hear fans grumble about Barnes' inability to draw up in-bounds plays. This strikes me as akin to dismissing John Daly as a quality golfer because he's short off the tee. Really? With all the legitimate weaknesses readily available for a critic to latch on to, that is what's bothering you? Are we watching the same person?

All that being said, even if fans didn't have good reasons for giving up on Barnes, what would matter is the fact that they'd given up. And in actuality, Texas fans do have good reasons for feeling like their relationship with Texas basketball under Barnes has emotionally flatlined, and it seems clear that a decisive majority favor making a change --that a decisive majority do not believe Rick Barnes capable of leading Texas back to the Final Four. That alone could be enough to make Rick Barnes' seat too hot, irrespective of anything else.

There are reasons for retaining Barnes and reasons for making a change, but at the end of the day, there was one decisive reason that this season cost Barnes my vote of confidence. In addressing Barnes on this blog, I have said numerous times that while many of the criticisms that animate others in the fan base don't do as much to move me in favor of replacing him, the one big concern I had that could undermine my support was a failure to optimize a roster primed for an elite season.

There's no question that Barnes can excel with an underwhelming roster. Most of his most impressive coaching has been precisely this: coaching up a group with low expectations to a surprisingly good season. For that reason alone, if he's let go at Texas, Barnes will be a great hire for someone in need of that skill.

However, in no small part thanks to the elevated expectations established by Barnes himself, that's not what Texas fans are shopping for right now. Right now, Texas fans -- myself included -- want a head coach whose recruiting and development not only results in a high floor, but also has a championship ceiling. Is that too ambitious a goal for a football-first school with little basketball history and pitiful fan support? It's perhaps a more difficult challenge than many fans realize, but it's not an unworthy aspiration. There's a real danger of it being counterproductive, but prudently pursued, it's both a reasonable and prudent place to set the bar. Sometimes you're stuck in Good, without a path forward to Great.

Pivoting to the second, more decisive reason favoring a change, I've written a lot about talent cycles in college basketball and the need for (a) fans to evaluate coaches within the context of these cycles and (b) coaches to make the most of their peaks in the cycles. During the Golden Years, Barnes did a satisfactory job in this regard, making the Final Four in TJ Ford's sophomore season and the Elite Eight in the second seasons of Aldridge/Gibson in '06 and Augustin in '08. Given the disproportionate number of early NBA defections he was forced to navigate, the Golden Years were largely a success.

The data points since then, however, have been very troubling. The collapse of the 2009-10 team after earning the program's first-ever No. 1 national ranking was devastating, and a huge red flag that Barnes struggled with optimizing a roster with Final Four potential. TJ Ford seemed to counteract Barnes' most problematic tendencies, but there was real concern that without an on-court leader to mitigate those tendencies, Barnes was prone to suffocate his own team.

I personally wanted to see how Barnes managed another team hitting a peak in the talent cycle, an opportunity we wouldn't get again until this past season. There's no question the Horns partly suffered this season due to some rotten luck, but there's no question that this season represented a failure by Barnes to maximize this group's potential. Even with Taylor's injury, even competing in such a loaded Big 12, an 8-10 conference record, four losses on our home floor, and a sweaty Selection Sunday followed by a one-and-done exit is an unequivocal failure for this group of players.

At the end of the day, that failure reinforces the one big concern I and many others had and have about Barnes: his ability to guide a talented team to its top-end potential. Barnes could earn passing marks in every other respect and it would all be undermined by failure in this one critical regard. I don't care that he had a throw-away year in 2012-13 that ended with no NCAA Tournament bid -- that happens to everyone, including the best of the best. I don't care that sometimes an unexpected run of early departures to the pros means some rebuilding seasons without Final Four upside. What I do care about is that when the stars do align, Barnes is ready and able to capitalize on the opportunity.

And that's where Barnes has lost this fan base. Even among those who appreciate all his strengths and are understanding of the ups-and-downs inherent to the sport, the support for Barnes is not unconditional. Indeed, if there is only one condition, that is it: be able to make the most of your best opportunities.

This season, Rick Barnes and Texas had the best opportunity in six years to have a season that positioned us to contend for a run at the Final Four. Instead we battled with other teams to avoid playing among the First Four. The team too often looked tight -- like a team that was thinking too much instead of playing. We saw players handicapped by a tinge of hesitation, which is all it takes to have a devastating impact on performance. We saw a team that struggled with shot selection and was utterly crippled by turnovers.  We saw a group of players who struggled to get in sync with each other, and struggled to close out tight games. We saw a coach struggle to combat these problems, and it's not the first time.

That, in the end, is what cost Barnes the support of the fan base, and may well cost him his job as the head coach at Texas.

It's been a damn good run, but if there's no way to make a run at the top, it's time we parted ways.

And with that, I hand this over to the gallery. Thanks for reading all these years, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments below. Are you ready to replace Barnes? Would you consider giving him one more year? And assuming you're ready to make the move now, who's your guy to bring in?

Notes

1 I've always viewed Tucker as a basketball freak -- an exceptionally talented mutant-savant with Go-Go Gadget arms, butter-soft suction cups for hands, uncanny anticipation on defense, and off-the-charts natural basketball intelligence -- who because of his Tweener size (just 6'6" tall) was criminally underrated -- a view I'm glad to say has been validated by the success he's had since the Phoenix Suns decided to give him an extended second look a couple years ago. As of March 20th, Tucker has played in 65 of the Suns' 69 games on the season, including 50 games in the starting line up. He's averaging 8.9 points, 6.4 boards, and 1.3 steals per game on the season, which includes an astounding three games with 5 steals just since January 31st. And for my case in point, see this article about Tucker's critical role in the Suns' victory over James Harden and the Rockets this past Saturday night.

2 For better or worse, I'm okay with this. Make of that what you will.

3 Truth be told, I would advocate for Texas replacing my own father if I thought it was the best thing for the program to do. Barnes will land on his feet just fine if he's let go, and I'm not one of those who favors "legacy stays" for coaches whose past successes are not presently sustained.

4 Those who think the decision is clear cut and have no use for a critical and nuanced analysis of the decision can stop here. We may disagree about whether Texas should have done this sooner, but that's water under the bridge. On the question of what Steve Patterson should do right now? We agree: it's time to retire the Rick Barnes era.

5 Penders was half right: one of the teams in the 49ers' December 1989 victory over Texas in Austin proved to be a darkhorse contender for the Final Four, but it wasn't Long Beach State, who wound up finishing 4th in the Big West and didn't make the Tourney. It was Texas, who snuck into the NCAA Tournament as a #10 seed after winning six straight down the stretch of the regular season before making an improbable run to the Midwest Regional Final, where they narrowly lost an all-time classic NCAA Tournament battle with Arkansas, the eventual national champs.

6 See here for a more complete explanation of Performance Against Seed Expectations (PASE), including a chart of the number of expected wins for each seed.