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Is Rick Barnes Too Offensively Challenged To Win A Title?

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With the start of the basketball season, there is one question that is on the mind of Texas basketball fans.

Rick Barnes is probably tired of answering questions about his offense.
Rick Barnes is probably tired of answering questions about his offense.

"Rick Barnes isn’t an offensive coach, so don’t tell me that."

-- Bobby Knight, to Missouri coach Frank Haith (The Kansas City Star, 2012)

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What does it mean to be a good offensive basketball coach? Does it mean that the coach's team instinctively moves without the ball, with passes flipping effortlessly from player to player in an elegant manner? If so, then I would have to agree with Bobby Knight. Rick Barnes is not an offensive basketball coach, if that is how we define it. Neither is three time national champion Jim Calhoun, but we will get to that a little bit later.

Are elegance and player movement really the goals of an offense? Or is the point to score?

I have always felt that Rick Barnes' offense is better than his critics contend. Barnes' offense doesn't necessarily flow like some other coaches' offenses do, but when we focus on scoring and on results Barnes' offense looks pretty good. In this article, I compare Barnes' offensive results with those of several coaches who have recently won national championships. Additionally, I look at how the "offensive model" of Texas basketball under Rick Barnes compares with those of recent champions.

How do Rick Barnes' offensive ratings stack up against other coaches?

In the table below, I have presented Texas' adjusted offensive rankings from along side of those of several championship winning coaches. These rankings are based on points scored per possession, and are adjusted for the quality of the opposing defenses. Mike Krzyzewski, Bill Self, and Jim Calhoun are among the very best coaches in all of college basketball over the last decade. Each of these three coaches has won at least one championship in the last ten years. Krzyzewski's median offensive rank is 10.5, Self's is 15.5, Barnes' is 18, and Calhoun's is 20.5. Barnes has coached 4 top 10 offenses in the years covered by, which compares well with other coaches in the table below. Barnes has coached 5 top 20 offenses, which equals the number coached by Jim Calhoun, and is a few fewer than Self and Krzyzewski. Adjusted Offensive Rankings

Year Mike Krzyzewski Bill Self Jim Calhoun Rick Barnes
2012 11 19 43 31
2011 4 6 16 21
2010 1 2 89 25
2009 10 26 15 39
2008 11 2 17 3
2007 40 17 126 5
2006 5 38 3 4
2005 15 11 26 25
2004 2 23 4 15
2003 17 14* 24 3
Median 10.5 15.5 20.5 18
# in Top 10 5 3 2 4
# in Top 20 9 7 5 5

(* Bill Self coached at Illinois during the 2002-2003 season.)

Krzyzewski has clearly done better on offense than Rick Barnes. I don't think there is much point in debating this. I went into this exercise expecting that Self would also rank much higher than Barnes, but the difference is smaller than I had anticipated. Based on ratings, Barnes' offenses have performed better overall than Calhoun's offenses.

One thing that stands out in that table is that several of Calhoun's teams were nowhere near championship caliber on offense. Krzyzewski's worst offense was ranked No. 40; Self's worst offense was ranked No. 38; Barnes' worst offense was ranked No. 39. Calhoun coached teams ranked Nos. 43, 89, and 126 on offense.

To some extent, I cherry-picked the coaches in the table above, selecting coaches who, like Barnes, have defensive reputations that exceed their offensive reputations (I guess in the case of Bill Self, this point is arguable). I could have included an offensive-minded coach like Billy Donovan, who has coached 5 top 10 offenses and 8 top 20 offenses. Or I could have included Roy Williams, who has coached 7 top 10 offenses and 8 top 20 offenses.

Is Rick Barnes' offensive model suited to win a championship?

Despite having highly rated offenses, Barnes has a reputation as a poor offensive coach. I think this is for two reasons. One is aesthetic -- Barnes' offense tends to stagnate. This has improved some in the last season or two, but it is still a common criticism. The second criticism is that Barnes' teams often do not shoot for a particularly high percentage from the field.

I contend that Barnes' teams have generally more than made up for these deficiencies by avoiding turnovers and getting extra shots on the offensive glass. In a way, we might refer to this as Texas' offensive model. The Texas offensive model under Rick Barnes' has generally been to avoid turnovers and crash the offensive glass. The question now becomes, is the Texas offensive model suited to win a championship? In a previous post, I looked at the last ten NCAA champions, searching for common characteristics. Looking at recent NCAA champions, there have been three basic models for successful offense:

1. The Billy Donovan model. In this model, the team is so efficient at creating open shots and making them that they hardly need to excel at anything else on offense. Year after year, Donovan's teams shoot the crap out of the basketball. They primarily accomplish this by taking and making a large number of three point shots. This model is perhaps the hardest one to reproduce, as it requires almost historically great shooting performances, like what we saw from the 2006-2007 Gators. Frankly, not even Donovan's teams really work this way anymore. In recent seasons, Florida has reduced turnover rates to fairly low levels, which leaves them with a greater margin for error when it comes to shooting the ball.

2. The Roy Williams model. Combining high effective field goal percentage and a high offensive rebounding rate seems to be the most common model among recent NCAA champions. 4 out of the last 10 champions seemed to fit into this category. It is important to note that most of these teams also had pretty respectable turnover numbers -- it is really hard to score when you don't have the ball.

3. The Jim Calhoun/extra shots model. Earning extra shots by protecting the rock and crashing the glass is also a viable championship model. 2009 UNC, 2010 Duke, and 2011 UConn all fit this model to varying degrees.

Rick Barnes' best teams seem to follow the third model. His best teams create extra shot opportunities by getting offensive rebounds and protecting the basketball. Certainly raising eFG% by improving the offensive sets or getting out more in transition would help, but there is no doubt that it is possible to win a championship with the sort of offense played by Barnes' best teams.

I don't want to give the impression that I think Barnes' approach to offense has been ideal -- it has not. But it hasn't been fatally flawed, either. It has been somewhere in the middle, probably good enough, but not great.