For a coach that started the season destined for the unemployment line to early leader for National Coach of the Year, Rick Barnes has turned the Texas basketball program almost completely around. Again.
When Texas Athletic Director Steve Patterson was hired last December, much of his to-do list was to evaluate the head coaches in the three major sports - football, basketball, and baseball.
All had similar success and all had familiar falls. For basketball, it seemed to be the bottom. From a No.1 ranking in the Top 25 poll in 2010 to missing the NCAA tournament for the first time in 17 years in 2013, hoops had fallen on the worst of times. To add insult to injury, a schizm developed throughout the team, a cancer in which it sucked the life out of the program. And everyone blamed Rick Barnes.
They say he was too content, that he quit working on the recruiting trail. He landed too many 1-and-done players. It certainly didn't help that the neighbors up I-35, Scott Drew and Baylor, were quietly building a legitimate roster with NBA talent.
When Texas lost six players in the offseason, 10 in the last two years, it looked bleak. A team that lacked playmakers and depth was being depleted even more. And I admit, when Papatraeu signed overseas, I too predicted another season in the cellar of an already loaded Big 12 for 2013-14.
Two juniors. Six sophomores. Six freshman. No go-to scorer. No proven point guard. A team that didn't seem to like basketball just six months before. How could any rational basketball novice pick Texas to finish over .500??
Barnes had become the villain. He was known to clash with certain players, trying to prove points during games, such as altering rotations and immediately benching the player if he deemed righteous. There was no harmony. He had taken the Texas program to heights it hadn't seen in half a century. For a guy that started out as a hero for the Longhorns, Barnes suddenly became the 'bad guy' in his own movie.
Barnes said after UT's big win over Kansas last Saturday, "I've told our team for a long time, 'We're a good team.' They like each other. They want to win. There's not a selfish guy in the group. They have invested in each other."
They defeated four consecutive Top 25 opponents during the middle stretch of Big 12 play. The effort is there. The toughness is evident. And the mind games are gone.
"Whenever he can have a team he can actually coach," Texas junior Jonathan Holmes says, "rather than seeing where everyone's head is every day, he can actually do his job instead of trying to be a therapist."
The players deserve credit too.
Holmes has become Mr. Consistency. Ridley could be the poster child for Weight Watchers. Ibeh now understands his limitations with the ball. And a freshman from California, Isaiah Taylor, might be the Big 12 newcomer of the year.
Since suffering the worse loss of the year, 74-57 to Kansas State on Saturday, Barnes' squad turned in their best performance of the year in an 87-68 win over Oklahoma State on Tuesday without leading scorer, Jonathan Holmes. By winning their 8th Big 12 game, they surpassed their entire conference win total from 2013 (7). Texas scored a season-high 54 points in the first half. Talk about shaking off a bad day. I don't think this team recovers that fast last season. It's a different mentality this year, a stronger resolve.
The scoring is up 11 points per game (76.5) compared to last year. The rebounding margin is almost eight boards more per night from last season.
For Barnes and the Longhorns, this season has already yielded profits from its investments. This team is incredibly young, with much to build on for 2015 and beyond. And this time, Barnes gets to play the 'good guy', a role that's certainly more suitable.