State of the Program

Texas team huddle. (Will Gallagher/IT)
Texas team huddle. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Preseason Hoops Post #1: State of the Program
While pinpointing fragments of time is an arduous task when attempting to place value on the most important events in a history, looking back at Texas basketball over the last 20 years, it’s easy to pick out some key dates. In this case, we’ll look at them in sets of two.

March 8, 1998 – Four Texas basketball players, Austin Westlake standout forward Luke Axtell among them, complain to then AD DeLoss Dodds about the state of the program under former coach Tom Penders. Penders is fired less than a month later.

April 12, 1998 – Dodds decides to offer the job to Clemson head coach Rick Barnes. Barnes has just come off four consecutive winning seasons at Clemson (including a Sweet Sixteen run in 1997) and has a reputation as a fiery (fighting with Dean Smith in the middle of a game), defensive coach (with an average points against ranking of 18th in the country during his time at Clemson) who was believed to be an up and comer in the profession.

Breakdown: In a world of polarity, Barnes appeared to be the antithesis of Penders. Where Penders relied on pace of play and a barrage of three pointers at opponents, Barnes wanted to break the will of his opponents by beating them into submission on the defensive end and on the glass. Both coaches put a high emphasis on athleticism and individual offensive ability, but their stylistic differences really couldn’t have been more stark.

Aftermath: Was Rick the right man for the job? Yes, arguably. Texas had an excellent coach in Abe Lemons, and a pretty darn good one in Penders, but both had fatal flaws which prompted their ultimate UT demise (Abe an emotional inability to get over the hump with a team that appeared snake bit year after year…Penders a likable narcissist who wasn’t able to handle the egos of the newly excellent recruits he was able to attract after an Elite Eight and Sweet Sixteen run).

Barnes’ pure basketball acumen is what it is, but there is zero doubt that however high the aspirations might be for Texas basketball, Barnes was either directly responsible for them or played arguably the strongest hand in getting them to that point.

November 17, 1999 – Texas signs a five person recruiting class highlighted by McDonald’s All-American Brian Boddiker (Duncanville, TX) that also includes top 100 recruits James Thomas (Schenectady, NY) and Brandon Mouton (Slidell, LA), as well as sleepers Royal Ivey (New York, NY) and Jazon Klotz (Klein, TX).

March 16, 2001 – A five seed, Texas (led by senior guard Darren Kelly and juniors guard Maurice Evans and forward Chris Owens) drop a first round game to 12 seed Temple, 79-65. The loss is compounded later that spring when the Longhorns lost Kelly (to eligibility expiration) and Maurice Evans (to early entry to the draft).

Breakdown: While TJ Ford gets much of the credit for starting off the Texas Basketball Revolution, the recruiting class of Ivey, Boddiker, Thomas and Mouton (less so Klotz who redshirted and didn’t make a huge impact until the 03-04 and 04-05 seasons) made up the heart and soul of what would ultimately be the most decorated Texas basketball class to date. Barnes loves Ford, but he knows that the foundation was laid with that 2000 class.

Aftermath: The caveat that applies to most all of Barnes’ teams, however, also applies to that 2000 class…how does a Barnes squad function without a top flight point guard? That year, with Ivey leading the team from the 1, they got embarrassed by Temple as Ivey struggled to get Evans the kind of open looks the Longhorns needed from him (Evans shot 1-9 from three that day, so the blame should spread around, but Temple played its normal, hard nosed defense and Texas had nobody to deal with it from a playmaking standpoint).

Begging the question…who is Barnes without that top flight point guard?

July 16, 2000 – Texas gains a commitment from national top point guard recruit, TJ Ford (Willowridge, TX). Ford was a part of one of the best high school teams, arguably ever though, certainly ever in Texas – which included four other D1 recruits (Ivan McFarlin – Oklahoma State, Daniel Ewing – Duke, Kenny Taylor – Baylor [then Texas], and Curtis Walker (had D1 offers but not the grades). He was being recruited by most of the top programs in the country and ultimately chose Texas over Louisville.

November 17, 2001 – Two years to the day after signing the Ivey-Boddiker-Mouton-Thomas-Klotz class, Texas squared off against preseason #1 ranked (and eventual National Runner-up) Arizona. While the Longhorns dropped that game, TJ Ford set a national record for freshman by pumping out 14 assists in the loss.

Breakdown: All of a sudden, Barnes had his point guard, and Texas never really looked back. That same year, they were gifted a de facto second round home game as the 6 seed over 3 seed Mississippi State by playing that game in Dallas. They would win and qualify for the first of Barnes’ three straight (and four in five years) Sweet Sixteen.

Aftermath: Like anything, there would be good and bad. Chris Owens was hurt that 2001-02 season, which hurt. The Longhorns also felt the sting of missing out on would-be senior Maurice Evans and his shooting/scoring prowess (Barnes can’t convince them to stay, anyone? Mmkay.) Of course there would be many more positives over the next five years…

A 2006 Elite Eight…Lamarcus Aldridge…PJ Tucker…Kevin Durant…a 2008 Elite Eight

There also would be some negatives…

That now senior laden group of Ivey, Mouton, Thomas and Boddiker would fall to 7 seed Xavier in the Sweet Sixteen in the ’04 tournament (Ivey being outplayed by his Minuteman counterpart, Lionel Chalmers, in the process)…the 04-05 season was derailed after an Aldridge injury and Tucker’s academic woes landed him at a JUCO…a freshman Kevin Durant led team was blasted in the second round by 5 seed USC, prompting some national pundits to call Barnes the most overrated coach in the country.

All of this you’ve all heard before…and lived through…blur…

September 17, 2008 – Combo guard Avery Bradley commits to the Longhorns. At the time, Bradley only scratching the surface of his eventual ranking/self as he would eventually become ESPNU’s #1 overall player. It all made sense. Texas had just come off their third Elite Eight in five years and still had players like Damion James, AJ Abrams and Dexter Pittman around as holdovers. Bradley’s signing was followed soon after by fellow top recruits J’Covan Brown, Jordan Hamilton and Shawn Williams. Between the four of them, you had two 5 stars (Bradley and Hamilton), a 4-star with 5-star moxie (Brown) and the son of a prominent Dallas area AAU coach (Williams). This was surely the type of guard/wing play we would need to get over the hump and finally get back to the Final Four.

March 11, 2010 – Texas had just lost to Baylor in the quarterfinals of the Big 12 tournament. Its ninth loss in 16 games. It was also the third time Texas had lost to the Bears that season. They also lost at A&M, a once dominant run over other Texas programs now a shadow of its former self. Of course, Texas would also lose the next game (as an eight seed against nine seed Wake Forest in the NCAA tournament), culminating a season that had once looked so promising as it included the program’s first ever #1 ranking.

Breakdown: Of those highly recruited guards and wings, only Bradley was entrusted with consistent, significant minutes (30 per game). Brown averaged 21 but saw them peak and valley as the season continued. Hamilton’ averaged 19 and was even more rollercoastery (good Lord…sorry about that). Williams’ minutes were so ragged that he transferred to SMU.

Aftermath: You know who did get consistent minutes that year? Dogus Balbay. And Justin Mason. And Gary Johnson.

Now, any of those players’ minutes are justifiable given the right circumstances, but they were not/are not comparable talents to Hamilton or J’Covan. Not even close, really. Yet, when push came to shove, Barnes shoved his own ass out the door faster than his players were willing to pull him back in. Avery Bradley left after the season. Damion James and Dexter Pittman got NBA looks but neither left Texas fulfilling the promise they had so hoped they could achieve after their Elite Eight sophomore season. And a once proud program was only beginning a fall to the utter despair that was soon to follow.

January 22, 2011 – Somewhat shockingly (depending on whom you asked, I suppose), the Longhorns took very little time to instill more hope to the program. By the middle of the next season, Texas did the unthinkable by marching into Lawrence, Kansas and knocking off the touted Jayhawks in Allen Fieldhouse. Texas would win their next seven straight games (bring their consecutive win streak to 11) and boasting a 23-3 record to go along with a #2 ranking in the country.

March 20, 2011 – ****. Jordan Hamilton calls timeout. Corey Joseph gets a five-second call on the ensuing inbounds. Hamilton fouls Derrick Williams (who converts the basket for a three point play). And J’Covan Brown misses the shot as time expires on the Longhorns in the second round of the tournament.

UT's Prince Ibeh contests the KSU shot. (Will Gallagher/IT)
UT’s Prince Ibeh contests the KSU shot. (Will Gallagher/IT)

Breakdown: And, then, Jordan Hamilton declared for the draft…and Corey Joseph…and Tristan Thompson…and the Longhorns were left with, essentially, J’Covan Brown, Clint Chapman, Alexis Wangmene and a bunch of freshmen. Gone was Kevin Durant. Gone was DJ Augustin; Damion James; AJ Abrams; Avery Bradley; Tristan Thompson; Jordan Hamilton; Dexter Pittman; and all Texas had to show for it was an Elite Eight and a bunch of heartache.

Aftermath: Texas clawed their way to a respectable 2011-12 season behind some excellent play from J’Covan Brown and Clint Chapman. Still, none of the freshmen guards (Myck Kabongo, Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis) came through with the types of seasons many had hoped for.

Then 2012-13 happened. Then losing to Chaminade happened. And a 16-18 record. And Kabongo leaving for the pros and McClellan and Lewis leaving for greener pastures (Miami and Fresno State, respectively). The outlook for 2014-15 was bleak. BLEAK. And the hopes of Longhorndom were tied to what appeared to be a lame duck coach under a brand new Athletic Director whom had just fired one of the more successful coaches in the history of college football (let alone the state of Texas and UT).

Surely Barnes was done, right? Surely he couldn’t get back on his game after this, right?

January 4, 2013 – Little known point guard Isaiah Taylor (a Houston transplant via Oakland, CA) commits to the Longhorns. At the time, what people really wondered was whether or not he would ever be coached by the man he was committing to.

January 25, 2014 – Led by that same little known point guard, Texas wins their fourth straight game against a ranked opponent by defeating Baylor in Waco. Taylor, for his part, had arguably his best game of the season (27 points, 3 assists, 3 steals, 1 rebound).The Longhorns climbed back into the top 25, earned a 7 seed in the NCAA tournament, beat Arizona State for their first win in the tournament since 2011 and laid the foundation for what could prove to be Barnes’ best, most complete team he’s ever had since being on the 40 acres.

Breakdown: There’s no doubt about it, much of the belief in this program revolves around Taylor and what having a true, high level point guard can mean for Texas basketball under Rick Barnes.

Royal Ivey is the point guard? We get blown out by Temple in the first round. TJ Ford takes over the reins of that same team? We’re two points away from an Elite Eight run.

DJ Augustin is the point guard? We bust our way into the Elite Eight. Justin Mason and Dogus Balbay split the point guard minutes? We struggle past a weak Minnesota team and to an overrated Duke squad.

Javan Felix is the point guard? We fumble our way to a 10-13 record (before Kabongo returns). Taylor takes over? We are 24-10 and only six points behind Big Ten champion Michigan with three minutes to play in the second round of the tournament.

Aftermath: Well, happily for Texas, Myles Turner was the aftermath. And nobody left early or transferred out, which is nice…

So what?

Is the state of the program strong?

That’s hard to tell. We are an injury to Isaiah Taylor away from being a team with zero point guard depth and little point guard quality (unless Yancy were able to step up and be a difference maker, which is a sizeable if). We finally have a full allotment of 13 scholarship players (hasn’t happened since 09-10), which is good, but we lead for less recruits (arguably one) than we have reason to believe might leave (as many as four). All signs still point to Demarcus Holland starting over more talented offensive players such as Martez Walker or Damarcus Croaker. Barnes still has his pet player that most fans might be happy to see on the bench (Javan Felix).

All that said, we should be good. Damn good. With the chance at being really, pretty ****ing good if things fall together.

No team in the country will defend the basket like we can. No team in the country should be able to rebound like we can. Few teams in the country will have our quality depth should we all stay healthy. Few teams in the country have our considerable talent, top to bottom, as a complete team.

A national championship should be a legitimate possibility.

That said, it should have been one in 2009-10, and we dropped 10 of our last 17 games. It should have been that way in 2010-11 and we dropped three of our last five regular season games and then crapped the bed against Arizona.

I think even an adequate coach should be able to take this team (with the combined talent, work ethic and demeanor we’ve seen from them) to the Elite Eight. But are we a 30 minute game of Demarcus Holland providing 2 points, 2 rebounds, 1 assist and 1 steal away from bowing out in the first weekend of the tournament?

Barnes had a chance at a career defining season in 2009-10 and it was arguably his worst season in his 27 seasons as the head guy on the bench.

The state of the program is strong, but only as strong as Rick will ultimately allow it to be.

Go get ‘em, Rick. Or, kindly, get the hell out of here.