Basketball

Better Players, Worse Teams

Over the past decade, the overall

talent on Rick Barnes’ rosters has trended up while the on-court

performance of his teams has trended down. So why has better players

made for worse basketball teams?
The 2012 recruiting class was ranked

No. 4 in the nation by ESPN.com. The six-man group included four

players ranked in the top 100 in the country, with center Cameron

Ridley leading the way. It was Barnes’ fourth-straight top ten

recruiting class, with three of those classes ranked in the top five nationally.

The 2011-2012 season ended with a loss

in the first round to Cincinnati. In each of the last four seasons,

the Longhorns’ NCAA Tournament has ended in the first or second

round.

[In an attempt to avoid confusion, I’m

still going to refer to the first round the Longhorns played in as

the “first round,” even though technically it is titled the

“second round” by the NCAA, as the play-in games are now called

the “first round.”]

Four consecutive years of top ten

recruiting classes and four consecutive years of early exits. The

contrast is gets even more stark when we look at the preceding years.

The four years previous to that saw two Elite Eight appearances. The

four years previous to that included three Sweet 16 appearances and a

Final Four.

On the whole, we’ve seen a steady

increase in the quality of players and a steady decrease in the

quality of teams. What is the cause of this apparent disparity?

The “one and dones” are obviously a

factor. The better the player, the more likely he is to declare for

the NBA early and the Longhorns have certainly produced more than

their fair share of high draft picks in recent years. But with Barnes’ recruiting classes being so consistently stellar, there are always

great players ready to replace the departed.

Back in April, Kentucky won a national

championship with three freshman and two sophomore starters on a team

that had lost four players to the NBA draft the season before. The

lack of development due to “one and done” hasn’t prevented

inexperienced teams from winning championships.

Much like Kentucky in 2012, the

Longhorns had a freshman-heavy team in 2007. But though the roster

included one of the greatest players on the planet, the team was

unable to make it past the second round. Kevin Durant’s

accomplishments the next season as a rookie showed that development

was not an issue for the star forward. Yet without him, the Longhorns

went to the Elite Eight the next season.

They did so because, though they lost

Durant, the Horns still had D.J. Augustin. It was a speedy,

tenacious, driving NBA point guard surrounded by a strong set of

experienced role players such as Damion James, A.J. Abrams, Connor

Atchley, Justin Mason, Gary Johnson and Dexter Pittman. It was

reminiscent of 2003, the Longhorns’ only trip to the Final Four. A

speedy, tenacious, driving NBA point guard – T.J. Ford – was surrounded by a strong set of experienced role players – Royal

Ivey, James Thomas, Brandon Mouton, Brian Boddicker, Brad Buckman and

Sydmill Harris.

Due to the nature of Rick Barnes’

offensive system, only this arrangement of players has resulted in

consistent success. But there is a disconnect between the players he

recruits and the system he runs. His recruiting classes are highly

ranked because he targets top overall talent from across the country. But if a team’s goal is simply to amass top talent, the coach must be flexible

with his system and run the most appropriate offense and defense

based on the players at hand, much like Kentucky or North Carolina or

Kansas.

Rick Barnes is not. As a result, his

teams were actually better when he wasn’t able to pull in the best

players. But now there is a disconnect between the players recruited

and the system they’re asked to execute.

With the disarray of the 2012-2013

Texas Longhorns, it is apparent that Myck Kabongo’s presence is

absolutely required. But Kabongo is still sitting out, waiting on the

NCAA to rule on whether he acquired an agent and was honest with

investigators back in May.

“I haven’t heard anything,” Barnes

said Monday. “…if we don’t hear something in the next couple days

it’s frustrating, disappointing, whatever word you want to put on

it.”

A couple days have passed. Still no

word on Kabongo.

If Kabongo is ruled ineligible, or if

the investigation continues to drag, then the adjustment is…shrug? More

of this?

I do not doubt of the talent of Ridley and his fellow highly-touted teammates. But, as we’ve seen in

the past, talent alone is not sufficient. In fact, under Rick Barnes,

the more talented the Horns have gotten, the worse they’ve played.