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What a difference a year makes for Texas, Rick Barnes

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While Rick Barnes has won nearly 70 percent of the games in which he’s coached at the University of Texas, there had been the feeling in recent years that the program had underachieved. Given the importance of the month of March in college basketball, not going deep into the NCAA tournament on a consistent basis can be an issue when running a program that has (in the eyes of many) the resources needed to be a power player in the sport.

With Texas having missed the NCAA tournament in 2013 and making just one Sweet 16 appearance since 2006 (2008), it wasn’t too difficult to find those critical of what Barnes was doing in Austin. And with four members of the 2012-13 team transferring and two others turning pro, the 2013-14 campaign didn’t look all that promising from the outside.

As a result practically any preseason “hot seat” list included Barnes’ names, with the veteran coach ranking among the top names most likely to be in search of a new position at season’s end. And within the program, Barnes and his staff focused on what they could do to get the program headed in the right direction.

“When players come in and leave your program, obviously it goes back to the evaluation part of it,” Barnes said in an interview conducted in May 2013. “That’s the one thing I think we did as a staff a year ago [2012] with what will now be our sophomore class, we said we’re going to be really selective in terms of making sure we get the right kind of player to fit what we want at the University of Texas.

“The one thing was, we want guys who truly want to be at the University of Texas for all the right reasons,” Barnes continued. “We’ve never wanted someone not to pursue their dreams of playing in the NBA or whatever that may be. But while they’re here what we want is the University of Texas and our basketball program to be really important. And I feel like the energy in our program right now, this spring, is the best it had been in a couple years.”

Many scoffed at those words, seeing the fact that Texas’ top two returning scorers averaged 6.8 (Javan Felix) and 6.4 (Jonathan Holmes) points per game respectively. However Barnes’ words proved accurate in 2013-14, as the rejuvenated Longhorns won 24 games and returned to the NCAA tournament. Texas’ season may have ended in the Round of 32 at the hands of a talented Michigan squad, but the general feeling at the time was that this group chock full of rising sophomores and juniors was poised to take another step forward in 2014-15.

And then, earlier this week, five-star big man Myles Turner announced that he’ll be attending Texas next season. As a result expectations for Texas grew even more, with some even asking if the Longhorns have enough to not only contend with Kansas atop the Big 12 but possibly end the Jayhawks’ run of ten consecutive regular season conference titles.

To say the least, that’s quite the departure from where the Texas program was just a year ago. And while much of the credit will be bestowed upon Barnes and his staff (and rightfully so), those young players who weren’t expected to accomplish a whole lot in 2013-14 deserve praise as well.

Holmes (12.8 ppg, 7.2 rpg), who will be the team’s lone scholarship senior, doubled his scoring average and led the team in rebounding while also providing the veteran leadership the Longhorns needed throughout the season. And he had help in the front court, as Cameron Ridley took a significant step forward as a sophomore and both Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert solidified their spots in the rotation as well.

In the backcourt, the arrival of Isaiah Taylor and the improvement of Demarcus Holland alleviated some of the pressure that was on Felix’s shoulders in 2012-13. With Myck Kabongo suspended for most of that season Felix was asked to do a lot at the point, and the results were mixed. That changed this past season, resulting in both Felix and the team as a whole reaping the rewards. Texas hasn’t lost a single player from its rotation, and the addition of Turner gives the Longhorns a high-level talent who is expected to hit the ground running upon his arrival in Austin.

Whether it’s the people within the program or those on the outside, there’s a much better feeling regarding the state of Texas basketball this spring than there was in 2013. And for that Barnes can point to two important areas: he and his staff’s decision to pay closer attention to the commitment of those within the program, and the players’ willingness to push forward in the pursuit of a common goal.

With that being the case, Texas will move from being the “hunter” to the “hunted” in 2014-15. And in his comments following the season-ending loss to Michigan, it’s obvious that Barnes wouldn’t have it any other way.

“You go back, I can assure you this:  We were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 this year.  We won’t be picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 next year,” Barnes said. “I’m sure we’ll come out — I told them what’s going to be fun for you guys a year from now, you’re going to understand what it’s really like with the, what the Texas program has been built on, and the fact that next year we will be hunted. And that’s the way we’ve always liked it, and that’s why I really appreciate these guys.”

No. 1 Kentucky survives without Tyler Ulis in lineup

Tyler Ulis
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Less than a week after giving No. 2 Maryland all they could handle, Illinois State went into Lexington and gave No. 1 Kentucky fits.

The Redbirds never really threatened UK in the second half, but they went into the break tied and were within single digits down the stretch, eventually losing 75-63.

Kentucky was flustered. They turned the ball over 15 times compared to just eight assists, they shot 2-for-12 from three and just 29-for-46 (63 percent) from the charity stripe. They simply did not handle Illinois State’s pressure all that well.

And there was a reason for that.

Tyler Ulis didn’t play.

Sometimes it’s difficult to appreciate just what a player brings to a team until that player is not in the lineup, and that was precisely the case with Ulis on Monday night. It was crystal clear what he provides Kentucky. Beyond leadership and the ability to break a press without throwing the ball to the other team, he’s a calming presence. He doesn’t get rattled when a defender is harassing him and he doesn’t get overwhelmed by a situation like a mid-major threatening the No. 1 team in the country in their own gym.

He’s everything you look for in a pure point guard, and for as good as Jamal Murray and Isaiah Briscoe have looked at times this season, it should be crystal clear who the most important player on this Kentucky team is.

LSU loses to Charleston, eliminates at-large bid margin for error

Ben Simmons
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Ben Simmons scored 15 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, the second time in his six-game career that the LSU freshman has collected that many caroms, but that wasn’t enough for the Tigers to avoid dropping a game on the road to the College of Charleston, 70-58. It was the third straight loss for Simmons’ crew, as they fell to Marquette and N.C. State at the Legends Classic last week.

But here’s the thing: LSU didn’t just lose.

The game really wasn’t close.

LSU was down by as many as 23 points. It was 39-17 at the half, and that was after Charleston had a shot at the buzzer called off upon review. They made a bit of a run in the second half but never got closer than seven. When LSU would cut into the lead, the Cougars would respond with a run of their own, killing LSU’s spirit while keeping them at arm’s length.

[RELATED: Ben Simmons’ one college year a waste?]

Now, there are quite a few things here to discuss. For starters, LSU’s effort was, at best, apathetic, and, at worst, regular old pathetic. The team has a serious lack of leadership that was plainly evident on Monday night; would Fred VanVleet let his team fold against a program picked to finish at the bottom of the SoCon? Would Tyler Ulis? For that matter, would Tom Izzo or Mike Krzyzewski or John Calipari?

Perhaps more importantly, does any of that change when Keith Hornsby and Craig Victor get back?

Simmons did show off his potential — 18 boards, four assists, he even made his first three of the year — but he also showed precisely why there are scouts that are trying to curtail the LeBron James comparisons. Simmons was 4-for-15 from the floor with seven turnovers against a mediocre mid-major team. There are so many things that Simmons does well, but scoring efficiently — particularly in half court setting — and shooting the ball consistently are not on that list.

But here’s the biggest issue: LSU may have put themselves in a situation where they aren’t a tournament team. As of today, they’re 3-3 on the season with losses to a pair of teams that, at best, seem destined to be in the bubble conversation on Selection Sunday in addition to this loss to Charleston. The rest of their non-conference schedule is ugly. The only game worth noting is at home against No. 6 Oklahoma at the end of January.

The NCAA factors in non-conference schedule strength when determining at-large teams. You need to at least try, and LSU didn’t try; they have one of the worst non-conference schedules in the country.

The great thing about being in the SEC — as opposed to, say, the Missouri Valley — is that the Tigers will have plenty of chances to earn marquee wins. Six, by my court: Kentucky twice, Texas A&M twice, Vanderbilt on the road and Oklahoma at home. They probably need to win at least two or three of those games to have a real chance, and that’s assuming they can avoid anymore horrid losses in the process.

The season isn’t over six games in, not by any stretch of the imagination.

But LSU has done a hell of a job eliminating their margin for error.