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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.”

Player of the Week: James Blackmon Jr., Indiana

BLOOMINGTON, IN - JANUARY 21:  James Blackmon Jr. #1 of the Indiana Hoosiers attempts a shot over Alvin Ellis III #3 of the Michigan State Spartans in the first half at Assembly Hall on January 21, 2017 in Bloomington, Indiana. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)
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This could have been the week where Indiana’s season collapsed.

On Wednesday night, O.G. Anunoby, who is arguably the most irreplaceable player on the Hoosier roster, injured his knee badly enough that he will need surgery and miss the rest of the season. The injury happened in the first half of a game against Penn State. Tom Crean said after the game that the team was crying in the locker room at half time.

The Hoosiers then proceeded to blow a big lead to the Nittany Lions, allowing Penn State to draw even in the final minute of regulation. That’s when Blackmon stepped up. The Hoosier star buried a three at the buzzer to give Indiana the win; a loss in that game could have been the kind of thing that sent Indiana’s season spiraling. The shot wasn’t a morale booster as much as it was a morale saver.

On Saturday, Indiana put together one of their best games of the season despite the fact that they were without Anunoby and Juwan Morgan, who was dealing with a foot injury that has now kept him out of back-to-back games. Blackmon, again, was the star, matching a career-high with 33 points.

Suddenly, Indiana has won four of their last five games and are sitting at 4-3 in the Big Ten standings, just two games out of first place.

In the long term, I don’t know if Indiana is going to be able to play at the level Hoosier fans expect without Anunoby. But in the short term, Saturday was an impressive win in a trying week, and it was Blackmon who stepped up to lead with the Hoosiers needed it the most.

THEY WERE GOOD, TOO

  • Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Markkanen, as he has all season long, starred for the Wildcats this weekend, helping No. 14 Arizona keep pace with Oregon at the top of the Pac-12 standings. The Wildcats swept the road leg against the LA schools, as Markkanen went for 23 points in a win over USC and followed that up with 18 points and seven boards in the big win over UCLA.
  • Jonathan Isaac, Florida State: The Seminoles had a massive week, and Isaac was the best player on the floor in both of their wins. Against Notre Dame, Isaac had 15 of his 23 points in the second half, adding 10 boards and a pair of game-saving blocks in the final second, and he followed that up with 16 points and 10 boards as Florida State knocked off Louisville.
  • Ethan Happ, Wisconsin: Happ was pretty good in Wisconsin’s win over Michigan, but he was sensational as the Badgers went into Minneapolis and beat Minnesota in overtime, finishing with 28 points, 12 boards, six assists and five blocks. No one had put up a stat line like that since at least 2010.
  • Marcus Keene, Central Michigan: Keene became the first player since South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters in 2013 to go for 50 points in a game, scoring 39 of the 50 in the second half of a win over Miami (OH).
  • Shake Milton, SMU: SMU is quietly rolling along at 17-4, a two-point loss at Cincinnati away from being undefeated in the AAC. The Mustangs picked up a pair of wins this week as Milton averaged 25 points, 5.5 assists and 5.0 boards.

No. 22 Xavier pulls away to 86-75 win over Georgetown

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 20:  Edmond Sumner #4 of the Xavier Musketeers reacts after a play in the first half against the Wisconsin Badgers during the second round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 20, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
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CINCINNATI — Edmond Sumner overcame a painful left shoulder and led a second-half surge that swept No. 22 Xavier to an 86-75 victory over Georgetown on Sunday, ending the Musketeers’ longest losing streak in three years.

Xavier (14-5, 4-3) had dropped three straight — all against ranked Big East teams. The Musketeers allowed a 12-point lead to slip away in the second half on Sunday before their injured point guard frustrated the Hoyas (10-10, 1-6) again. Sumner had a career-high 28 points in an 81-76 win at Georgetown on Dec. 31.

Sumner wore a support on his injured left shoulder and sat on the bench grimacing late in the first half. He had a jumper, a three-point play and a pair of free throws during a 12-3 run that put Xavier in control 70-61. He finished with 14 points.

Trevon Bluiett led Xavier with 24 points. J.P. Macura added 20.

Rodney Pryor scored 23 for Georgetown, which lost for the sixth time in seven games.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Xavier dropped from 15th to 22nd last week after road losses to Villanova and Butler. A home loss to Creighton on Monday put Xavier in danger of dropping out of the Top 25.

BIG PICTURE

GEORGETOWN: Junior guard L.J. Peak scored 21 points and had six rebounds in the loss to Xavier on Dec. 31, keeping the Hoyas in the game with clutch shots down the stretch. The Musketeers clamped down in the rematch — he was only 3 of 12 for 12 points.

XAVIER: Free throws again were an issue early. Missed free throws were a major factor in the Musketeers’ 72-67 loss to Creighton on Monday, when they went only 16 of 29 from the line. They drove to the basket and drew fouls on Sunday but were only 12 of 19 from the line in the first half, which ended with Xavier up 34-33. The Musketeers finished 36 of 49 from the line overall.

UP NEXT

The Hoyas host No. 7 Creighton on Wednesday. They split their series last season, with each winning at home.

The Musketeers play at crosstown rival Cincinnati, which is ranked No. 20. Xavier has won three in a row and seven of the last nine in the annual game.

VIDEO: Watch Marcus Keene score all 50 of his points

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Marcus Keene, the nation’s leading scorer at 29.8 points, went for 50 yesterday, the first time in four years a college player has done that.

WATCH LIVE: Atlantic 10 basketball Sunday on NBCSN

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 13: A detailed view of a Spalding basketball during a quarterfinal game between the Davidson Wildcats and La Salle Explorers in the 2015 Men's Atlantic 10 Basketball Tournament at the Barclays Center on March 13, 2015 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images)
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The Atlantic 10 invades NBCSN and the NBC Sports app on Sunday.

It begins at 2:00 p.m. with La Salle at VCU. Both of these teams are fighting for first place in the Atlantic 10 standings as the Explorers sit at 5-1 in league play and the Rams are at 4-2.

CLICK HERE to watch the Atlantic 10 on NBCSN

No. 6 Baylor uses late spurt for 62-53 victory at TCU

Baylor forward Johnathan Motley (5) reacts to a play against Texas in first half of an NCAA college basketball game, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017, in Waco, Texas. Baylor won 74-64. (Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune Herald via AP)
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FORT WORTH, Texas — Sixth-ranked Baylor and TCU kept trading the lead in the second half, with a 9 1/2-minute gap when neither team could muster consecutive scores.

Then the Bears finally closed out their 10th straight Big 12 victory over TCU since their instate rival joined the league four years ago.

Ishmail Wainright swished a go-ahead 3-pointer with 4:16 left, and there was then a TCU miss and more than a minute before Johnathan Motley’s layup for the Bears. Manu Lecomte added a layup to cap the 7-0 spurt that finally put Baylor (18-1, 6-1 Big 12) ahead to stay.

“This was typical of the Big 12. Hard-fought game, both teams playing extremely hard. The day after the game, it’s amazing how drained everybody is,” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “I hope fans enjoy it, because we’re worn out.”

There were five ties and 13 lead changes after halftime.

The partisan sellout crowd of 7,276 might not have enjoyed it as much, but the Horned Frogs (14-5, 3-4) have shown great progress in their first season under coach Jamie Dixon, the former TCU point guard.

While the Frogs have already won two more games than all of last season, Dixon feels like they have let their last two game slip away late.

“Obviously got some disappointed guys in that locker room, me included,” Dixon said. “Really thought we were here to win this game. … My feeling we were ready to win them, and we were prepared, and we did things right, did things necessary.”

Lecomte scored 17 points while Motley had 15 points and eight rebounds, along with a punctuating dunk in the final minute. That came soon after Lecomte’s alley-oop pass for a dunk by Jo Lual-Acuil, who finished with 11 points.

Vlad Brodziansky had 19 points and 10 rebounds for TCU, while Kenrich Williams had 16 points and 12 rebounds.

BIG PICTURE

Baylor: This is the first time the Bears have ever been 18-1 overall or 6-1 in the Big 12. They have won their last three games since losing in their first game after reaching No. 1 for the first time in school history.

TCU: Brodziansky and Williams didn’t get much help from the rest of their teammates. TCU shot 29 percent from the field (17 of 58) — Brodziansky and Williams were a combined 12-of-26 shooting; the rest of the team was 5-of-32. “We outrebounded them (38-37), we had lower turnovers (8-10), things we want to do,” Dixon said. “But simply put, the shooting percentages always stand out.”

COMING FROM BEHIND

Baylor is 6-1 this season when trailing at halftime, and has outscored its opponents by more than 10 points in those second halves. “Blessed to have great leadership from the upperclassmen. They don’t panic, they don’t rattle, they stay together,” Drew said. “And they believe in each other.”

TCU led only 24 seconds in the first half, but grabbed a 28-26 halftime lead on Williams’ 3-pointer with 7 seconds left. Baylor opened the second half with four straight layups.

CATCHING AIR

When asked about Wainright’s go-ahead 3, Motley called it a “big shot. I air-balled one, Al (Freeman) too. The fans made sure they let us know. It didn’t matter, we just stayed aggressive, and my teammates trusted me to shoot again.”

UP NEXT

Baylor is home against Texas Tech on Wednesday before consecutive road games, including the SEC-Big 12 Challenge next Saturday at Ole Miss.

TCU plays its next two Big 12 games on the road, starting Monday at Oklahoma State. The Frogs then host Auburn before going to Kansas State.