Let’s call it the Rick Barnes factor.
Texas features the nation’s most efficient defense, a supremely talented scorer in Jordan Hamilton and one of the nation’s most underrated interior players in Tristan Thompson. The ‘Horns are talented, deep and capable of winning it all.
Yet they’re behind Kentucky and tied with San Diego State as the 10th most popular title contender right now. Hardly what I’d expect from a team fourth in on kenpom.com and seventh on Sagarin,
What’s dissuading people from picking Texas? I’d guess it’s the Rick Barnes factor.
Few coaches earn more disdain than Barnes, who’s 151-57 in 13 seasons at Texas, has claimed three Big 12 titles and made the 2003 Final Four. At issue? His middling 17-12 NCAA tournament record at UT despite ample talent in Austin.
He’s had two national players of the year (T.J. Ford and Kevin Durant) and four top-10 draft picks in the last seven years. Only UConn’s Jim Calhoun has had more in that time. (Roy Williams has coached more lottery picks, though.) In all, he’s coached seven first-round picks and six second-round picks.
See why people might be leery of picking Texas? The perception is Barnes can’t win when it matters most.
This isn’t new, either.
It was loudest after the 2007 tournament when the ‘Horns, led by Durant and D.J. Augustin and seeded as a 4, fell to USC in the second round. Barnes’ in-game coaching was questioned by Bill Simmons, which was more than enough to create a lasting impression. Nevermind USC had NBA talent on its roster and was seeded fifth. Talent should be enough, right?
It lasted through 2008 – despite Texas winning 31 games, sharing the Big 12 title with Kansas and reaching the Elite Eight only to lose to runner-up Memphis – 2009 and got worse in 2010 when Texas was 17-0 and atop the rankings, then bottomed out to 24-10 overall and a first-round NCAA tournament exit.
It’s emerged again this season, most notably during Texas’ late February issues. As Texas enters the Big Dance, Barnes is undoubtedly the coach with the most pressure on him to win. But he doesn’t sound worried. From Jason King’s Yahoo! Sports column:
The more Texas loses, the more fans respond with their here-we-go-again tweets and remarks on message boards. At times the only person who doesn’t seem worried is Barnes, who said this team doesn’t have the same chemistry issues that plagued a 2009-10 squad that featured Damion James, Dexter Pittman and Avery Bradley.
“This team has been pretty resilient,” Barnes said. “I’ve had teams like the one last year where, at this time of the year, it wasn’t in a good place. I’ve had other teams that weren’t in a good place that went out and won a game and got on a roll. You just never know what’s going to happen.”
Barnes has his defenders, both in the media and among fans. But perhaps the most telling aspect of him is the respect he has from former players. Durant speaks so highly of his former coach, it’s no wonder Barnes has no trouble keeping the recruiting pipeline to Austin flowing with talent.
“He treats you more like a father treats a son,” Durant told the Daily Oklahoman . “He complimented us but never gave us too many compliments. He pushed us to our limit. He gets the most out of players. As a player you really respect a person like that.
“Ask any of the guys in the NBA, guys like myself, Royal Ivey, T.J. Ford, LaMarcus Aldridge or D.J. Augustin, and they’ll tell you he’s like a dad away from home.”
As long as he keeps bringing in those players, Barnes will keep winning. His teams are too talented not to. If with that talent, it’s only a matter of time before he eventually wins a title. He just needs the right combination of talent and luck in the tournament. (One or two breaks and Texas beats LSU for a Final Four berth in 2006. Would it be such a leap that a team with LaMarcus Aldridge, Daniel Gibson and P.J. Tucker could’ve beaten Florida?)
Until then, people will shy away from Barnes’ teams, no matter how well they’ve played. Word to the wise: don’t wait too long.
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