To turn Texas around, Rick Barnes first needed to change the culture of his team

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Rick Barnes (AP Photo)

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we will be previewing the Big 12.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

In a vacuum, the 2013-14 season — a 24-11 record, a third-place finish in the Big 12, an ouster in the Round of 32 in the NCAA tournament — was not a banner year for Texas.

This is a program that had made the NCAA tournament in the first 14 years of Rick Barnes’ tenure in Austin. They’ve been to a Final Four. They’ve been to two other Elite 8s. They’ve sent players like T.J. Ford and Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge to the NBA. They’ve won the Big 12 regular season title three times since 1999.

But what made that season so special, what earned Barnes the Big 12 Coach of the Year award and made Texas one of the nation’s feel-good stories, was the fact that the program had hit rock bottom the year before.

Players were transferring out. Elite, in-state recruits were going to Houston and Baylor, not to mention the ACC and the SEC, instead of playing for the ‘Horns. Barnes looked like he needed to start updating his resume.

Texas enters this season as the No. 8 team in the NBCSports.com Preseason Top 25. Barnes has resurrected this Texas program, but to do that, he first had to fix the team’s culture.

MORE: NBCSports.com’s 2014-2015 Big 12 Preview

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source: AP
Johnathan Holmes (AP Photo)

Rick Barnes had just finished the worst season of his 15-year tenure at Texas, a campaign that culminated in a seventh-place finish in the Big 12, their 16-17 record bad enough that the Longhorns couldn’t even get invited to the NIT.

But instead of cutting his losses and getting on with figuring out how he was going to turn Texas back into a Final Four contender, Barnes made the decision to accept an invitation to the CBI, a third-tier postseason event that struggles to attract brand-name programs; Santa Clara beat George Mason in the finals the year Texas participated.

“I think every possible experience that we can put these guys in, whether it’s going on the road to play games, we need to do that,” Barnes said at the time. “And to be where we want to be, you have to be able to win anywhere.”

They didn’t win, and things got worse from there.

Texas lost to Houston in the first round of the CBI, a result that was hard to ignore as a harbinger of the power shift in the state of Texas. At the time, the Longhorns weren’t landing much of the elite talent coming out of the state. Houston has just brought in a recruiting class that included in-state products Danuel House and Chicken Knowles, a five-star and four-star recruit, respectively.

The season had been an unmitigated disaster. Barnes was about to face an offseason chock full of scrutiny and rumors that Buzz Williams or Shaka Smart or whoever would be coming for his job. He wasn’t recruiting the way that he had as recently as two seasons earlier. There was never a more obvious pick for a ‘Coaches on the Hot Seat’ list.

But oddly enough, it was that loss, combined with some lucky scheduling, that turned the program around.

“We played in the CBI, which was tough to do and tough to get up for, but we played,” senior forward Johnathan Holmes told NBCSports.com last week. “We lost to Houston in the first round, and the very next day, we came back and we had to go to the football facilities because the NCAA tournament was at the Erwin Center.”

Think about that.

Instead of playing in the NCAA tournament, the Longhorns were getting kicked out of their own facility to allow Austin to host the second and third rounds of the event.

It left a bitter taste in the mouth of everyone left on the roster.

“We started working out and made it very clear from that day on, we were just going to have each other’s backs,” Holmes said. “We instilled that and we matured. We didn’t look to put all the blame on each other and on the coach. We looked ourselves in the mirror. We grew up.”

Barnes reiterated the same sentiment.

“There definitely was a different agenda. That was for certain,” Barnes told NBCSports.com. “Last year, we had a group of guys that made their minds up themselves that it wasn’t going to be about them. It was going to be about the program. They wanted to win. That, in itself, is the biggest difference.”

While Barnes made sure to note “there wasn’t anything wrong with the kids that we had in the program” the year before, it’s hard not to read between the lines of what the coach and his player are saying. Some of the players that Texas parted ways with after the Houston loss were addition by subtraction.

source: Getty Images
Cameron Ridley, Getty Images

Myck Kabongo, the team’s star point guard, was suspended for the first 23 games of the season after the NCAA determined that Kabongo had lied during an investigation into how an offseason workout was paid for. Shelden McClellan was benched multiple times during his two seasons in Austin, eventually transferring to Miami once the season ended. Julien Lewis left for Fresno State after losing his spot in the starting lineup to Demarcus Holland. Ioannis Papapetrou went pro in Greece. Jaylen Bond transferred closer to his Philly home.

The players that were left were not as highly recruited or as intriguing to NBA teams, which played a major role in the speculation surrounding Barnes’ imminent firing. Holmes, Javan Felix and Demarcus Holland weren’t good enough. Cameron Ridley was too out of shape. Isaiah Taylor wasn’t going to have enough of an impact as freshmen.

And as much as the players — and the coaching staff — tried to ignore all the negativity, they couldn’t. The same people that predicted the program’s downfall grilled them with questions about those very predictions at every media availability.

“Anybody that is in that situation is aware of it because they’re asked about it, just like you’re talking about it now,” Barnes said, clearly still bitter about the way that his future was portrayed at this time last year. “I think it’s wrong when the media is putting out lists of guys on the hot seat. My thing is, what does that have to do with anything other than people want to speculate and make news?”

“A lot of times, the media’s writing things that aren’t always true,” he added. “I can only tell you that from within, not one time did my athletic director tell me [my job was in jeopardy]. Not one time.”

It was hard for the players not to take that speculation personally, as criticism of Barnes was an indirect shot at the ability of his players. He wasn’t expected to win because his players simply weren’t good enough.

“We heard all the noise,” Holmes said. “We heard everybody talking about it.”

The only thing they could do was to get to work.

As a visitor in the football team’s weight room.

“Definitely humbling, especially at a place like Texas,” Holmes said. “To be [Barnes’] first team not to make the tournament, it was a hard time for us.”

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The expectations for this Texas team are back in full force.

They’re being projected as a potential Final Four team. They’re the trendy pick to end Kansas’ reign atop the Big 12 standings. Taylor, Holmes and Ridley are all-Big 12 caliber players, while incoming freshman Myles Turner — a top ten prospect nationally that hails from Euless, Texas — may be the best prospect of them all, ensuring that Austin will once again be a mandatory stop for roving NBA scouts.

And Barnes’ job security?

It’s as solid as it has ever been, Barnes says.

And while he’s happy that he has this program back to where it should be — nationally relevant both in-season and on the recruiting trail — that’s not what he is most excited about with this team.

“These guys really energized us as a coaching staff, the kind of people they are and the attitude they bring,” Barnes said. “That’s exactly what we’re looking for.”

“There’s nothing better, as a coach, than to have a group of guys that care about each other and that want to win.”

Three Things To Know: Memphis embarrassed; Luka Garza shows out again

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The story of the night in hoops was Zion Williamson’s return to the basketball court.

But there was plenty of action in the college ranks that is worthy of talking about.

Here are the three things that you need to know:

1. No. 20 MEMPHIS LOST BY 40 TO TULSA

That is not a typo.

The 20th-ranked team in the country went into Tulsa, Okla., and lost to the Golden Hurricane, 80-40. Tulsa was up 40-17 at halftime. This was a butt-whooping that was so bad that all Tulsa needed to do was score a single point in the second half and they would have been able to get the win.

Memphis shot 28 percent from the floor. They were 2-for-21 from three. They finished the night with more turnovers (20) and fouls (22) than field goals (16). This was the worst loss that a top 25 team has suffered against a ranked team in 27 years, since UConn beat then-No. 12 Virginia by 41 points.

For Tulsa, this is a massive, massive win. They are currently sitting all alone in first place in the American standings, a half-game up on Houston.

So good for Frank Haith.

But the story here is Memphis, because the Tigers, considered title contenders before the season began, look anything-but right now.

“We let our defense dictate our offense,” head coach Penny Hardaway told reporters after the game. “We didn’t play any defense today. I think today was the first day we’ve done that ll year. I don’t know if guys overlooked Tulsa because of the name. We did our due diligence as a coaching staff to let them know what was going to happen with the matchup zone and how hard they play.

“It’s pretty embarrassing.”

2. LUKA GARZA WENT NUTS AGAIN

If it seems like Garza is putting up monster numbers every games, it’s because he is.

On Wednesday night, the Hawkeyes welcomed newly-ranked Rutgers to campus and sent them home with an entertaining, hard-fought, 85-80 win. And Garza was the star of the show. He finished with 28 points, 13 boards, four blocks and two steals in the win, anchoring the paint as Iowa out-scored Rutgers 47-37 in the second half.

The big fella is now averaging 23 points and 10.5 boards.

Iowa has now won four straight games to move into a tie for third in the Big Ten standings — with Rutgers, among others — and they have won eight straight games in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. They are a third of the way through a three-game homestand as well.

3. VIRGINIA TECH TAKES DOWN NORTH CAROLINA

Virginia Tech kept up their push to finish as the fourth-best team in the ACC with a 79-77 double-overtime win over North Carolina.

The Hokies are now 14-5 overall and 5-3 in the ACC, but the more interesting story might actually be the Tar Heels.

They are 8-10 on the season and 1-6 in the ACC. They have been a disaster for the last month, but there may be some reinforcements on the way in the shape of Cole Anthony. If he returns and the Tar Heels, who are 2-7 in his absence but have wins over Alabama and Oregon with him, get things back on the right track, they are likely going to find themselves in an incredibly awkward situation on Selection Sunday.

Big 12 hands down Kansas-Kansas State fight suspensions

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The Big 12 handed down suspensions to four Kansas and Kansas State players for their role in the fight that occurred in Phog Allen Fieldhouse on Tuesday night.

Silvio De Sousa, who tried to fight three different Kansas State players and picked up a stool during the melee, received a 12 game suspension from the conference. David McCormack, who went into the stands to confront James Love III, received a two game suspension. Love was given eight games for part in the fight, while Antonio Gordon, the freshman that turned a messy situation into a fight, was hit with a three game suspension.

“This kind of behavior cannot be tolerated and these suspensions reflect the severity of last evening’s events,” said Commissioner Bob Bowlsby.  “I am appreciative of the cooperation of both institutions in resolving this matter.”

In the final seconds on Tuesday night, after DaJuan Gordon stole the ball from him at halfcourt, De Sousa blocked Gordon’s shot and towered over him. That sparked an incident that turned into a full-fledged brawl, as De Sousa threw punches at three different players on Kansas State before picking up a stool as the fight spilled into the handicapped section of Kansas seating.

Self called the fight “an embarrassment” after the game, adding on Wednesday that “we are disappointed in [De Sousa’s] actions and there is no place in the game for that behavior.”

McCormack will be eligible to return for Kansas on Feb. 1st when they play Texas Tech at home. De Sousa will be available to play in the final game of the regular season at Texas Tech. Gordon can return on Feb. 3rd, when the Wildcats host Baylor, while Love will be out until late February. But he has played just one game and two minutes on the season, so there is no clear indication of when he will actually put on a Kansas State jersey again.

The four most important questions after Kansas-Kansas State fight

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Very other sport can treat brawls like comedy, and I think it’s about time that we did the same for basketball.

So let’s take a look at the four funniest moments from last night’s Kansas-Kansas State fight. Shouts to Jomboy:

1. IS THE KANSAS MASCOT OK?

Throughout the entire fight, the mascot is just in utter disbelief. He cannot believe what he just saw, and he certainly cannot be consoled:

2. CAN JEREMY CASE START AT LINEBACKER FOR KU’S FOOTBALL TEAM?

Case is the video coordinator for Kansas. He’s also a former Kansas point guard. He knows what this rivalry is all about, and he also is not going to be afraid to get in the middle of it.

Case starts out on the wrong side of the melee:

But when he sees De Sousa and Love squaring up and throwing punches, he intervenes by throwing himself into a player six inches taller than him:

3. WHAT HAPPENED TO JAMES LOVE III’S SHOE?

James Love the third has played in exactly one game this season. He has spent more time on the court fighting that he has actually playing, but he still found a way to get into the middle of this fight and, in the process, lost his shoe:

He’s not dressed for the game.

Did he bring an extra pair of shoes? Did he have to head back onto the bus without a shoe on this right foot? So many questions, so few answers.

4. WHO IS THE MAN IN THE ORANGE HAT?

He’s some kind of photographer.

He got his shot, that’s for sure:

Kansas-Kansas State fight: Nuance, context the key in Silvio De Sousa discussion

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So I wanted to elaborate on a point that I made on twitter this morning because 280 characters just is not enough to be able to parse through the nuance of this situation.

If you missed it, the thread is here.

First and foremost, everyone involved in this needs to be punished. Silvio De Sousa needs to be suspended. Antonio Gordon needs to be suspended. James Love III needs to be suspended. David McCormack, and potentially Marcus Garrett, probably need to be suspended, although I’m not sure either of them actually through a punch. Point being, anyone else that threw a punch needs to be suspended.

Full stop.

I am not saying otherwise.

But I think that it is important to add some context to the conversation, and I also think that it is important to say this: This doesn’t make any of the young men involved in this fight bad people. Silvio De Sousa is not inherently a bad person because he picked up a stool, and the faux-trage of people calling for him to get booted out of school, arrested or even deported are, at best, completely over-reacting and, at worst, showing off a bit of their racial bias.

Before I get into this, one more thing: I am not condoning any of it. Fights like this should not happen.

But the reality of hyper-competitive athletics is that in emotionally charged situations, fights are going to happen. And if you’ve ever been in a fight like this, you know that things happen incredibly quickly. You’re not thinking, you’re reacting. You can’t call a 20 second time out to come up with a way to defend yourself when someone is throwing haymakers, you just do what you can in the moment.

So let’s talk about the moment, shall we?

De Sousa is the guy that set this entire thing in motion with the way that he reacted to DaJuan Gordon’s steal and layup attempt. The reason the Kansas State bench rushes over to the scene is because De Sousa is towering over one of their freshman teammates, and the reason the Kansas sideline runs over is because the Kansas State sideline does. What turned this incident into a full-fledged brawl was Antonio Gordon flying in and shoving De Sousa over the back of the basket stanchion. De Sousa reacts by throwing punches at two different Kansas State players when a third player — James Love III, in the black polo — comes flying in and squares up with him. They both throw a few punches at each other, knocking De Sousa back over the stanchion again as Kansas staffer Jeremy Case comes flying in to break them up.

Put yourself in De Sousa’s shoes here. In the span of 10 seconds, he’s fought three different Kansas State players, sees nothing but purple in front of him and just got knocked to the ground. Is he getting jumped? Does he have to fight them 1-on-3? That’s when he grabs the stool, to defend himself, and when he sees that no one is coming after him anymore, he drops it:

Context.

He should be suspended for 8-10 games.

He set this entire thing in motion.

But maybe, just maybe, tone down the rhetoric.

Women’s Wednesday: A new column dedicated to the women of college basketball

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Welcome to CBT’s first ever weekly women’s basketball column. I’m here to help provide you with some insight into the world of women’s college hoops.

Women’s sports are reaching new heights, especially in basketball. The WNBA announced a new collective bargaining agreement starting in the 2020 season that includes a 53 percent raise, maternity benefits, a base salary and performance-based bonuses. This year’s NCAA women’s basketball tournament will be broadcasted in its entirety on ESPN, with the semifinals and championship game premiering in primetime.

Female athletes are beginning to garner the attention they deserve. Sabrina Ionescu is drawing national attention for a historic senior season, as she has 22 career triple-doubles and became Oregon’s all-time leading basketball scorer in her career-high 37-point performance against Stanford last week. In the WNBA, women such as Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi, and more are shattering gender stereotypes and proving that women can play basketball at a high level, just as men can.

While women’s sports have made a push into the public eye, there is still quite a way to go. It’s important to place an emphasis on the women who excel in their sport and give them the spotlight they deserve. Too many times women are only given credit through a masculine lens, whether that’s only getting attention after receiving praise from men, being compared to a male counterpart, or being a footnote in a male athlete’s story. Female athletes deserve to be their own story.

That’s what I’m hoping to do with this column over the rest of the season — give women a place to shine. I’d like to use this space to highlight some of the amazing women that play in the NCAA and hear from them about their experiences, the records they’re setting and their basketball journey. While I won’t even begin to make a dent in the breadth of talent available in women’s college basketball, I hope to use this column each week to take a deeper dive into some incredible women, as well as give you an idea of what’s happening around the country that week.

WEDNESDAY’S NEWS AND NOTES

South Carolina sits atop the world of college hoops, earning 22 first-place votes from the AP panel to nab the No. 1 spot. The Gamecocks have an 18-1 record with wins over ranked opponents such as Maryland, Baylor, Kentucky and most recently Mississippi State.

Baylor — the reigning national champs —- sits in the No. 2 spot in the rankings after dethroning UConn and ending its dominant 98-game winning streak at home. The Lady Bears received six of the first-place votes from the AP committee.

The rest of the top five is filled out by UConn at No. 3, Oregon at No. 4 after beating then-No. 3 Stanford, and Louisville rounds it out at fifth, receiving the last two first-place votes.

In a monster performance against Stanford, Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu had a career-high 37 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists. She has four triple-doubles on the season and has a chance to become the NCAA’s first player to eclipse 2,000 career points, 1,000 career rebounds and 1,000 career assists. As of Jan. 18, she has 2,265 points, 904 rebounds and 928 assists.

DePaul remains unbeaten in the Big East, with Chante Stonewall leading the team with 17.9 ppg while Kelly Campbell has 102 assists on the season, ranking No. 8 in the country.

Baylor’s 40-point victory over then-No. 17 West Virginia is their 45th consecutive Big 12 win.

Mississippi State’s JaMya Mingo-Young and Aliyah Matharu combined for 24 points and four steals off the bench in a close 79-81 loss to South Carolina on Monday.

Star freshman and No. 1 recruit Haley Jones suffered an apparent right knee injury and left Stanford’s Sunday win over Oregon State. She is scheduled to have an MRI but the team has given no further updates.

North Carolina State’s Elissa Cunane has 20+ points in four of her last six games and 10 double-doubles on the season, helping the Wolfpack to a dominant win over Florida State last week.

UCLA became the last undefeated team to fall with a double overtime loss to USC — who hadn’t yet won a Pac-12 matchup —  on Friday.

Northwestern made its debut this season in the Top-25, coming in at No. 22 — its first ranking since the 2015-2016 season.

No. 3 Oregon faces rival No. 7 Oregon State on Friday in a crucial Pac-12 matchup.

Stanford freshman Fran Belini threw down a one-handed dunk in pregame warmup before facing Oregon that you HAVE to see: