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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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.

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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.”

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.