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.”

Chris Mack: David Johnson’s shoulder ‘is fine’

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The biggest concern coming out of Louisville’s win at Duke on Saturday evening was the status of David Johnson’s shoulder.

Johnson was the best player on the floor for Louisville, finishing with 19 points, seven assists, four boards, three steals and two blocks as the Cardinals landed a much-needed win in Cameron. But with three minutes left in the game, he landed on his surgically-repaired left shoulder and had to leave the game. He returned to the bench, but he did not return to the game.

Head coach Chris Mack did not seem overly concerned about the injury after the game, and he confirmed as much in a conference call on Monday.

“The shoulder is fine,” Mack said. “He’s just a little sore, but he’ll practice the next couple of days and we fully expect him to play on Wednesday.”

Bracketology: Welcome to the top line, San Diego State

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Here is the latest NCAA tournament bracketology projection.

Welcome to the top line, San Diego State.  The Aztecs join Baylor, Gonzaga, and Kansas as No. 1 seeds in our latest bracket update.  SDSU remains the only unbeaten team in college hoops, buoyed by wins over tournament teams Iowa, Creighton and BYU.

The West-leaning geographical slate of top seeds means someone has to go East.  As SDSU is the fourth overall seed, that adventure belongs to them.  Several additional power conference teams are pushing for the top line, too – including Florida State, Michigan State and surging Seton Hall.  And let’s not forget about Louisville, a preseason top seed.  The Cardinals put together an impressive road win at Duke on Saturday.

The latest look at where our NCAA tournament bracketology projection stands …

UPDATED: January 20, 2020

FIRST FOUR – DAYTON
EAST REGION Virginia Tech vs. Georgetown
WEST REGION NC State vs. VCU
SOUTH REGION  PR VIEW-AM vs. NORFOLK ST
WEST REGION MONMOUTH vs. ST. FRANCIS (PA)

SOUTH Houston                           WEST – Los Angeles
Omaha Spokane
1) BAYLOR 1) GONZAGA
16) PV-AM / NORFOLK ST 16) MONMOUTH / ST. FRANCIS (PA)
8) Arkansas 8) Illinois
9) Memphis 9) HOUSTON
Tampa Sacramento
5) Colorado 5) Arizona
12) EAST TENNESSEE ST 12) NC State / VCU
4) Maryland 4) Iowa
13) S.F. AUSTIN 13) NEW MEXICO ST
St. Louis Greensboro
6) Marquette 6) Michigan
11) NORTHERN IOWA 11) Saint Mary’s
3) LOUISVILLE 3) Duke
14) NORTH TEXAS 14) LITTLE ROCK
Albany Spokane
7) Wisconsin 7) LSU
10) USC 10) Oklahoma
2) SETON HALL 2) Oregon
15) WILLIAM-MARY 15) UC-IRVINE
EAST – New York MIDWEST – Indianapolis
Sacramento Omaha
1) SAN DIEGO STATE 1) Kansas
16) RADFORD 16) MONTANA
8) Rutgers 8) Indiana
9) STANFORD 9) Florida
Albany Cleveland
5) Kentucky 5) Creighton
12) LIBERTY 12) YALE
4) Villanova 4) DAYTON
13) AKRON 13) VERMONT
Greensboro St. Louis
6) Penn State 6) Auburn
11) Virginia Tech / Georgetown 11) BYU
3) West Virginia 3) Butler
14) COLGATE 14) WRIGHT STATE
Tampa Cleveland
7) Ohio State 7) Wichita State
10) DePaul 10) Texas Tech
2) Florida State 2) MICHIGAN STATE
15) AUSTIN PEAY 15) NORTH DAKOTA ST

BUBBLE NOTES
Last 4 Byes Last 4 IN      First 4 OUT Next 4 OUT
USC Virginia Tech Purdue Washington
DePaul NC State Minnesota Saint Louis
Saint Mary’s Georgetown Arizona State St. John’s
BYU VCU Xavier Richmond

Top Seed Line
Baylor, Gonzaga, Kansas, San Diego State
Seed List

Breakdown by Conference …
Big Ten (10)
Big East (7)
ACC (5)
SEC (5)

Big 12 (5)
Pac 12 (5)
American (3)

West Coast (3)
Atlantic 10 (2)
Mountain West (1)

AP Poll: Baylor leapfrogs Gonzaga, seventh No. 1 team this season

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Here is the latest college basketball AP Poll.

For those interested, here is the NBC Sports Top 25.

Baylor and Gonzaga were the only two teams in the top five that took care of business last week.

That doesn’t mean they didn’t move around, too.

The Bears (15-1) leaped over the Bulldogs and into the No. 1 spot in college basketball AP poll on Monday, using wins over Iowa State and Oklahoma State to give the Top 25 its seventh team on top this season. That matches the record set in 1983 for the most No. 1s in the history of the poll, which dates to the 1948-49 season.

Gonzaga (20-1) was merely a victim of its conference schedule. The Bulldogs blew out Santa Clara and BYU, but just enough voters considered those wins to be less impressive than the Bears’ perfect Big 12 start. Baylor received 33 first-place votes and had 1,591 points from the 65-member media panel while Gonzaga received 31 first-place votes for 1,588 points.

“It takes a team to win,” said Baylor coach Scott Drew, whose team also reached the top of the poll two years ago. “As a coach, you’re just really proud when different people step up, especially guys that have been working hard.”

The rest of the top five looks a whole lot different after Duke, Auburn and Butler all lost both of their games last week.

Kansas (14-3) rose three spots to No. 3 in the college basketball AP poll after victories over Oklahoma and Texas, the latter requiring a big comeback in Austin. San Diego State (19-0) remained perfect with wins over Fresno State and Nevada, and Florida State (16-2) barged into the fifth spot after it beat reigning national champion Virginia and survived overtime to best Miami.

The Seminoles haven’t lost since playing Indiana in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge the first week of December.

Louisville, which tasted the top spot earlier this season, jumped five spots to sixth after beating Pittsburgh in overtime and handling the Blue Devils. Dayton was next, followed by Duke, Villanova and Seton Hall to round out the top 10.

Duke also lost to Clemson earlier in the week, sending coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team tumbling five spots.

“We just have to get older,” he said after the Blue Devils’ 79-73 loss to the Cardinals on Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium. “I’m really up on my team. It’s a long journey. I’ve never told you that we’re great. It’s a process for us, playing these two teams. Getting beat, we have to learn from it and move on. It’s a long journey.”

Krzyzewski’s team wasn’t alone in getting a tough lesson last week. Fourth-ranked Auburn fell all the way to No. 16 after losing a pair of blowouts to Alabama and Florida, and fifth-ranked Butler was bounced all the way to 13th after the Bulldogs followed up a loss to Seton Hall by getting soundly beaten by DePaul.

“It’s the time of the year when we should be trying to elevate our play, and we’re not,” said Tigers coach Bruce Pearl, whose team had won its first 15 games. “Obviously, there’s a pretty big price on our head being ranked fourth in the country. And so I think we have to respond to the step-up that we saw this week from both Alabama and Florida.”

Here is the full college basketball AP poll:

1. Baylor (33 first-place votes)
2. Gonzaga (31)
3. Kansas (1)
4. San Diego State
5. Florida State
6. Louisville
7. Dayton
8. Duke
9. Villanova
10. Seton Hall
11. Michigan State
12. Oregon
13. Butler
14. West Virginia
15. Kentucky
16. Auburn
17. Maryland
18. Texas Tech
19. Iowa
20. Memphis
21. Illinois
22. Arizona
23. Colorado
24. Rutgers
25. Houston

Others receiving votes: Wichita St. 94, LSU 83, Michigan 73, N Iowa 42, Ohio St. 36, Stanford 28, Wisconsin 28, Penn St. 24, Liberty 21, Florida 21, Arkansas 19, Virginia 13, Creighton 13, Duquesne 13, Purdue 9, ETSU 6, Indiana 6, Southern Cal 4, Marquette 2, BYU 2, Harvard 1.

Here’s a closer look at the other big news in another fresh Top 25:

RUTGERS ON THE RISE

The Scarlet Knights bounced back from a loss to Illinois by beating Indiana and Minnesota at home, running their record at the RAC to 13-0 this season — the best start in school history. That was enough to get Rutgers (14-4) into the poll at No. 24 for the first time since the final poll of the 1978-79 season. And with Seton Hall at No. 10, the state of New Jersey has two teams ranked for the first time since the Pirates were joined by Princeton in the last poll of the 1990-91 season.

OTHER NEWCOMERS

Iowa, which has been in and out of the poll all season, made the biggest jump back in at No. 19 after its win over then-No. 19 Michigan. The Hawkeyes were joined by No. 22 Arizona — which beat a ranked team in Colorado — and No. 25 Houston, which romped through SMU and then-No. 16 Wichita State last week.

ON THE WAY OUT

The Shockers dropped all the way out after losing to Houston and Temple. The Wolverines also fell out, along with Big Ten rival Ohio State and Creighton, whose one-week stay ended with a loss early last week to Georgetown.

BUCKEYES BUMMER

No team has been falling as steadily as Ohio State, which was 9-0, was ranked in the top five and received first-place votes just six weeks ago. The Buckeyes have lost six of their last nine games, and five of their last six, to complete their tumble from the poll. Their lone victory in the last few weeks was against lowly Nebraska.

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More AP college basketball: http://collegebasketball.ap.org and http://www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

Monday’s Overreaction: Myles Powell, Payton Pritchard, David Johnson and the two worst chokes of the year

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PLAYER OF THE WEEK: Myles Powell, Seton Hall

Seton Hall improved to 6-0 in Big East play this season with wins over Butler and St. John’s, but that doesn’t come anywhere close to telling the whose story here.

The Pirates trailed by double-figures at halftime of both of those games. Both of those games were on the road. They were down 40-30 at the break at No. 5 Butler, but Myles Powell came to the rescue, scoring 19 of his 29 points after the break to lead the Pirates to a 78-70 win.

Then on Saturday, Seton Hall trailed St. John’s 43-30 at the Garden at halftime, but Powell — again — took over, scoring 23 of his 29 points in the second half as Seton Hall remained perfect in the Big East.

It took him a while to get fully healthy, but now that he is, Powell is showing everyone why he is a favorite to win National Player of the Year.

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Rutgers Scarlet Knights

What Steve Pikiell has done with this Rutgers program should never, ever be overlooked.

After a week in which the Scarlet Knights beat both Indiana and Minnesota at the RAC, They are now sitting at 14-4 over and 5-2 in the Big Ten, good for second in the toughest conference in college basketball. They are 24th in KenPom, which is the highest that this program has ever ranked in the metric we all use the most when evaluating teams. They are 18th in the NET with a 2-3 mark against Quad 1 opponents and five Quad 1 and Quad 2 wins combined.

Put another way, Rutgers is very much in a position where missing the NCAA tournament this season would be something of a disappointment.

Now, it should be noted that this is when their schedule gets tough. They play at Iowa on Wednesday and still face off with Michigan twice, Maryland twice, Purdue twice and play at Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State. A home game against No. 24 Illinois is about their sixth-toughest game left on the schedule.

It won’t be easy.

But getting to 14-4 wasn’t easy in the first place.

MONDAY’S OVERREACTIONS

1. DAVID JOHNSON MAKES LOUISVILLE GREAT AGAIN

Louisville may have finally found an answer to their point guard problems.

David Johnson, a freshman from Louisville that has spent the season to date trying to get back up to speed after offseason shoulder surgery, had his coming out party in a big way on Saturday, going for 19 points and seven assists as Louisville went into Cameron and knocked off Duke.

That is incredibly important news for a Louisville team that has desperately been searching for a guy to do all of the things that Johnson did on Saturday night.

The way he scored those points is the most significant part of the equation. He broke down defenses. He dribbled right past Jordan Goldwire and drove the lane for a dunk. He created out of ball-screens. He handled Duke’s ball-pressure like he was playing against high school opponents.

And then there was the passing (see below):

 

This is what the Cardinals have been waiting for. It’s been a talking point all season long, and every time I have mentioned it, I have also mentioned that Louisville was just waiting to see if Johnson would ever get healthy. That staff believed he was a pro after getting him on campus, and anyone that watched him play on Saturday night would be inclined to agree.

If he can remain healthy and play somewhere close to this level for the rest of the season, then this Louisville team is much, much more dangerous.

2. PAYTON PRITCHARD IS A KILLER

The reason Payton Pritchard is one of the frontrunners for National Player of the Year is the fact that he is putting up terrific numbers this season for a top ten team and doing so while putting together some incredibly impressive performances in crunchtime.

Saturday might have been his statement game.

Oregon erased a 13-point second half deficit thanks in large part to Pritchard, who hit a huge three with a minute left to tie the game. In overtime, he hit a floater to give the Ducks the lead before burying this insane three to win the game with 3.2 seconds left:

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Payton Pritchard called game!!!!!!

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No. 8 Oregon avoided going 0-2 on the Washington road trip with a 64-61 win. Pritchard finished with 22 points. The Ducks are now 3-0 in overtime games this season largely due to the fact that Pritchard is arguably the most clutch player in college basketball.

Is there anyone that you would want taking a big shot in a big game more than him?

3. BAYLOR IS A KILLER, TOO

I talked about this in depth at the 19:00 mark of the podcast, but with the exception of an early season loss against Washington — I’ll get to that — the Bears have been arguably the best team in college basketball down the stretch of close games.

Whether it’s wins at Texas Tech, or Kansas, or Oklahoma State, Baylor has consistently been able to execute in situations where teams like Duke have not been able to execute. That is why they are sitting at No. 1 in the country right now and Duke has three losses to their name.

And as far as the Washington game is concerned, the Huskies play zone. Baylor was totally lost against that zone down the stretch. Oklahoma State played zone as well, and Baylor discovered the answer in the second half: Matthew Mayer. They plugged him in at the high post, and it launched a comeback.

So now they have an answer for that, too.

4. WE ALL SHOULD HAVE SEEN THIS WEEK COMING FOR AUBURN

Auburn entered this seek as one of just two undefeated teams left in college basketball, but there were question marks.

The Tigers don’t have a single win over a team ranked in the top 40 on KenPom. They have only played three Quad 1 games this season. Their only Quad 1 win is barely a Quad 1 win: It came at Mississippi State, who currently ranks 70th in the NET; the cutoff for Quad 1 road wins is top 75.

The other two Quad 1 games that Auburn has played this season?

They were both this week.

And they were both ugly losses.

On Tuesday, it was Alabama that ran over Auburn in the basketball version of the Iron Bowl, 83-64. On Saturday, it was Florida doing the damage, as they held Auburn to 25.5 percent shooting from the field, 4-for-23 shooting from three (17.4%) and to just a single point during an eight-minute stretch late in the second half that saw the Gators push their lead from 47-43 to 69-44. They won 69-47.

Suddenly, those concerns look prescient.

The truth is this: Auburn is dangerous. They are a team that can make a lot of threes, that can force turnovers and play in transition and has the ability to play big (with Austin Wiley) or small (without Austin Wiley). They have a lottery pick in Isaac Okoro and they have a couple of guards on their roster capable of taking games over in J’Von McCormick and Samir Doughty.

But they haven’t consistently played up to the level of a top five team, and their 15-0 record was inflated by feasting on teams that are just good enough to make us believe.

Auburn is still good.

They’re just not a top five team.

5. STANFORD AND UTAH STATE, WHO CHOKED WORSE?

Stanford was up 46-25 in the second half of their loss at USC on Saturday evening. They led by 15 points with less than 10 minutes left. They were up by five points with 15 seconds left and the ball out of bounds underneath USC’s basket, and not only did they find a way to lose that game in overtime, but they got lucky to actually get to OT. USC missed a free throw that could have won the game in regulation.

According to KenPom, USC had a 3.8% chance to win this game at the half, a 3.6% chance to win the game with 10 minutes left and just a 0.7% chance to win with 15 seconds left.

But that’s not as bad as what happened to Utah State.

The Aggies led 66-48 with less than 4:10 remaining. Boise State had a 0.3% chance of winning this game with five minutes left. Turnovers, fouls, missed threes. Utah State did it all, but they still led 73-67 with 15 seconds left, 75-70 with eight seconds left and 75-73 with three seconds left and the ball.

And they lost.

That just does not seem possible.

Monday’s Overreactions: Louisville beat Duke, Auburn lost, Butler lost, Get The Gat

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It was an absolutely wild weekend in college hoops, and Rob Dauster and Bobby Reagan are here to break it all down for you. Is Louisville’s David Johnson actually the greatest point guard in the history of the sport, or just top five? Which top five team is in the most trouble: Auburn or Butler? Who would you rather have in crunch time, Myles Powell or Payton Pritchard? Should you Get The Gat?