AUSTIN – Myles Turner, freshman guard for the Texas Longhorns, has provided a succinct summary of their status. “This season is not over yet,” he tweeted, “and we are still capable of being the elite team we sought to be.”
That they are not what they sought – and ought — to be is what puts coach Rick Barnes on a burnt-orange hot seat. Texas was the preseason choice to finish second — a challenging second to Kansas – in the Big 12 Conference.
The season got off to a promising start: In the first month, Texas was No. 6 nationally.
But by last month the Longhorns had dropped out of the rankings and in danger of exclusion from the NCAA Tournament. They have an uphill battle to get in. And if they don’t, that would be their second failure in the three years since Steve Patterson became Athletics Director.
Having known Patterson since he and his dad Ray Patterson ran the Houston Rockets, I can assure you he puts a much higher priority on basketball than his predecessors in office at UT.
There will be no excuses for Barnes if he doesn’t get invited to the big dance. But there is an avenue to get there, as Turner noted. And the Horns took a step in that direction on Monday night when they beat 14th-ranked Baylor in overtime.
A source close to Steve Patterson said: “Baylor gave Barnes a stay of execution. Now he needs a win over Kansas State (Saturday in Austin), and enough wins in the Big 12 tournament to make the NCAA’s. And I’m not sure that would be enough to save him.”
There’s a growing perception in Longhorn Nation that the program is on the wrong track, or at least too slow a track. As Barnes himself has admitted, there’s too much basketball talent in Texas that’s going out of state.
The sentiment has changed drastically since a year ago, when Barnes was Big 12 Coach of the Year. He would go on to receive a two-year contract extension from Patterson, carrying him to 2019.
But the contract allows for a buyout of $1.75 million, before April 2015. This is a price the University of Texas appears willing to pay.
In the past, this being a football school, the eyes of Texas were rarely upon the basketball coach. As long as attendance was good and the team stayed out of trouble and above .500, everyone was happy enough.
It didn’t seem to matter that Barnes got outcoached in a lot of games and that in his 16 years he’s made it to one Final Four.
For all his limitations, Barnes was in some respects good for the Longhorn brand. Kevin Durant’s success in the NBA could not be a better reflection on him. Barnes has done a better job than most coaches of avoiding scandal. He puts together high-character teams.
He hasn’t had anyone approaching Durant’s talent level, but his players for the most part stay in school and out of trouble, and they work hard and together.
But now, with a passionate hoops fan as AD, more is expected of Barnes. Or somebody.
In his press conferences Barnes speaks of his players “not listening,” which is red-flags language. This is a coach being tuned out by his players. For whatever reasons, whether it’s the medium or the message, Barnes is not inspiring them.
There are too many other excellent basketball coaches who would quickly jump for the opportunity at Texas. Coaches who know, better than Barnes, how to motivate, when to call timeouts and how to match lineups.
To toss out a name, Gregg Marshall, of Wichita State.
A second name: Shaka Smart at VCU.
Not that Barnes is doomed. There’s enough talent on that 16-12 Texas team for late-season success and momentum carrying into the postseason. Thanks to the victory over Baylor, which followed a well contested loss (69-64) at Kansas, Barnes has reason to hope.
If he can only get his players to listen, and perhaps to rally around him, or for him. At age 60 he’s not getting another big-time job. He has one last chance to show he’s better than his many critics say.