New-look Longhorns are a surprise
Texas lost its top four scorers, but Rick Barnes is pushing all the right buttons
Sometimes a man just needs to vent.
Not for any particular reason. But sometimes, he just has to talk and he just needs someone to listen.
That's what Rick Barnes did Sunday in a conversation with ESPN.com, 24 hours after Texas defeated nationally ranked Iowa State, and days before it picked up another quality win over Kansas State.
He just stepped to his pulpit and began to preach from the Book of Change, while promoting the new culture that has boosted this season's Longhorns. They will enter a Saturday matchup at Baylor boasting a slot in a three-way tie for second place in the Big 12 months after many projected doom for a team that lost its top four scorers -- all of whom had eligibility remaining -- from last season.
"The one thing that we've always tried to stress with our players is we don't want anyone that has a sense of entitlement," Barnes said. "We want players that understand work. We've had a lot of guys that have come in here and made themselves better players and they bought into the culture that we had. And we lost that."
He had earned the right to briefly evangelize about the things that happened behind the scenes a year ago and marred the overall production. The things that appeared to jeopardize his job.
In October, he walked to the podium at Big 12 media day in Kansas City amid a lingering gray vibe that had surrounded his program since it failed to reach the NCAA tournament in March for the first time during his term. Everyone in the room knew what Barnes knew. After 15 seasons that included two Elite Eight appearances and a Final Four run, his seat was warmer than it had been at any point in his career.
"I worry more about basketball," athletic director DeLoss Dodds told Sports Illustrated before the season. "If I were going to pick one [program] to worry more about, I worry more about basketball."
Last season's struggles were complicated by problems in the locker room, though. And that's what Barnes wanted to express without demeaning the kids who left.
The departure of multiple contributors further diluted a rocky season that included a 7-11 Big 12 record. But maybe it was a cleansing.
Myck Kabongo (undrafted) and Ioannis Papapetrou (overseas) turned pro. Julian Lewis and Sheldon McClellan both transferred. Barnes never called them bad kids. But the coach and some of his current players agreed that last season's internal climate was messy and the program's past makeup contributed to that.
They implied that the pieces and parts just didn't fit together. No amount of layup drills, pregame speeches, team meals and game film can alter the environment if the guys on the court don't jell.
"It's good to go into practice and not have people complain about not wanting to be here," junior Jonathan Holmes said. "You can get better with people who want to get better and actually want to be taught stuff. It's just good to be around a group of guys that are all like that."
The professional success of former Texas stars Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge might have given some young players false perspectives on what it would take to reach the NBA, Barnes said. That didn't help team chemistry.
"I probably talked to more parents a year ago than I had in my lifetime wanting to know why their son [didn't] do this, do that," Barnes said. "The only answer I could give was the players that had gone before them put themselves in the position they're in. … I think I've spent more time in the last two years talking to players about effort, attitude than I had in the other previous two years. It's amazing. I knew last year at a point and time in the season that changes had to be made. We had to get guys who wanted to be coached. We've made a conscious effort of doing that."
Now, he's running a Texas team that is the sleeper in the Big 12 and a candidate for an NCAA tournament invite.
The stat sheets identify the factors that have fueled this redemptive episode in Austin.
Holmes is putting up all-conference numbers. Cameron Ridley finally looks like the young man who warranted a spot in the 2012 McDonald's All American Game. Javan Felix is the steady presence in the backcourt. Isaiah Taylor and Demarcus Holland, both underclassmen, are averaging more than 19 points combined.
But there's also a change that the box score doesn't capture.
Although this is a program without senior leadership, it's also a team anchored by players who feel more comfortable addressing problems.
"The difference is we can go to one another when we see something that's not right and the person that you're talking to won't take it the wrong way," Holmes said. "I think last year, if we would've tried to correct somebody whenever they were in the wrong, they would have either not listened or it would have affected that relationship. [Now] it's guys that are willing to hear that they're wrong and they're willing to change."
Barnes' players hated to see the way last season ended, but they're enjoying the new tone.
"It's a totally different vibe now because we've turned it around," Felix said. "It's all positive. Even when we lose, it's positive as possible."
Texas basketball's unexpected rise is tied to that shift, one that Barnes sees daily now.
There is still a chunk of the season left. Texas, like every other team in the country, could continue to progress or begin to struggle. The latter would magnify the pressure on Barnes and lead to more questions about his future.
If the Longhorns keep this up, however, Barnes will credit a critical change that you can't necessarily see on the court.
On a recent visit to a Longhorns practice, former graduate assistant Riley Davis recognized it, too.
"He said to me when I walked in there, 'Coach, I was stunned hearing them talk about all the things they have to do to improve as players," Barnes said. " 'I can tell you a year ago walking in here, no one was ever talking about basketball. It was anything but.' That's how I know the culture is where it's supposed to be. They're a great group of guys and they want to be good."