The head coach of the youngest team in the country is having a tough season. The coach's best player from a year ago declared for the NBA draft, even though there was little chance he would actually be drafted. (He's now playing in Greece.) The coach's best returning player thought about entering the draft, worked out with some guy in Cleveland, wasn't exactly clear about how he got there when he talked to his school's compliance office, and the NCAA took him away for the first 23 games of the season. The coach has had to rely on a freshman point guard who was recruited to play about 10 minutes a game this season and is now playing 36.
This team is 9-8, and has lost its first three conference games -- two in overtime. The team lost to Chaminade, a Division II school, in Maui earlier this season, yet also has a win against North Carolina. True, Carolina isn't its usual self this season, but that's still a solid win against a team that wouldn't be earmarked as underperforming if they weren't sporting Tar Heel blue.
In case you haven't solved the riddle yet, this team is Texas and the coach is Rick Barnes.
Barnes is a good coach. His record (and I'll get to that momentarily) says as much, despite what's happening this year in circumstances that would make any coach struggle. Every coach has his flaws and Barnes has a few, but his past success says he's doing something right. Yet when you say anything like this, you might as well be defending tobacco. You will get killed on Twitter.
At some point along the way, it became a thing to trash on Barnes. In 2007 Bill Simmons called Barnes "Dubya-esque" and once said "the way Rick Barnes butchers this team on a game-to-game basis is unconscionable." Simmons, a media empire unto himself, knows his hoops, and he makes a lot of great points. He fell in love with Kevin Durant in 2007, and rightly concluded that Durant was a sure thing (and that Greg Oden was not). Then he came to the conclusion that Barnes should resign.
This is when bagging on Barnes like he's some kind of trashy reality star became an accepted practice. But before you join the masses (or continue to be part of the masses), hear me out.
The go-to criticism of Barnes is, "Sure he wins, but just look at the players he's had. He doesn't win enough. Where are the Final Fours? Where's the national title?"
It's true that Barnes has had some unbelievable talent. He's coached 10 first-round picks at Texas. Two of those players, Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge, have become NBA All-Stars, and it's not too much to say that Durant was and is one of the greatest players of his generation.
Then again the team Durant played on in Austin had four freshmen and a sophomore in the starting lineup. Barnes had D.J. Augustin, a freshman, starting at point guard. Do you know how many teams have won a national title with a freshman starting at point guard since 1973 (when freshmen were first allowed to play)? Three. Kentucky last season, Syracuse in 2003 and Arizona in 1997.
Barnes has had to win with mostly young talent, and it's fair to say he has underperformed in the month that matters most in college basketball. Still, if your school had made five Sweet 16s, three Elite Eights, and one Final Four since 2002, would you be satisfied? An awful lot of fans outside places like Chapel Hill and Lexington would be.
Barnes hasn't made a Sweet 16 since 2008, but the fact that he has had to reload in recent years has played a part in that. You have to believe that when you recruit some of the best prospects in the country, you might not have them around for very long. Still, Texas has had some surprises when it comes to losing players early.
In 2008, Augustin left after his sophomore more. He was ranked as merely the No. 49 player in his class by Rivals.com coming out of high school. In 2010, Texas lost Avery Bradley, which wasn't a huge shocker since he was a top-five recruit. But the 2011 early departures, which included a few surprises, have set the Longhorns back the last two seasons. It probably didn't catch Barnes off-guard to lose Jordan Hamilton, as he was a top-10 recruit coming in. However, to lose both Tristan Thompson (ranked No. 17 by Rivals in his class) and Cory Joseph (No. 8) after their freshman seasons was not something everyone saw coming. Neither player was regarded as a certain one-and-done prospect coming in. Then last season J'Covan Brown bolted even though he wasn't expected to be drafted.
Several schools could play the "Imagine what we would be now had everyone stayed in school" card, but few can match Texas.
Should Barnes apologize for recruiting great talent? He's developed those players and helped put them in a position to leave early. Barnes deserves some credit for getting them to Texas and to the Big 12. That helps the pipeline continue, and his success in that regard is a testament to his coaching.
Barnes' teams play defense
You may think Barnes' team, the one that ranks No. 253 in offensive efficiency, is a punchline this year, but actually the Longhorns aren't nearly as bad as they could be.
Even with all that youth, the Longhorns are defending their tails off. They rank No. 12 in KenPom.com's defensive efficiency. They lead the nation in effective FG percentage defense, and have allowed only three teams all season to score more than a point per possession.
Barnes has always coached good defense. His teams have ranked in the top 50 in defensive efficiency in 10 of the last 11 seasons. In 2010-11 Barnes had the hottest team in college basketball at one point, and it was because of some unbelievable defense. The Longhorns held eight straight conference opponents to less than 0.90 points per possession. To put that in perspective, consider last year's champion Kentucky, labeled notably great defensively, held just six conference opponents below that figure in 16 SEC games.
Barnes' philosophy is pretty simple and effective. His teams want to keep opponents out of the lane and push them away from the basket. He stockpiles big men and length. This year his big men might be lacking skill -- 6-10 freshman Prince Ibeh, for example -- but they play physical D and protect the rim. Ibeh is blocking 14 percent of opposing teams' two-point attempts when he's in the game.
Many credit John Calipari for getting young players to buy into defense right away. Barnes has been accomplishing similar results in Austin.
Players thrive in Barnes' system
One of Simmons' criticisms of Barnes was that he didn't get Durant the ball enough. There may have been games where this was the case, but over the course of that season, Durant got plenty of touches. He used 32 percent of his Texas' possessions and took 34 percent of the offense's shots during his minutes. That's as close to a one-man show as you can get.
Of course, this year's team is a clear outlier on offense. Barring a miracle, the Longhorns will finish outside the top 40 in offensive efficiency for the first time in the last 11 seasons. But this season's team is also a good study in how Barnes molds his team on that end.
In 2010, Barnes spent some time studying the flex offense with former Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan. This season the Longhorns started off running mostly flex, and it looked uncomfortably disjointed. Many of the struggles in Maui had a lot to do with an inability to run offense with any sort of rhythm or purpose.
However, Texas has had some stretches in the last month where they at least look like they have an idea of how to score. Barnes is finding a way to put the players he has in a position to succeed. In the Big 12 opener, for example, Javan Felix had no problem penetrating Baylor's defense. It became even easier when Pierre Jackson picked up his third foul in the opening moments of the second half.
Since Jackson was having enough trouble keeping Felix out of the lane before he picked up his third foul, Barnes tried to exploit that matchup. On almost every subsequent possession, one of the Longhorn big men would set a screen for Felix near the top of the key, exploiting Baylor's poor ball-screen defense. Texas also mixed in some screens for the wings to curl off of for open looks. Most possessions featured less than one pass, but it worked. Felix ended up scoring a career-high 26 points and the Horns took a more talented Bears team to overtime on the road.
Barnes' offense hasn't always been a thing of beauty this season, but he puts his best players in position to succeed, and he's willing to adapt. Those are two attributes of a good coach.
Barnes wins consistently
In six seasons at Providence, Barnes made three NCAA tournaments. Since his departure in 1994, the Friars have made just three trips to the tourney. And in four years at Clemson, Barnes made three NCAA tournaments, including one trip to the Sweet 16. Since his departure in 1998, the Tigers have been back to the tourney just four times, never making it past the round of 32.
What if he left Texas? Would the Longhorns be better off? That's an argument that many would make, but look at what Texas was before Barnes.
When he arrived in 1998, the Longhorns had reached the Sweet 16 just twice in the previous 25 seasons. Barnes has taken all of his Texas teams to the tourney, including the first one, which won the Big 12 with seven scholarship players.
One challenge for Barnes is coaching in the same conference as one of the best programs in Division I. Bill Self, as you may have heard, has won eight straight Big 12 titles. What's often left out is that he's had to share two of those titles with Texas.
But March success, or at least reaching Final Fours, is not at the top of Barnes' resume. He hasn't been to a national semifinal since 2003. Conversely, here are the coaches who have been to two or more Final Fours in the last 11 seasons:
Mike Krzyzewski, Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan, Jim Calhoun, Roy Williams, John Calipari, Ben Howland, Bill Self, Thad Matta, Brad Stevens, and Rick Pitino.
Barnes has more wins over that time period than Howland or Calhoun, whom he led coming into this season. (He also has more wins, obviously, than Stevens, since the Butler coach didn't get started until 2008.) Barnes is just eight wins behind Izzo over that span.
The four coaches who reached the 2003 Final Four were Barnes, Williams, Jim Boeheim and Tom Crean. Only Williams has been back to the Final Four since, and Barnes has more wins than Crean. Syracuse has missed the tourney twice since 2003.
Is Boeheim incompetent for not getting Syracuse back to the Final Four when he's had two teams that were No. 1 seeds? Is Indiana doomed this year because of Crean, who has not been able to win as consistently as Barnes? You don't hear many people making those arguments.
So, if you must, go ahead and critique Barnes as a coach. That's fine. But at least admit that he's had a lot to do with the success Texas has had.
C.J. Moore is a writer in Kansas City. Follow him on Twitter: @cjmoore4.
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