Earlier this week, an article made its rounds around the Longhorn interwebs. In a very good piece titled "Leave Rick Barnes Alone", C.J. Moore of Basketball Prospectus defends the embattled coach of the Texas Longhorns basketball program.
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.
Whether you agree with the premise of the post or not, Moore succinctly, yet thoroughly, outlines key reasons why Barnes doth not deserve the scorn heaped upon him. I'm not out to "kill" Moore for his arguments, but I did want to offer some alternative viewpoints.
Does Barnes recruit?
The answer, unequivocally, is yes. From T.J. Ford to Kevin Durant to Tristan Thompson, Barnes has done a fantastic job at Texas recruiting (inter)nationally. Rather, Moore's argument isn't so much that Barnes can recruit, but that instead, Barnes has been a victim of timing and oversuccess.
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.
It's a game Texas fans have played before, and it's a tired excuse. Texas has lost players early, but it also kept Damion James (RSCI Ranking: 15th in 2006) and Gary Johnson (29th, 2007) for 4 years, and got surprise sophomore years from LaMarcus Aldridge (12th, 2004) and Jordan Hamilton (22nd, 2009).
Forget victim of circumstance. Lately, the real issue has been that Barnes has failed to properly recruit outside of his five-star prospects. In the past 10 years, Texas has had just 3 non-5* prospects drafted: Royal Ivey, P.J. Tucker and Dexter Pittman. No, I don't count D.J. Augustin, whom Moore notes as rated 49th by Rivals but finished 29th by RSCI.
A few players, notably A.J. Abrams and J'Covan Brown, had strong collegiate careers. But mostly, Texas has been peppered with outright failure (Harrison Smith), off the court issues (Varez Ward), or pure, unadulterated adequacy (Alexis Wangmene). Without strong support and depth, the Longhorns have had to rely much too heavily on its underclassmen stars.
So, is Barnes responsible for developing 5* high schoolers into NBA first round draft picks, or could it be that they were just that talented to begin with? And if Barnes deserves credit for that development, should he also deserve scorn for his failure with lesser talents?
Further compounding the problem is the perception that Barnes has undergone a "sea change" in his recruiting philosophy.
The Canada/Findlay Prep pipeline largely responsible for Texas' recent recruiting success is dead. Former assistant Rodney Terry, largely credited with establishing those relationships, left to become head coach at Fresno State. Grassroots Canada coach Ro Russell has been replaced on the AAU scene by Mike George and CIA Bounce (FYI: home to 2013 uber-prospect Andrew Wiggins). And Findlay Prep's head coach, Mike Peck, took to a coaching gig in the NBDL.
The star-laden classes of 2004, 2006, and 2010 that simultaneously succeeded and disappointed appear to have gone the way of the dodo. Instead, Barnes is shifting back to what brought Texas success in the first place: a star surrounded by a supporting cast.
Texas' last two classes have focused more on gathering depth. Barnes chose to recruit multiple 3* and 4* recruits, alongside a 5* anchor (Myck Kabongo in 2011, Cameron Ridley in 2012). After the departure of Thompson and Cory Joseph (the entirety of the 2011 class) two years ago, followed by Brown last year, Texas' roster is currently comprised entirely of underclassmen.
Despite this year's inexperience, Barnes has chosen a smart philosophy, assuming expected development from the youngsters. Consequently, the proper play going into the next few seasons would be to add a game-changing superstar to the mix.
But as Texas built its Canadian empire, it neglected a state of Texas that is now bursting at the seams with top tier basketball talent. The Longhorns already missed on most of 2012's and 2013's best players, and aren't looking so hot in 2014.
Of course, fortunes can change quickly. Texas is still in the mix for two 5* prospects in the 2013 class, Julius Randle (Plano PCA) and Keith Frazier (Dallas Kimball). If the Longhorns land another generational talent like Randle, next year's story quickly turns optimistic. But if not, what happens when Barnes doesn't have multiple high school All-Americans on his roster to rely upon?
Can Barnes' teams play offense?
Rick Barnes is a very good defensive coach. That's a given.
He may even be a good offensive coach. The data sure seems to support that theory.
But here's the dirty not-so-secret. His teams can't shoot it into an ocean.
The Longhorns' shooting percentages are ghastly bad this year. They're shooting 43.4% from 2-pt range (293st nationally), 30.2% from 3-pt range (277th), and 63.8% from the FT line (300st). Do the math, and that's a 43.9% eFG rate (305rd).
Now, here are the national rankings by 2-pt / 3-pt / FT / eFG for the past few iterations of Texas teams:
2012: 156 / 238 / 47 / 184
2011: 160 / 41 / 282 / 110
2010: 59 / 152 / 326 / 77
2009: 156 / 232 / 246 / 194
2008: 162 / 51 / 189 / 108
2007: 202 / 31 / 36 / 105
Since the Durant year, the offense's statistical profile has stayed the same: limit turnovers, hit the offensive glass, and hope to make a shot every so often. Basically, out-possession the opponent. Oh yes, and play damn good defense.
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.
That's all well and good, but last year's Kentucky team also posted an eFG% of 53.8%, 14th best in the nation. The Wildcats ranked 2nd in overall offensive efficiency. Elite Defense + Elite Offense = Championship Contention. Who knew?
Texas hasn't come close to sniffing that in years. What's the point of having the best defensive stoppers in the nation if you can't match buckets offensively?
Indiana's defense, so far, is beyond good — it's potentially historically great. That raises two questions:
1. Is this kind of defense enough to contend for a title, even with an offense this poor? A handful of teams — the mid-2000s Pistons and post-2009 Celtics, for instance — have ridden the combination of a league-average offense and an elite defense to legitimate title contention. But does the formula work when "average" becomes "sub-Bobcats"?
2. How are they doing this?
The answers to the second question are pretty simple. The Pacers aren't the early-1990s Sonics, reinventing NBA defense. The Pacers are huge, they don't have any weak links among their heavy-minutes players, and they're smart.
That leaves that pesky second question: Is this defense enough to contend for a ring? The answer is almost certainly no. Over the last 25 years, no team ranked near this poorly on offense has won a title, and only one, the 1998-99 Knicks (26th in scoring efficiency that season), advanced to the Finals. That team rejiggered its rotation dramatically late and played in a wacky lockout-shortened season. So did last year's Celtics, who got within a game of the Finals despite a sputtering offense that ranked 25th in points per possession. And even getting that far required considerable luck.
Can a team with an outstanding defense and decrepit offense win 6 games in the NCAA Tournament? Certainly, the randomness variable is absurdly higher with March Madness than with the NBA Playoffs. But the premise remains similar. If you struggle to score, you'll struggle to win big.
Do players thrive in Barnes' system?
Moore certainly did his research, citing the Jerry Sloan/Utah Jazz system that Barnes implemented a couple years ago (which has also been well documented by Burnt Orange Nation's Jeff Haley). Moore then goes on to explain a specific example in the development of freshman point guard Javan Felix.
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.
That's all well and good, but if anything, the common refrain from Texas fans is that Barnes fails his players by being too inflexible. The pessimist would call the example above the exception that proves the rule.
In the Longhorns' latest brutal loss to Iowa St., Barnes sat Sheldon McClellan for 39 of the 40 minutes. Certainly, McClellan has disappointed this year. But if the goal is player development combined with, oh, I don't know, winning, then is denying playing time to your (theoretically) best (and maybe only) scoring threat really the way to go?
The doghouse comment certainly stretches back a ways. The poster child is probably Jordan Hamilton, who somehow managed to grab a potentially game-winning rebound in Texas' 2011 NCAA Tournament game against Arizona, only to call timeout instead of waiting for the foul. This from a player who shot 79% from the line that year. It was a quintessential Rick Barnes/Texas Longhorns moment.
The doghouse complaint is just the tip of the iceberg. Here are some common refrains for Texas basketball: questionable rotations, lack of consistency, player regression, the famed Barnes "death stare" and subsequent benching, offensive stagnation, lack of ball movement, lack of post entry, and the "Barnes needs an elite PG to win" meme. Look back on past post-mortems and game threads, and frustration abounds.
Perhaps the most vocal comment is that Barnes simply wears out his players. In the "defense first" argument, Moore highlighted a very impressive statistic.
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.
Indeed, that was a fantastic defense. It was also a team that lost 3 of its last 5 regular season games (including a loss to Colorado in which Texas gave up 91 points), then gave up 81 points to Oakland in a narrow NCAA Tournament opening round victory, before ending the season with that painful loss to Arizona, 70-69.
The previous year, 2010, the defense was stout too (though not nearly as elite as the 2011 squad). You'll recall that team started 17-0 before flaming out on the back 9. The complaints? A team that was too tired, non-cohesive, and wasn't having any fun.
Doesn't exactly scream thriving culture, does it?
Does Barnes win consistently?
Barnes is a very, very good coach. He recruits. He coaches great defense. He coaches, well...passable...maybe arguably good...offense. And yes, he wins a lot of basketball games.
That all said, he's won just 3 regular season conference titles in 14 years. He's never won a Big 12 Tournament. Hasn't been to a Sweet 16 since 2008. A Final 4 since 2003. And this year (with the least experienced team in the country) the Longhorns are on track to miss the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
There's some Mack Brown math in there somewhere.
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, Jim Calhoun, Roy Williams, John Calipari, Ben Howland, Bill Self, Thad Matta, Brad Stevens, and Rick Pitino.
As I stated above, it's important to note that college basketball's post-season is a huge crapshoot. But convenient excuses and inconvenient truths don't erase people's opinions of "if not now, when?"
If anything, Moore's argument backfires on Barnes. By accidental omission, Moore left out a very important name, Florida's Billy Donovan. The Gators, as you know, won back-to-back NCAA Championships in 2006 and 2007. They've also made the Elite 8 the past two years, and won the SEC regular season title in 2011 over a talented but youthful Kentucky program. This year, Florida is 12-2, ranked #10 in the nation, and figures to be a championship contender.
When he arrived in 1998, the Longhorns had reached the Sweet 16 just twice in the previous 25 seasons.
The coach prior to Donovan at UF? Lon Kruger, who went 104-80 in 6 years and made just 2 NCAA Tournaments (including a Final 4 in 1994). A forgettable year from Dom Devoe before that resulted in a 7-21 season. In the 1980's, Norm Sloan went 150-131. Combined, the three coaches posted a 52.9% winning percentage.
Tom Penders' 9 year coaching career at Texas resulted in 208-110 (65.4%). Just sayin'.
Should Texas do the unthinkable and fire Rick Barnes, the AD won't replace him with Billy Donovan (or a Thad Matta, or even a Brad Stevens). This is true. But maybe, just maybe, the subsequent coach will be the next Thad Matta or next Billy Donovan. Could that coach not elevate Texas basketball to greater heights?
Barnes has strengths and weaknesses that are, by now, clearly evident to anyone who follows the hoops scene. Certainly, he rose expectations of the program. Are Longhorns fans wrong to expect that Texas should perform similarly to other state flagship, football-first institutions like Florida or Ohio State? Shouldn't the standard-bearing athletics department in the country be able to consistently compete for Final 4's and NCAA basketball titles?
The Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy calls it the 3rd best job in the country, ESPN's Eamonn Brennan 12th, Lost Lettermen 14th. Yet Ken Pomeroy currently ranks Texas 78th in the nation, and 31st in 2011. RPI is worse: 144th this year, 57th last year. Sagarin currently has Texas 96th.
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.
The last 2 years notwithstanding, Texas' historical performance justifies Barnes' existence, ranking the program around the Brennan/LL barometer. But (not unlike Texas football), the analysis of Barnes asks not what Barnes has done for the program, but what he can do for the program going forward.
I still believe there's hope on the horizon, but I'm not beyond the belief that Barnes' peak has come and gone.
Across the media, the fanbase, and the program, apathy abounds.
Maybe, just maybe, they're right.
Maybe, just maybe, it's over.