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Is this a down year or the new normal for two of the most successful coaches in Big 12 history?
There are only three Big 12 coaches left from 2003, Scott Drew's first year at Baylor -- Drew, Rick Barnes and Bill Self. It's hard to imagine Drew and Barnes as "deans" of anything, but they really are conference institutions. They've gone toe-to-toe with guys like Kelvin Sampson, Bobby Knight and Quin Snyder and they've watched rival schools goes through cycles of head coaches. Does anyone actually remember the Jim Woolridge era at Kansas State or Wayne Morgan's time at Iowa State?
Unless Texas makes an unlikely run in the conference tournament, they will miss the NCAA's for the first time since Barnes came to Austin in 1998. If there's any consolation to be found, it comes from their 79-70 win over Baylor last night, when they put what was almost certainly the final nail in the Bears' coffin this season. In its own way, 2013 has been as big a disaster for Drew as it has for Barnes. Going forward, the question becomes whether they can re-find their place behind Self in the Big 12 hierarchy or whether a new generation of coaches will push them down the standings and out of the post-season.
Last night, Myck Kabongo showed why there was so much optimism surrounding him before the season started. He had 19 points, 8 assists, 6 rebounds and 3 steals while playing 38 minutes: for the most part, he controlled the flow of the game and got into the paint at will. Even more impressively, he went 6-10 from the field and had only 1 turnover. Given his speed and passing ability, if he could consistently knock down 3-pointers and avoid turnovers over an entire season, he would be a lottery pick. As is, performances like this will get him a late first-round guarantee from someone. He's certainly better than Cory Joseph.
This 23-game suspension was the worst of both worlds. Just enough time for Kabongo to salvage his NBA draft stock, not enough for him to push the Longhorns into the post-season. Even a win at Texas Tech and in the first round of the Big 12 Tourney would only get them to 16-16. They would have to win a second-round game against Kansas just to have a chance at the NIT. Barnes' track record against Self doesn't leave too much room for optimism there. And while he at least has a legitimate excuse as to why his team fell apart this season, another late-season implosion at Baylor is raising some familiar questions about Bob Knight's favorite coach.
It's been forgotten because Baylor wound up making the Elite Eight (mostly due to an incredibly favorable draw of a 14, 11 and 10 seed), but they went 8-6 to end the regular season after starting 17-0. This season, despite having three future NBA players, Drew is about to miss the Tournament after going 3-8 in his last 11 games. Last year, he had Perry Jones III, Quincy Miller and Quincy Acy, all of whom are on NBA rosters. This year, he has Pierre Jackson, Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin. Both years, the book on Drew's team got out around the league and he couldn't find the right adjustments, despite having more NBA-talent at his disposal than most coaches will have in their entire careers.
He hasn't been able to develop any depth, especially on the perimeter, where he's starting an un-athletic 6'3 shooter (Brady Heislip) at the small forward position. Common sense alone would tell you that's not going to work in a conference with LeBryan Nash, Will Clyburn, Rodney MacGruder and Ben McLemore on the wings. He is giving AJ Walton, whose barely a Big 12 caliber player at this point, as many minutes as he can handle. He's letting Jackson, whose probably best used as a Nate Robinson type spark-plug, dominate the ball for all 40 minutes and hoist 7 three pointers a night. Baylor doesn't play consistent team defense or team offense and their two main ball-handlers average 6 turnovers a game. That's a formula to get beat by just about anyone.
Here's what's really scary for both coaches: they might have less talent next season and both are "less with more" guys rather than "more with less". The Longhorns probably can't count on Kabongo coming back, not after his last run-in with the NCAA, and we've all seen what can happen to Barnes' offenses when there isn't high-level NBA talent on hand to bail it out. I like Papi as much as anyone, but (barring a recruiting miracle) 2014 will be one of the only seasons at Texas Barnes hasn't had a sure-fire first-rounder on his roster. Drew, meanwhile, is going to have to figure out how to win games for the first time in four years without a potential lottery pick upfront in Ekpe Udoh, PJ3 or Austin. There will still be a good amount of talent at both schools, but it certainly won't be overwhelming.
And while Texas and Baylor are the weakest they've been in awhile, Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are all peaking. The conference's resurgent middle class has absolutely wrecked the Longhorns and the Bears this season; they've even given the Jayhawks some trouble. I've got as much respect for Self as anyone, but he's built a lot of his reputation out of matching wits with Barnes and Drew. This season, he's had to deal with Bruce Weber, whose taken Frank Martin's players to new heights, as well as rapidly improving programs under the helm of Lon Kruger, Fred Hoiberg and Travis Ford. Perhaps not coincidentally, Kansas has looked as vulnerable in conference play as they have since Self came to Lawrence.
The rap on Weber at Illinois was that he couldn't recruit at a high-enough level, not that he couldn't coach. We'll see whether he'll be able to bring enough talented players into Manhattan over the long-term, but he's already got a share of the conference title with above average (at best) players this season. Kruger, now in his second year at OU, is the same way. He's a coaches coach -- a former NBA head coach who has already taken four different schools to the Tourney. Hoiberg, a former NBA player and executive, has brought an NBA philosophy to Ames. He spreads the floor with 4-5 shooters and runs a free-flowing offense that gives players the freedom to make decisions and the green light to shoot. He's already attracted two transfers with next level talent -- Royce White and Clyburn -- and it's hard not to see him attracting more, especially when you compare his system to the half-court rock-fights in the SEC and the Big East.
Ford, who appears to be as elite a recruiter as Barnes or Drew, might be the biggest challenge of all. I don't remember watching many UT games where they were significantly out-manned at every position, but that's exactly what happened when they played Oklahoma State this season. Marcus Smart, Markel Brown, LeBryan Nash, Kamari Murphy, Philip Jurick -- the Cowboys had the bigger and more athletic player at every spot on the floor. Unsurprisingly, they beat the Longhorns twice, both times fairly easily. Smart and Nash are from Dallas. Barnes has been losing the Metroplex to Drew for years and now it appears Ford has lapped him there too.
Barnes went 2-6 against the new middle class this season and both wins came in OT. Drew went 1-7. Those are pretty grisly records without even getting into Bob Huggins, who will almost certainly right the ship at West Virginia. He doesn't need a bunch of elite talent to win; he recently made the Final Four with two second-round draft picks -- Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks. Drew and Barnes have both depended on out-manning their opponents to be successful and now they're going into one of the most crucial recruiting periods in their careers without any momentum. Barnes really needs Julius Randle and it's just hard to see him getting that type of guy right now.
In a way, Drew and Barnes have become victims of their own success. They've beaten the other schools in the conference so many times that they've forced them to get their act together in terms of finding the right head coach. You can do much the same exercise in football, which has seen a tremendous amount of change around Mack Brown and Bob Stoops over the last decade. Over a long enough time period, the game changes so much that only the greatest are able to survive. Bill Self, a future Hall of Famer, will adjust to the higher degree of competence among his fellow Big 12 coaches. If Drew and Barnes are going to be able to, they'll need to find themselves more Kabongo's and Austin's on the recruiting trail. Even then, as this season has shown, it's no guarantee they'll be able to use that type of talent correctly.