A season for the ages ended in career vindication for Texas head coach Rick Barnes. It was accomplishment enough that his Longhorns made it to a second consecutive Final Four. But this season, the calling card was "leave no doubt," and the Horns stamped it everywhere they went. Texas played its finest ball in April, ending the year by cutting down the nets.
Senior leaders Jordan Hamilton and Avery Bradley anchored the offense and defense, respectively. Finishing his career as Texas' all-time leading scorer, Hamilton poured in a combined 65 points over the weekend to win MVP honors. On the defensive end, Bradley locked down Michigan's Trey Burke on Saturday, then followed that up by stifling Louisville's Russ Smith in the Championship game.
Canadian juniors Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph are already talking about "back-to-back championships," but that doesn't diminish their contributions this year. Thompson anchored the frontcourt as one of the nation's leading rebonders, and if not for an average FT%, would be one of the highest efficiency players in all of college basketball. Meanwhile, calling Joseph "Bradley-lite" would be a disservice to his on par skills.
Fellow Canadian Myck Kabongo, just a sophomore, changed the course of the season when he took over starting point guard duties this year. Barnes noted that it was difficult to replace the senior leadership of J'Covan Brown in the starting lineup, but Brown meshed so well with the second team it just made sense to have him coming off the bench. Microwave scorer Sheldon McClellan was a clear beneficiary of a well-functioning backcourt, and "Mac" drained some clutch 3's throughout the NCAA Tournament.
The future is bright. Some youngsters, such as sophomore forward Jonathan Holmes and freshman wing Ioannis Papapetrou, have drawn raves in practice. It'll be interesting to see if the Longhorns can build upon its stellar 35-5 season, but they'll be reloading, not rebuilding.
Dare to dream, right?
Thinking that absence may make the heart grow fonder, I took a step back and gave it time before writing the Texas Longhorns basketball post-mortem. No dice, friend-o.
The players slogged through the season like they were half-awake in a fake empire, while the coaching staff stood haplessly by, merely trying their best not to get banished like participants of a Tywin Lannister roundtable.
A season lost doesn't signify the end of the world; ask Coach Cal's Kentucky Wildcats how things are going after next season. But as long as we're projecting, it certainly feels like going forward, the bottom is much more attainable than the top.
How did we get here? A team comprised entirely of underclassmen sure didn't help. The three seasons prior (dating to 2009-10), Texas lost six* players who declared for the NBA Draft with eligibility remaining, with precious little to show for it. In four years, Texas has won just one NCAA Tournament game, and finished 6th, 2nd, 6th, and 7th in the conference. It's not for a lack of talent either. After this year's draft, six** Longhorns will have been drafted from those teams.
* Bradley (2010), Hamilton (2011), Thompson (2011), Joseph (2011), Brown (2012), Kabongo (2013)
Despite that dreaded combination of lesser talent plus woeful inexperience, there was reason to expect that Texas could contend in a down Big 12. Kabongo and freshman Cameron Ridley, while young, were both McDonald's All-American, five-star recruits coming out of high school. The rest of the roster wasn't chopped liver, either. Sophomores McClellan, Julien Lewis and Jonathan Holmes were all Top 75 4-stars that had promising freshman seasons.
That 2011 class was ranked 8th best in the nation according to Rivals. 2012, also stocked with a handful of 4* prospects, ranked 11th. In stark contrast, Michigan (the sixth least experienced team in the nation) was 7th in 2012 and unranked (!) in 2011. It's not enough to accrue talent; there has to be development.
The 2011 class fell flat on their faces. The least heralded, Sterling Gibbs, was the first to go. He transferred following his freshman season. Given the supposed depth at guard, the decision was understandable. But this season, three more sophomores couldn't have taken off from the program any faster if you taped a cheetah to their backs.
Jaylen Bond didn't even bother to stick around until season's end, declaring his intent to transfer prior to the CBI. McClellan gave up during the Big 12 Tournament, sleepwalking through the final games and made his transfer intentions public before the school could even issue an official release. At least Kabongo waited a few days before he declared for the NBA Draft. He's a fringe first-round/likely second-round pick but clearly didn't believe Barnes nor the NCAA was the place for him to develop his game any further. Their legacy? A 2-year 36-32 record, 2 Big 12 Tournament wins (and 2 losses, natch), 1 NCAA Tournament loss, and 1 CBI (what's that, you say?) loss to "Cougar High." Yeesh.
The damage may not be over. Holmes can't stay healthy, and it's not a given that he will be the primary option over freshman Connor Lammert. Speculation abounds that Lewis will transfer as well. That the Longhorns are bringing in a three-guard 2013 recruiting class (and just offered another) doesn't bode well for Lewis' future, whether he transfers or not.
If luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, the sophomore class failed to bring the former (except for Kabongo, who deprived himself of opportunity through sheer stupidity). McClellan was the most egregious offender. Asked to become a primary scorer in the wake of Brown's departure, Sheldon's efficiency stats plummeted. He shot 43.8% inside the arc (vs. 53.7% in 2012) and a brutal 27.1% beyond it (vs. 31.0%). McClellan torpedoed his usage increase from 19.8% as a freshman to 25.9% as a sophomore (the "opportunity") by being woefully unprepared to assume the alpha dog mantle.
Lewis showed incremental improvement in his percentage stats across the board, which would be great news if he was definitively coming back.*** His season-ending numbers still weren't great: 35.1% from 3 and 43.9% from 2, with a slight uptick in assist rate and downturn in TO rate despite not being asked to handle the ball. In the frontcourt, Holmes' stat-splits heavily skewed favorably pre-injury, leading to speculation that he either rushed himself back or didn't properly condition during his injury time. The numbers: Holmes shot 49.1% vs. 37.2% after, and grabbed 7.1 RPG compared to 3.1 post-injury.
*** By the way, this would probably be a good time to mention that there are unsubstantiated rumors that Ridley is unhappy and looking around, too.
At some point, looking at stats is just depressing. Kabongo won team MVP honors, and he played in just 11 games! Arguably, Ioannis Papapetrou was Texas' best player all season. Then again, he had just a 97.5 O-Rtg (a measure of offensive statistical efficiency; anything <100 is, well, not good). As long as we're talking O-Rtgs, DeMarcus Holland's was 78.1; Ridley's 77.2. That's so far below the Mendoza line, even the Houston Astros are amazed.
Contemplate something long enough, and you can talk yourself into just about anything. Lewis and Holmes could both be All-Conference players in 2013-14. Papapetrou could become the next Chandler Parsons. Javan Felix could have some of that Bon Temps D.J. Augustin magic in him. Ridley and Prince Ibeh could turn from raw, projectable bigs to dominant, defensively stout post players. The incoming recruiting class could outplay their star rankings, a la Trey Burke.
Yet for so long now, "could have" has simply become "did not." Barnes has done a lot for this program, and (recent) past performance is not necessarily an indicator of future results. And sure, if Texas does move on from Barnes, no crystal ball exists to guarantee the next coach will do any better, or won't do any worse.
You're only as good as your last envelope. Barnes' envelopes have been light for a while now. I know it. The fanbase knows it. The pundits know it. And perhaps worse of all, the players in the game know it. Things are likely to get far, far worse before they get better.
Whether the ivory tower of DeLoss Dodds cares or not (SPOILER ALERT: he does not), change is coming. Barnes will reach either a breaking point to unemployment or a tipping point to renewed success. But judging by the cards in his hand, I'm pretty confident in which way I'm placing my bet.