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The Basketball Crossroads

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Rick Barnes is at 'em.

The most dangerous thing any coach can do is create heightened expectations in a fan base, deliver on them consistently and incrementally for a decade, and then falter with the team that promises to finally get to the next level; the appointed year that we cement ourselves as a permanent fixture in the basketball elite.

Human psychology is such that low expectations rewarded with great success are met with jubilation, we judge a team by what we thought they were, though those expectations eventually recalibrate as if we'd thought to be there all along. That is its own danger, but God help you when high expectations are fueled, rewarded, and raised (starting 17-0, ranked #1) and then are utterly and somewhat inexplicably destroyed (6-7 record down the stretch, ugly product on the court). We won't recalibrate that glorious expectation - now the Platonic ideal of the team that should have been is our measure for the rest of the year.

From a geopolitical perspective, this is the stuff of revolutions: heightened expectation, material progress, a growth of belief in the predictable acceleration of the aforementioned, hope doused in gasoline, then a perceptual and real setback, finally, growing murderous resentment when expectations aren't met. Longhorn Nation wouldn't have been whispering of a coup ten years ago with a 23-7 record and a projected 7 seed; we would have been mouthing prayers of thanks. This is the burden of rewarding New Money basketball fans with wins and success...and then shitting your bed spectacularly.

The reaction against Barnes' coaching job this year has been swift and brutal - from himself too I might add - and Barking Carnival has led the charge; as much for the incoherent and uninspired play on the court and the inability to meld together a team, as the failure to come through in the year that basketball fans had circled on their calendars as The One. Since BC came online, we've been the best and most consistent advocates of UT Basketball - and by extension Rick Barnes - on the interwebs (and Trips Right is the best writer on college basketball anywhere). So I wonder if some of my own crackbacks on this year's coaching job don't stem from a sense of resentment that a guy and a program I'd talked up for a decade, and a Texas fan base I'd mocked for its tepid support, poured cold water on my own bonfire of expectation.

Actually, I don't wonder that at all. That's what happened. I feel a little betrayed. I wanted my guy to come through this year, not just as a Texas Longhorn fan, but because I want Barnes to be the guy to make it work.

I've always been a Barnes advocate. He's the best coach in UT basketball history. Of course, that may be like being the hottest girl in Augusta, Maine. I'm happy to argue this point with any SWC parochial Abe Lemons afficianado who remembers the two years we were actually worth a damn and stretches that fantasy to a decade, or those of you who are man-perm Penders schnapps enthusiasts. Arm yourself with your best spray-on tanner and bring it.

Barnes is in coaching for the right reasons, he has kept the program clean in the recruiting cesspool of college basketball, guys generally grow as human beings under his tutelage, and I can count the number of negative headlines about UT basketball players on two fingers of one hand over the last decade. I hear a lot more about our guys making the Dean's List instead of the Bail Queue. It's remarkable, really. Don't discount it. Good citizenship is something you appreciate more in its absence rather than when it's present.

I like Barnes personally. He's a good dude: funny, self-deprecating, confident, loves to harpoon the pompous and stupid. You would like to grab Mexican food and a drink with Barnes and he'd probably find it amusing if you mocked his offense. There's a current thread of belief in the Longhorn faithful - mostly from the casual pilers-on who think that Kevin Durant played with LaMarcus Aldridge and TJ Ford - that Barnes is some sort of Bobby Knight figure: piling Tampax into player lockers, choking secretaries, and beating ocelots to death with a dry erase board at halftime.

Wrong.

First, it was a civet. And it would not declare its intentions.

Second, he was sensibly stockpiling Tampax for Y2K.

Finally, the "secretary" was actually former Secretary General of the United Nations Kofi Annan and Barnes went Latrell Sprewell to demonstrate his disagreement with Annan's inaction on weapons proliferation in the former Soviet Republics.

I readily grant that Barnes coaches the kids without compromise, he has too quick a hook for the psychological make-up of this particular team (but had the perfect hook for some others), he has done a horrible job of assigning roles; his crush on Justin Mason cost us games and player development, our offensive philosophies are Orwellian, and there's evidence that he's better at coaching a borderline Top 100 hard-nosed kid with a chip on his shoulder than a talented wunderkind who has been told his ass smells like roses since he was 13. The list of offenses are known to all of us and dumbly recounting them is easy enough.

I like that Barnes doesn't make excuses - ever, in fact - so I'll try to avoid making them for him. People forget that Mack Brown went through an extended period of self-pity at his own crossroads - Longhorn messiah, OU humiliations, Vince Young restoration, irritating fall off and bad off-field headlines, then gutty overachievers in 2008/2009. Nothing is written. At any point in Mack Brown's tenure you had sufficient evidence to predict almost anything and though it all looks clean and tidy in retrospect, at the time you were likely as bewildered as to our eventual direction as I was.

One thing that New Money basketball fan lacks is perspective. A mid to late season flame out is not something particularly unique in basketball history (troubling #1 to unranked statistic aside) and every coach in basketball history has had at least one notable underachieving team. Some "great coaches" have had, oh, I don't know - TEN. Coach K had some teams more horrifying than a burn unit when Duke basketball hit a rough stretch and he has squandered high seeds in the NCAA tournament for what seems like forever; Dean Smith - one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time - managed two national titles in 36 years, an achievement matched by Roy Williams, long held by KU fans to be a choke artist, in 4 years. I'll spare you recounting Bobby Knight's slow descent into irrelevance.

None of us know what this year means until we're looking back three years out. In the meanwhile, I'll facepalm at our half court sets, wonder why we don't take a charge on defense, puzzle over our understanding of the screen game, and fret over our incohesive play like the rest of you. But unlike the negativity sluts who revel in crisis and bathe in the excrement of failure, I'll also be pulling for Rick Barnes to fix it.

Hook 'em.