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Rick Barnes and the Nagging Question

Back in March 2010, Rick Barnes stirred up Longhorn fans with this quote in ESPN The Magazine. When asked, "Do you feel pressure this year to not only go to the Final Four, but to win the national championship?", Barnes replied:

"We would love to win a national championship, but we're not obsessed with it because we're obsessed with these guys trying to live their NBA dream. What's happened to Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge, T.J. Ford -- I'd give up a national title for all of our guys to be able to live their dream."

To calm the storm, Barnes later called the question frivolous, affirmed that his answer was out-of-context, then clarified and defended his quote until everyone seemed satisfied. When the Horns proceeded to drop from the nation's No. 1 ranking and lose in the first round of the NCAA tournament, then had three players taken in the first 32 picks of the 2010 NBA draft, the implication of the quote raised its ugly head again.

Skip ahead one year, and a similar story emerges. Texas climbs to No. 2 in the country, then overheats and stumbles to the finish line again, culminating in a second-round tournament loss. Three months later, three Longhorn starters go to the NBA as first-round picks. No other team had more first-rounders this year.

So after the second straight season that ended with more NBA draft picks than NCAA tournament wins, Barnes was given yet another chance to reflect on his infamous 2010 quote. He told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram:

"If you asked me in the end would I want us to win a bunch of championships and our players not succeed -- I wouldn't want to do that. But on the other hand, if you could guarantee that every player you coach could have a chance to live out his dream -- and I'm not just talking about basketball, but life -- and that means your guys aren't going to win a championship, what would you take? I'd have to say I would want our guys to have a chance to live their dreams. Does that mean I don't care? That's not what I'm saying at all. Because I'm smart enough to realize if these guys live their dream, we're going to keep putting ourselves in position and one day it is going to come together, and we're going to win it. We do this for a lot of reasons. But if I didn't have the desire to win it, I wouldn't do this."

Public relations pros will tell you that the best response to these type of hypothetical questions would be to avoid them, especially those that involve a choice. Because almost always that's not really a choice you have to make. An easy "both are important" or even "I'm glad that's not a actual choice I have to make" defuses a no-win situation.

Barnes' botching the answer in 2010 and causing an uproar can be forgiven. Even someone with years of experience dealing with the media and thousands of interviews under his belt can occasionally say something off-script. But what's interesting is that when given a mulligan, more than a year after the original shank, Barnes yanked the answer into the trees again.

Even so, it's not so much the content of his answer. Of course coaches want to win hardware. And you need the best players to do that. All coaches would admit to that when pressed. The more interesting part is: Why is it so difficult for Barnes to give a good answer to that question?

The struggles reveal some insight into the Tao of Rick. The Barnes' on-court way is to play your ass off on defense, obediently run the offense, and win by wearing down your opponent. But his approach as a recruiter and program builder has been to consistently bring in the best talent with promises of NBA success.

So he's caught between these two demands - winning and producing pros - and finding it difficult to do both. If he stays true to himself, excelling at one may mean failing at the other. Would it be better to put together a team of hard-nosed, well-executing overachievers and go deeper into the NCAA Tournament? Or is it better to bring in the best prep players in North America and develop them for a year or two before releasing them into the NBA wilds, even if that means inconsistent post-season results? In his answers, Barnes says he prefers the latter, even if the former is better suited to his style.

It's easy to say that Barnes is a victim of his own success. His time at UT has been a golden era of Texas basketball. A long string of 20-win seasons and tournament appearances has raised the bar. And every time he brings in a McDonalds All-American and every time those guys hear they name called on draft night, the bar inches a little higher.

But there's still that nagging question; one that won't go away until Barnes' team puts together some significant success come tournament time.

A question that likely wouldn't have come up if Jordan Hamilton doesn't call time out against Arizona with 14 seconds left. But it happened and here we are again.