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Defending Rick Barnes

In the last two seasons, with six NBA players and five future first-round picks at Texas, Rick Barnes’ Longhorns have won one NCAA Tournament game. This dramatic mismatch between talent and production has only increased doubts about Barnes’ coaching philosophy and how he constructs a roster.

Few have forgotten his infamous quote from last year, when he said he’d rather send players to the NBA than win a national championship. But while his answer raised eyebrows in Austin, he was being presented with a false choice. On-court success helps players make the pros, and having pro players fuels on-court success.

While many point to Butler’s success as the antithesis to the "Rick Barnes Model", two runs through the Tournament shouldn’t be the ultimate factor in judging a program’s long-term viability. In a one-game scenario, no matter the tactics or personnel, anything can happen. If the ball doesn’t bounce right into Matt Howard’s hands in the end of the Bulldogs first-round game against Old Dominion, they’re a one-year wonder.
Coaching or luck?

Shelvin Mack’s years of experience didn’t prevent him from committing one of the silliest fouls in Tournament history against Pittsburgh when he careened into Gilbert Brown as Brown was attempting a half-court shot with less than 3 seconds left. It makes Jordan Hamilton and Cory Joseph’s time-out woes against Arizona seem trivial by comparison.

Mack and Joseph were both combo guards with a questionable ability to transition to the NBA. Yet the Texas player is the one with a guaranteed first-round contract while the Butler product will have to fight for a spot on Washington’s roster as a second-rounder whenever the lockout ends. No one thought Joseph would be picked at #29 or fellow Canadian Tristan Thompson would go #4; for recruits looking to make the NBA, that was the most impressive accomplishment in college basketball this season.

There’s certainly no denying Rick Barnes and his coaching staff’s ability to develop players. Look beyond LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant, guys who would have been stars regardless of their college program, but at the careers of Royal Ivey and Maurice Evans. Both second-round picks, they’ve beaten the odds and carved out successful careers as defensive-specialists.

** Does UT have the best group of alumni in the NBA? At first glance, I'd take Wake Forest -- Chris Paul, Jeff Teague, Josh Howard, Darius Songaila, Tim Duncan -- but it would be pretty close. **

If you play for Rick Barnes, you’re going to play tough, hard-nosed man-to-man defense, an essential for any role player trying to stick at the next level. And thanks to the work of the indispensable Todd Wright, you’re going to maximize your athletic ability.

Similarly, Barnes’ noted penchant for "random ball-screening" forces players to learn to create their own shot off the dribble, the most important skill for an NBA player to have. If you get a basket at Texas, you damn well earned it. No one ran an offense to get you open; no one got you an easy lay-up on a back-door cut. You made an NBA-caliber move and created an opportunity for yourself or one of your teammates.

Ivey has made almost $5 million dollars in six NBA seasons.

This isn’t baseball or football; Texas doesn’t have a great tradition or a huge fan-base to sell to recruits. Guys from Canada and Washington (Avery Bradley) and California (Jordan Hamilton) are coming to Austin for one reason: because they think Rick Barnes can help them reach their dreams.

Without Barnes and Wright, that pipeline dries up instantly. And the likely alternative isn’t Butler, it’s Texas A&M – a bunch of solid three and four-star recruits who will stick around for four years and try to beat more talented teams on execution and discipline. The Aggies have made one Sweet 16 in the last decade.

Recently I was talking to a girl from Rice who was complaining about other alums acting as if they had a connection just because they went to the same tiny school. I told her that UT doesn’t work that way, not when there are over 7,000 freshmen coming in each year from all parts of the state and all walks of life. No one pretends they have any connection with someone because they both went to UT-Austin.

What brings the campus together isn’t the teachers or the social life, the communal experience we have is athletics. If I meet a guy from the class of 2005, we’re going to talk about Vince Young. If I meet a guy from the class of 2009, we’re going to talk about Colt McCoy. And if I meet a guy from the class of 2007, we’re going to talk about Kevin Durant.

I always let LeBron know off top: they love you right now; they love you right now. But please believe me -- the first incident, the first time something happens -- they waiting man. They waiting. -- Allen Iverson, 2005

Durant came to campus the year after the core of an Elite Eight team – Aldridge, Daniel Gibson and PJ Tucker – departed en masse to the NBA. His team, which started four freshmen and a sophomore, only made it to the NCAA Tournament’s second round. No one’s going to be handing out accolades for Barnes’ coaching "performance" against USC that year, but no one should be calling that season unsuccessful either.

UT basketball fans got the chance to see a guy who could become one of the top-25 players of all-time at the age of 18. Durant, a super-skilled 6’10 jump shooter with a 7’4 wingspan, was simply too good for the college game. He was usually the tallest, most athletic and most skilled player on the court.

I’ll remember the 3OT game at Oklahoma City, his first half at the Allen Fieldhouse and his shoot-out with Acie Law way longer than I will UT’s run to the Sweet 16 in 2004. And so will the young kids shooting hoops dreaming of being Kevin Durant one day.

Rick Barnes isn’t a perfect coach; he’s far from it. But he’s shown a willingness to adapt, question himself and improve despite a track record that positively dwarfs the previous century of Texas basketball.

Keep Barnes in Austin and elite players will continue to stop by en route to the NBA, and I’ll take a year of Kevin Durant over four years of Matt Howard every time. Over the long haul, a decent coach with great players will be more successful than a great coach with decent ones.

His teams will be a lot more entertaining too.