After missing the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 14 seasons, the Texas basketball program is at its lowest point since Rick Barnes came to Austin in 1998. The Longhorns finished with a 16-18 record, including a loss to a Division II school, and they will likely go into next season without their top two scorers. The program has been trending in the wrong direction since 2010, when a team with four future NBA draft picks was ranked No. 1 in the polls before imploding down the stretch and losing in the first round of the Tournament. And while Barnes has always been able to make up for his strategic deficits with outstanding recruiting, he wasn't able to land any of the five McDonald's All-Americans from Texas this year.
To be fair, that's hardly a recent development. Barnes has been one of the premier recruiters in the country for the majority of his time in Austin, but he's never had much success building a fence around the state. He signed T.J. Ford (Houston) and LaMarcus Aldridge (Dallas), but most of his success in recent years has come from national recruits: Kevin Durant (Washington D.C.), D.J. Augustin (New Orleans), Avery Bradley (Washington), Jordan Hamilton (L.A.) as well as the Canadian pipeline of Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and Myck Kabongo. Now, with Texas basketball rapidly losing its national cachet, his best chance of rebuilding the program starts at home.
By itself, the DFW metroplex produces enough talent to sustain a Top 10 program. This year, Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), Isaiah Austin (Baylor) and Tony Mitchell (North Texas) will all be drafted in the first round. In 2012, Perry Jones III (Baylor). In 2010, Wesley Johnson (Iowa State/Syracuse). In 2009, Darrell Arthur (Kansas). Over the span of the last decade, there are names like Aldridge, Deron Williams (Illinois), Chris Bosh (Georgia Tech), Jason Maxiell and Kenyon Martin (Cincinnati). Next season, in all likelihood, you'll be able to add Julius Randle (Kentucky) and LeBryan Nash (Oklahoma State) to that list. I'm not as up on Houston basketball, but they've put out a good number of pros (DeAndre Jordan, TJ Ford, Emeka Okafor) over the years.
You can't make an apples-to-apples comparison between football and basketball when it comes to recruiting. With essentially every D1 recruit in the country playing in national AAU tournaments in the spring and summer and only 12 scholarships to give out, it's fairly easy to sign players without paying any real heed to geography. At the same time, since most young players in Texas dream of playing in the NBA, not the Erwin Center, you can't expect the name of the school alone to bring in elite players. Nevertheless, the state of Texas annually produces a ton of high-level basketball talent and there's no reason the state's flagship school shouldn't be able to get some of it.
I don't follow the ins and outs of recruiting as much as JC, but word around the campfire is that Barnes doesn't have a good relationship with the powers that be in the Dallas AAU scene. A similar dynamic out in LA is one of the main reasons why Ben Howland lost the UCLA job. That's really not all that surprising, since neither coach is exactly known for his people skills to begin with. Texas fans like to act holier than thou when it comes to "playing ball", but there's a huge gap between being a bag man for OJ Mayo (still funny!) and developing good relationships with the people who develop talent in your backyard. I don't see NCAA investigators beating down Scott Drew and Travis Ford's doors, so there's no reason why guys who went to Stillwater or Waco couldn't be convinced to come to Austin.
In that respect, it's a surprise Barnes has been successful this long at Texas. Texas basketball doesn't have the greatest tradition, fan base or in-stadium experience. What it does have is prime access to some of the most fertile recruiting areas in the country. Barnes has been "swimming upstream" for years, winning in Austin without being able to recruit Dallas or Houston. At the same time, the rise of a high school and AAU basketball infrastructure in Texas is a fairly recent development, which makes it hard to evaluate how much value Barnes has brought to the position. He's unquestionably the most successful basketball coach in school history, but the sport's future in the state is much brighter than its past.
The Big 12 is a major conference, but it isn't a murderer's row of high-level programs like the ACC or the Big Ten. Kansas is the only traditional basketball power, and of the other eight jobs, Texas is easily the best position. You don't need someone in Austin to re-invent the wheel like Jim Boeheim did at Syracuse, a solid basketball coach will do. In my opinion, there's everything in place for the right coach to do what Billy Donovan did at Florida in the 1990's. Of course, finding a Billy Donovan is difficult, but what was he before he came to Gainesville? He had worked for Rick Pitino for 5 years and went 35-20 for 2 years at Marshall.
You can find a great coach in a lot of different places. Everyone always points to Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart, but Butler (Thad Matta) and VCU (Anthony Grant) have a history of churning out rising stars in the coaching ranks. Stevens is now in the Big East and Shaka turned down UCLA, so maybe they never leave. Nevertheless, there's still a number of good coaches out there, if you know where to look. Arizona got the prototypical rising young star (Sean Miller), but Oregon went with a proven winner at a mid-major program (Dana Altman) and Iowa State has been tremendously successful with a former NBA player (Fred Hoiberg). For obvious reasons, winning the first press conference is a little overrated by the media. Who had heard of Smart and Stevens five years ago?
This isn't a criticism of Barnes as much as a reflection that the ground has shifted under his feet. On the whole, he's had a fine run at Texas and he deserves another year to try and turn things around. I'd love to be proven wrong, but I'm skeptical that he'll be able to reinvent himself and survive in the new-look Big 12. He's always depended on high-level NBA talent to bail out his offense, and for the first time since I can remember, he doesn't have any. That was some brutal, hard to watch basketball without Kabongo on the floor this season. Barnes is a good coach, but Texas is a good job, so he's not irreplaceable. And if you get the right coach in place who can consistently get players out of Dallas and Houston, Texas can be a great job.