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A Fool's Errand: Texas-Sized Expectations

Is a title in Texas' future?
Is a title in Texas' future?

We're nearing the end of March, which means the Texas Longhorns' basketball season is over. It also means the discussion of Rick Barnes & his job performance is in full swing. You can set your watch by the calls for Barnes' head - it usually reaches its crescendo the week leading up to the Sweet 16 - and the debate over him and what the ceiling for his program is will continue until Augie loses a series against a Big 12 opponent(too soon?). That's not really what this piece is about, at least not directly. The attempt here is to understand where Texas is as a program currently, where it ranks relative to other programs in the country, and where it should be aiming in the next few years.

With that in mind, let's set the framework of the discussion. I'm going to spend a bit of time looking at things on the national level before focusing on Texas specifically. There are a few aspects that I think define what many consider 'elite' programs:

  1. The ultimate goal of any college basketball program is to win a NCAA Tournament title.
  2. The best programs put themselves in a position to regularly contend for the championship. In a 68-team playoff system there's no guarantee a program will ever win a title, but moves that maximize a program's ability to be 'in the discussion' are preferred.
  3. Repeatability separates the top-tier from the next tier down. Having a once in a decade run at a trophy is good, having 3 is better.
  4. Conference titles are nice, but are only of limited relevance. Regular season titles don't have any inherent value for winning a national championship; at best they're a confirmation of a team that's priming itself for objective #1 & is something to pitch to recruits. Most college basketball fans would trade a handful of conference titles for a national championship run. You think Kansas fans are crowing about winning their 10th consecutive regular-season title or lamenting being bounced by Stanford in the 1st weekend? Can you name the A-10 tournament champion the year VCU went to the Final Four? (Hint: it's not VCU) All titles are not created equal.
  5. Elite programs are able to recruit the elite players, whether they choose to do so or not. (For example, Tom Izzo can snag a 5-star if he wants, but he doesn't do it much.) An elite program can get a visit from nearly any player they're interested in, within reason.

To add a bit of data to this discussion, I'm using a modified format of the data I used to create my March Madness program rankings. It's the same concept, but as a BC reader pointed out it may have undervalued advancing in the tournament so I'm using some different values to calculate post-season success.

Three notes on the information posted below:

  1. The values listed are values from 1985(when the tournament expanded to 64 teams) to 2013.
  2. The percentages listed in 'Final Fours' & 'Sweet 16s' are percentages made when the team makes the NCAAs. In other words, if a team made the tournament 20 times and made the Final Four 10 times, it will show 10/20 = 50%. This way it's more accurately reflecting success within the tournament by not counting the years they missed the tournament against them. Their success in making the tournament is shown in the last column(Make Tourney %).
  3. Using the amount of alumni in the NBA is an imperfect measure of program talent, however I believe it gives a general idea of how attractive these programs are to high-level recruits.

Clear as mud, right? Here we go.

Basketball Blue Bloods:

Team Points Points/Tourney NCs Final Fours(%) Sweet 16s(%) Make Tourney % Current NBA players
Duke 461 16.46 4 11(39.29%) 21(75%) 96.55% 17
UNC 370 14.23 3 9(34.62%) 19(73.08%) 89.65% 18
Kansas 362 12.93 2 8(28.57%) 19(67.86%) 96.55% 18
Kentucky 337 14.04 3 6(25%) 17(70.83%) 82.76% 23

If you're looking for the definition of 'elite', these are at the top of the heap. There's a substantial gap between these four and the next tier, they are almost literally 'The 1%'. It's not a coincidence that 12 of the last 29(41.38%) national titles have been won by these schools. They make the Tourney almost every year(Kentucky is the worst at 'only' making the NCAAs 24 of 29 years) & when they do make it, they're in the Sweet 16 more than 2/3 of the time. Talent flows through these schools regularly; there are 76 players in the NBA(source) from these 4 teams alone. The goal of 347 other D1 programs is to one day join this group, though the number of programs who have a realistic shot of doing so any time in the next 15-20 years is fairly small since these programs show no signs of slowing down. I want to emphasize that last sentence, because when I speak of 'Blue Bloods' this is a segment reserved for programs that have been at or near the top of the basketball world for 3 decades now. This isn't a party you crash in a year or 5 years, it's a party you're invited to after decades of hard work.

Elite Programs:

Team Points Points/Tourney NCs Final Fours(%) Sweet 16s(%) Make Tourney % Current NBA Players
UConn 260 14.44 3 4(22.22%) 13(72.22%) 62.07% 16
Arizona 240 8.89 1 4(14.81%) 14(51.85%) 93.10% 13
Michigan St. 235 10.22 1 6(26.09%) 13(56.52%) 79.31% 6
Syracuse 234 9.75 1 4(16.67%) 13(54.17%) 82.76% 6
Louisville 232 10.55 2 4(18.18%) 12(54.55%) 75.86% 5
Florida 219 12.17 2 4(22.22%) 9(50%) 62.07% 13
UCLA 207 9.41 1 4(18.18%) 11(50%) 75.86% 13

The next group down is what I would label 'Elite', but one step below the 'Blue Bloods'. They account for just under 38% of the national championships since 1985, they make the tournament 3/4 of the time(average of the 7 programs: 75.86%), and when they're in the NCAAs they make the 2nd weekend at least half the time. There's a significant number of NBA players from these programs, but as with most every other measure it's one step below Duke, UNC, & Co. There are precious few basketball fans that would argue against any of the programs being considered elite.

The Challengers:

Team Points Points/Tourney NCs Final Fours(%) Sweet 16s(%) Make Tourney % Current NBA Players
Michigan 189 11.81
1 4(25%) 6(37.5%) 55.17% 3
Indiana 187 8.13 1 3(13.04%) 9(39.13%) 79.31% 4
Arkansas 158 9.29 1 3(17.65%) 6(35.29%) 58.62% 4
Georgetown 149 7.45 0 2(10%) 9(45%) 68.97% 10
OU 145 6.90 0 2(9.52%) 8(38.1%) 72.41% 2
UNLV 143 11 1 3(23.08%) 6(46.15%) 44.83% 4
Maryland 141 8.29
1 2(11.76%) 8(47.06%) 58.62% 4
Villanova 139 8.18 1 2(11.76%) 6(35.29%) 58.62% 4
Ohio State 138 8.63 0 3(18.75%) 8(50%) 55.17% 7
Illinois 137 6.23 0 2(9.09%) 6(27.27%) 75.86% 3
Texas 126 5.73 0 1(4.55%) 7(31.82%) 75.86% 10
Memphis 125 4.31 0 2(12.5%) 7(43.75%) 55.17% 8

This group is where things start to get pretty muddy because they all have some aspect that most college basketball fans would consider elite. Some make the NCAAs regularly, many have won a national championship, others have several alumni in the NBA, and so on. Nearly all of them can make a case they belong in the 'Elite' group in some category, but none of them hold the complete package necessary to make the leap to 'elite' in my opinion.

By the way, I'm compelled to mention that I mulled over Michigan & Indiana for awhile before deciding to place them in this group. There are points in time over the past 29 years when they would've been in the 'Elite' group and they both have the ability to ascend into that group more quickly than everyone else in this third tier. (Hell, Michigan could do it this year if they make it to the Final Four again.) I left them out because they both had some down periods in their past - Michigan for most of the 2000s, Indiana for most of the Davis/Sampson era - that just nudges them out of the 'Elite' group for now. For the same reasons, Arkansas & UNLV are on their way out of this group as well, just in the opposite direction. You could make a solid argument they don't deserve to be in this group for anyone under the age of 30, because the last time Arkansas & UNLV were relevant on the national stage a person born in 1984 was in middle school.

Teams that could soon make the 'Challengers' tier: Oklahoma State, Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Stanford, Xavier, Missouri, Butler, Gonzaga, VCU, Wichita State.

So, Texas...

Before I get into where Texas is or where I think they 'should' be, I'm going to provide a little background on where Texas was as a program by showing where it was from 1985-1988(the end of the Weltlich Era) & from 1988-1998(Penders era). I think this will help illustrate the rise of the Texas basketball brand & give a rough approximation of where it fit into the national scene.

The End of the Weltlich Era(1985-1988):

Team Points Points/Tourney NCs Final Fours(%) Sweet 16s(%) Make Tourney %
Texas 0 0 0 0(0%) 0(0%) 0(0%)

Is that clear enough for everybody? Texas was terrible under Weltlich. They made one post-season appearance in his reign, a NIT berth where they were bounced in the second round. Other than that, it's a big bag of nothin'. Weltlich's teams weren't even the best team on campus; this was during Jody Conradt's heyday. Maybe srr50 can tell us if they ever scrimmaged each other and if so how badly Jody's team probably beat the men. Kaiser Bob gave us Travis Mays and that's about it.

Tom Penders(1988-1998):

Team Points Points/Tourney NCs Final Fours(%) Sweet 16s(%) Make Tourney %
Texas 41 5.13 0 0(0%) 2(25%) 80%

Tom Penders deserves credit for reanimating the dessicated corpse that was Texas basketball. He took a program that hadn't been in the NCAAs for a decade and made them competitive. He started winning games & getting the program into the tournament more regularly. From '88-'98, Texas was arguably the 2nd best program in the SWC behind Arkansas & was one of the 25 most successful tournament programs in that decade(22nd in my list). Penders even started landing talent that would make an appearance at the next level; Lance Blanks & Chris Mihm were both drafted by the NBA. However, it was a less competitive time; there were less than 300 D1 teams in the Penders era(351 currently), and there wasn't the parity & depth of talent across the nation you see these days. Texas wasn't up to the 'Challengers' level yet, it was hanging around the periphery with the Georgia Techs of the world.

Rick Barnes(1998-2013):

Team Points Points/Tourney NCs Final Fours(%) Sweet 16s(%) Make Tourney %
Texas 85 6.07
0 1(7.14%) 5(35.71%) 93.33%

Rick Barnes took over a program that had significant issues & turned the program around with a quickness. He improved the program in every significant way you can improve a program. The Texas program since 1998 has put itself into the 'Challengers' tier and is in the top 20 programs(16th in my list) under Rick Barnes. The list of elite talent that has come through Texas since 1998 matches up well with all but maybe the 'Blue Bloods', and Texas is a near-permanent fixture in the NCAAs under Barnes; only 5 schools(Duke, Michigan State, Kansas, Wisconsin, & Gonzaga) have been in the NCAAs more than Texas during Barnes' tenure.

Is Texas 'Elite'?

The short answer is no. Why isn't Texas in the 'Elite' category? It's fairly simple; Texas doesn't make the consistent deep runs that the 11 schools in the 'Blue Blood' & 'Elite' categories do. Of the 15 teams above Texas in the Total Points category, only Wisconsin averages less points per tournament appearance than Texas. Texas makes the tournament (almost) like clockwork, but they have left the tournament without a win(5 times) as often as they've made the Sweet 16. They're a step short of the top 11 teams. It's a significant step, but not insurmountable.

Can Texas Become 'Elite'?

To answer that, I'm going to post a table with 3 teams(names redacted):

Team Points Points/Tourney NCs Final Fours(%) Sweet 16s(%) Make Tourney % NBA Draft Picks
Team A
53 7.57
1(14.29%) 5(71.43%) 100% 10
Team B 49 7.00
0 1(14.29%) 3(42.86%) 100% 1
Team C
0 1(14.29%) 5(71.43%) 100% 8

Can you guess which team is in each spot? I'll give you a second.







Team A is Duke, Team B is Michigan State, & Team C is Texas. This is the results of a 7-year period from the 2002-2008 NCAA tournaments, and it shows where Texas can be at their best. From 2002-2008, Texas ranks 7th in my list, above programs like Syracuse, Duke, Michigan State, Louisville, & Kentucky. In fact, it's the 2nd highest team in that time-frame without a national title(UCLA). Texas made a Final Four & 3 Elite Eights in that run & was landing talents like LaMarcus Aldridge, D.J. Augustin, and some lanky kid out of Maryland named Durant. Those 7 years represent the peak of Texas' basketball existence & they likely represent Texas' ceiling as a program over the next 10-15 years. To put that in perspective, if Texas were averaging 8.71 points per tournament appearance at their current appearance rate under Barnes of 93.33% from 1985-2013, they'd be tied for 7th with Michigan State at 235 points. That's not bad company to be keeping as a program, and I think the Texas Longhorns fan base would be very happy with that kind of long-term performance. If we're looking for analogs for Texas' ceiling in the long view, Michigan State & Syracuse are the closest available. It's not Kansas*, Duke, or UNC.

(*I'm putting a caveat in for Kansas since Texas shares a conference with them. I am not suggesting that within a given year, Texas can't compete with Kansas for league titles, recruits, or win their share of games against Kansas. That's not out of the question by any means. The point of this article is to look at the long view for the program, not how each individual year should play out. From a long-term view, Kansas is simply a step above most as a program. Texas' goal should be to shrink that gap over time, and they were successfully shrinking it for several years.)

So what should Texas be aiming for as a program? If they want to rejoin the 'Elite' group they were part of for a few years, then here are the rough benchmarks we as a fan base should be expecting:

  1. Make the NCAA tournament roughly 75% of the time.
  2. Make the Sweet 16 in approximately 50% of their tournament appearances.
  3. Make a Final Four run approximately 1 out of every 5 tournament appearances.
  4. Win a National Championship once every 20-25 years.

The fourth one is likely to get some grousing, to which I'd like to point out the following number: 1. That's the amount of national championships Michigan State, Syracuse, Arizona, UCLA, and Indiana have each won since 1985. That was Michael Jordan's rookie year in the NBA(he's now 51 years old). The last time Tom Izzo held up the trophy, Kevin Durant was 11 years old. Winning a National Championship in basketball is rare.

The question most Texas fans are going to follow all of this with is 'can Rick Barnes achieve this'. Actually, most Texas fans already have their mind made up about that question; but let me throw in my 2 cents. Yes, Rick Barnes can do this; the data above shows he already managed most of those requirements for the better part of a decade. Can he do it again? Yes. Will he? It's possible, but far from assured. Is this the end of the road for Rick, or have the last couple of years been a down period - similar to what Boeheim experienced from 2005-2008 - that Barnes is emerging from for another extended run of success? I suspect we will have our answer one way or the other the next 2 seasons.