(If the title seems familiar, it's because I'm channeling a sliver of our esteemed Scipio Tex's brilliant article giving Mack Brown's Texas career its Last Rites. I can't equal the eloquence of his piece, but I'm about to administer some final words on the Longhorn career of a coach that is the best men's basketball coach the 40 Acres has ever known.)
I hate this.
I hate this with every fiber of my being. I hate that less than 3 months after writing an earnest piece on how a Texas team - this Texas team - could make a Final Four run, I'm writing an obituary on a Texas coach who has objectively been the best basketball coach in Austin since Jody Conradt's heyday. It seems like such a knee-jerk sports fan overreaction to a tough stretch, something you see from the types who get their rocks off calling in to sports radio to complain about the Cowboys not calling more "touchdown plays". I hate that Rick Barnes was about to get his moment in the sun, but blew it. I hate talking down about a team full of players who are busting their asses. I hate that Javan Felix is being tasked with a job that doesn't fit his skillset. I hate that Demarcus Holland's defensive prowess and legitimate offensive progression(he's 4-4 from 3 tonight and they're f**king losing!) is being negated. I hate that Cameron Ridley's body & game transformation is being lost in the shuffle. I hate that a guy like Jonathan Holmes is an emotional warrior on a team that has mentally regressed on him. I hate that Myles Turner's magnificent free throws are draining into a bucket of futility. I hate all of it.
This was going to be it.
Several posters have talked ad nauseum about the Rick Barnes Personnel Formula, which is essentially a core group of quality 3-4 year players paired with a stud underclassman. Ever since the 2010 collapse, this has been the elusive formula he's supposedly building towards but never quite achieved for myriad reasons. With the addition of Myles Turner, this is the closest Barnes had been to his preferred mixture since Kevin Durant mulled over whether to return for his sophomore season. The majority of the Texas basketball fans I read suspected the same thing: this was it. Barnes finally managed to get the alchemy right, and this was his best chance at making noise in the NCAAs in nearly a decade. We saw them come out like gangbusters too, exorcising the Madison Square Garden demons - not to mention the black jersey demons - not once, but twice. Even with the Isaiah Taylor injury, the team still stuck with an amazingly talented Kentucky squad for 35 minutes. Everything about this team looked right; they played suffocating defense, they were swatting enough shots that I was expecting to find out they spent the summer rooming at Dikembe Mutombo's house, and their guards were shooting an effective amount of 3s. They looked like they were ready to do damage. You could just feel it, they had it. Barnes' program resurrection was complete, we were here. That debacle of a 2012-2013 season was way back in the rear view mirror and fading fast. For those of us preaching patience & a belief in a formula that makes a lot of sense in the world of NCAA basketball, this was going to be a season to enjoy. We were about to be repaid for our allegiance through the Myck & McClellan Comedy Hour by seeing a skilled & savvy Texas team return to the form that became commonplace through most of the 2000s. We're on our way to the New Years Eve party in Boogie Nights, ready to spend a night partying with porn stars. Alas...
The equation on Rick Barnes is the same as its been for years. The results are usually within a defined range; you know what you're going to get in a normal Rick Barnes year. If we're being honest, it's an above-average return in D1 basketball. There are some teams that do better, and many more that do worse. Rick Barnes is like Coca-Cola stock; you're going to get a return on your dollar that will increase your net worth, but just as you won't lose a ton of cash you probably won't have double-digit returns, either. It's not a bad place to be, but it's also not like sitting on Apple stock(or Enron stock). That level of consistency is good for your retirement fund but doesn't make for compelling sports to the casual fan. So really what we're talking about when we talk about Rick Barnes is what kind of gambler you are; if you're the type willing to sit on a 4-5% ROI, collect it for 30 years, and beat most of the market, you're probably OK with Rick Barnes. I tend to be more of that group; I'm willing to take that return with the hopes that there will be a year that snags exceptional returns(like 2003) because I'm keenly aware of how hard it is to beat the market most years. Not everyone has that mindset, and the people willing to deal with heavy losses in exchange for heavy gains have been sour on Rick Barnes for awhile now.
My hesitancy to join this group has as much to do with what I think Texas' viable options are as anything else. Let us be clear: this is not football. Making the NCAA tournament is harder than making a bowl game, but it's also more democratic and there are more avenues to get into the tourney than the football equivalent. In football, you have to be part of a select few conferences to get into the discussion, so coaches gravitate to the 'Power 5'; in the basketball world, that's not the case. A coach like Mark Few, Shaka Smart, or Gregg Marshall can sit at a mid-major, earn a quality salary, and go dancing in March. There are precious few analogs to this in football; TCU was, but even they made the move to a power conference. Brad Stevens, Shaka, Few, Marshall...hell, Archie Miller could stay at Dayton for a decade if he wanted. Being in the Big 12 isn't the bonus in basketball it might be in another sport, and Texas isn't Texas when we're talking about basketball coaching destinations. This is a long way of explaining that there's a very real possibility that Rick Barnes' replacement - and perhaps his replacement's replacement - may produce worse results than Barnes. As much as I understand the malaise that has grown around Rick Barnes, I'm still terrified about who Texas can get to replace him. If North Carolina can hire Matt Doherty, Kentucky can hire Billy Gillespie, and Indiana can hire Mike Davis & Tom Crean, Texas can hire a dud too. We've been fortunate that Texas basketball - for better or worse - has been interesting & mostly fun for a couple of decades, and we could be in for some serious pain for an extended amount of time. This may be the start of a long walk through the wilderness for Texas basketball. Which sucks. It really, really sucks.
Rick Barnes is a hell of a basketball coach, and his tenure at Texas will eventually be remembered fondly by Texas fans. I wouldn't be surprised if his name is on the court in 10-15 years, because he's responsible for Texas being more than a sideshow in the NCAA landscape. It brings me no joy to say his time should come to an end. I don't want this, but I've come to accept with each mounting loss that it's increasingly likely and maybe well on its way to inevitability. I hope he lands at a mid-major somewhere and makes another school into a perennial tournament team. I hope he wins 200 more games before retiring to the Carolina hills. It's simply time for him to do what he does so well somewhere else.