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Recalibrations and Blind Spots

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Silicon ball for the determination of the kilogram Photo by Sven Hoppe/picture alliance via Getty Images

This year marks the seventh season in which I’ve written about Texas basketball for Barking Carnival, and over the years of predictions and observations I’ve run the gamut from prescient to dead-ass wrong; for every article where I discussed the increasing allure of pro leagues for high-level recruits or dejectedly called for the end of the Rick Barnes tenure, there are articles where I contemplated Texas making a Final Four run with a straight face. Going into last season, I thought Jericho Sims was probably going pro; the season before I thought Eric Davis would be better at hitting open threes than guarded threes. I’ve been wrong a lot, and not just about basketball; I believed in my heart that the Matrix sequels would be fantastic and the last season of Game of Thrones would live up to the hype. I have blind spots.

The idea here is to set the table and have a transparent discussion about my blind spots, the aspects of Texas Longhorns basketball I think I have a good handle on, and the aspects I know I’m lacking in for those of you who join BC during the season. I try to be open about these things along the way, but people come and go from the site over the years, a refresher never hurts, and nobody in history has ever been hurt by listing their weaknesses in a public forum. This is a genius plan and I am definitely not getting cold feet as I type this sentence. Nope, this idea is flawless and will end brilliantly. Nobody’s recording this, right?

Biases

  • I grew up a Texas fan, I went to school at Texas, and Longhorns sports have been one of the longest-running threads in my life, so it goes without saying I want the team to succeed. I do not claim objectivity about this program and while I keep my biases in check in some respects (more on this later) it’s more fun to write about a win than a loss & it’s easier to write about NCAA seeding when the team is 18-8 than it is to feign excitement at the tail end of an 11-win season. It’s not exactly groundbreaking to hear a writer say they want to write about good teams, there’s a reason the New York Yankees beat gigs are harder to get than Tampa Bay Rays spots. Still, this is about transparency and me not acknowledging my preference at the start would make this endeavor pointless.
  • Shaka Smart seems like a genuine human in a profession filled with sociopaths and unrepentant liars. Maybe this is a part of getting older and my world view changing because 18-year-old me wouldn’t have cared if the coach was an amoral tyrant if banners were getting hung, or maybe this is being spoiled by nearly two decades of Rick Barnes being a solid human while still winning more than anyone ever has here. Whatever the reason, I’m going to prefer a person like Barnes or Smart be here than going out and getting Gregg Marshall or Bob Knight to rampage around the 40 Acres like Anger from Inside Out. I acknowledge there’s a good chance this limits the possibility of Texas ever winning a title, and I concede it may make it more likely I have to write about more new coaches over the years as Texas hires nice guys who don’t win enough. I would like to have my cake and eat it, too, and while we’re at it I would like Jessica Biel’s private snapchat username. Well, assuming it’s not a never-ending series of videos where she explores the positives of not vaccinating her children, like how they don’t grow out of their clothes nearly as quickly as other kids their age which saves so much money.
  • I have more patience for a struggling program if I think their processes and reactions to the struggles make sense to me. Putting together a winning team in a given year involves correctly gauging a ton of variables and creating a plan that maximizes positives while minimizing negatives, and building a program that sustains success is geometrically more difficult. I’ve made the spinning plates analogy before and I’ll make it again because the idea of building a roster, creating a cogent offensive and defensive identity, all while constantly having to lure talent to campus to me feels like a constant plate-spinning exercise. Good programs get most of the plates spinning, elite programs get them all spinning. When watching Shaka Smart attempt to spin plates, I learn more from what he does when a plate falls than I do from when he gets it going. This applies to the micro (in-game/tactical changes) and the macro (replacing coaches, changing schemes) and I’m willing to give more time to a coach whose decisions make logical sense even if they don’t work out every time.
  • I’m going to root for Andrew Jones, period. He’s been through more in his first 21 years on this planet than most twice his age, and if anybody is going to get me to break the “no cheering in the press box” rule, it’s him.
  • Dogs are awesome and we don’t deserve them. This has nothing to do with basketball but I will breakdance fight anyone who disagrees.

Blind Spots

  • I do not have the time or the desire to be a recruiting insider. Trying to follow basketball recruiting is like bobbing for apples in a vat of LSD; sure, you might get an apple, but you’re more likely to open a portal to the 6th dimension while laying next to the pork rinds in a Decatur QuikTrip, which…I’ve had worse weekends. Excuse me I’ve got to text a friend about a Halloween idea. Okay, where were we? Right, recruiting. It’s terrible, and basing a livelihood on the decision-making of 17-year-olds seems like a sure path to poverty and insanity. I learn enough to know the names of the main recruits and that’s about it - my motto is ‘learn about them when they commit’ because Texas will get 2-5 recruits off of 24+ offers and that’s a lot of wasted effort IMO - beyond that I’m relying on people more attuned to these things than I am like Andrew Slater, Kevin Flaherty, and Dustin McComas. This leads to my second blind spot.
  • Projecting freshmen is already a difficult exercise; outside of the Mohamed Bambas and Anthony Davises of the world, the step up in competition and intensity produces pretty variable results for most newcomers to high-major basketball. Add in my stance of not learning too much before they get to campus and this is one of the largest blind spots I face yearly. This is particularly troublesome when covering a program that is as young as Texas has historically been. Consider that this is the first year since Shaka Smart’s first year at Texas where he’s not going to be critically dependent upon the contributions of freshmen. From Jarrett Allen and Andrew Jones to Mo Bamba to Jaxson Hayes, one of the consistent themes has been a reliance on really young talent. If I look back at the previous years, I have had a tendency to overestimate the contributions of freshmen, the notable exception being Jaxson Hayes and really he contributed what I hoped Jericho Sims would so that’s at best a wash. This year I may overestimate how well Will Baker will perform, but if he doesn’t perform it is less likely to be a critical oversight. Still, this is a weakness in my evaluations and projections, and will continue to be until Barking Carnival lets me expense vats of LSD.
  • I’ve been writing about Texas basketball long enough that some people talk to me now. I have some sources, and I do my best to protect their identities and information because I realize they don’t have to tell me a damn thing. Having said that, my sources are still limited. I don’t live in Austin, I’m not a credentialed member of the press, and the relative anonymity Barking Carnival provides me comes with some downsides. I don’t have Shaka Smart’s cell number (either of them) and the University is uninterested in letting me in their circle of trust; I get it, I mean I’m an internet jackass who is just as uninterested in bending the knee. I know I’m on their radar, particularly after the story I wrote prior to the NIT Tournament about Shaka being interested in leaving. Which is a good lesson regarding sources, frankly; I had four sources who to the best of my knowledge were all independently singing some version of the same tune. I ran the information by a pair of friends with better journalism backgrounds than mine and they said it was solid enough to run. I also offered it up to a couple of people who do this for a living and they weren’t ready to roll on it, so I made a call. I will go to my deathbed believing that was closer to happening than anyone in Bellmont will admit, but at the end of the day it didn’t happen. While we’re on the subject of sources, the other aspect of having limited sources is that I’m still learning how skeptical to be of the information from a given source. One of the other areas I missed last year was expecting more from Andrew Jones than he ended up contributing. I was upfront in the season preview that Jones’ contributions could span a wide range of outcomes, but instead of being conservative I went with a relatively more ambitious projection and it accounted for a significant chunk of the variance in my projection of Texas’ season. I had a source in September of last year who was really talking up how ready Jones was to get in the lineup and they downplayed the likelihood Jones would take a redshirt. A year later and they’re trying to get some combination of a medical hardship waiver and potentially a medical redshirt when Jones’ eligibility has been exhausted. (Note the Texas site currently refers to Jones as a redshirt sophomore when he’s still technically a senior. Maybe ‘redshirt sophomore’ is on Shaka’s dream board.) This isn’t the fault of the source, they share the info they share; it’s on me to better synthesize that information and put it in its proper place.

Strengths

  • While I am a fan, I do not spin my content to fit a narrative. I have my views about what I want to happen, but when I write the recaps I don’t pull punches if somebody (or someeverybody) is fucking up. If somebody can’t screen worth a damn, I call it out. If a coach isn’t deploying a player correctly, I say something. If a player is taking a leap, I point it out. If it’s Eric Davis, I’m trying to untangle what his decision-making did to my cerebellum. Oh, Wildcard, there will never be another quite like you; I really miss you and really don’t miss you at all. You can get a program cheerleader lots of places; I’m trying to explain what I see happening on the court.
  • At the risk of sounding like I’m telling HR why I’ll never draw dicks on the break room refrigerator again, I’m always willing to learn and get better. I spent an hour one Sunday listening to Luke Yaklich on a podcast I didn’t know existed two months ago. Having said that, I realize most podcasts are podcasts nobody knows exist (insert Pretend We’re Football link here). I’ve spent more time on Basketball Dictionary than is defensible. I’ve crashed two different coaching clinics so I could watch college coaches teach high school coaches tricks of the trade away from the public. I type the letter ‘k’ into any browser at home, work, or my phone and Kenpom.com auto-fills. I harassed Synergy about allowing the public access to paid accounts for a year before they let me in. These are not signs of a well-adjusted human, but they are signs I try to get better at what I do here. I may die of cirrhosis due to writing recaps of perennial 17-win Texas teams, but there will be a flawless diagram of an elevator screen in my will.
  • I am sincerely interested in better understanding how the program operates, and not just in games. Outside of Shaka, the person I would most like to talk to on a regular basis is Andrea Hudy. Getting insight into how they train, what metrics they use, how they handle recovery and maintaining fitness, I’d kill to be on the inside of that. The games are fun but that’s 5% of the program; I want to see the other 95% maybe even more than the games themselves. At a high level, a basketball program is a series of values with a bunch of variables affecting the final result; the more I know about behind the scenes, the more variables I can fill in. I don’t even want this stuff to spread it around, I just want to be better able to solve the equation in front of me.
  • I do not ignore good data, regardless of what it says. I realize this is shocking news but I assure you it’s true, a nerd does in fact love numbers. I think I do a good job of letting the data inform my writing rather than wrangle data to fit my view of the world. As an example, one of the recurring complaints about Texas basketball is the lack of shooters. This has been a theme for most of the past decade, and understandably so. As I am want to do when trying to quantify a problem, I start digging into the data. The results you see are articles like this where I show a fairly reliable pattern of shooters being cultivated rather than recruited, but there are also times when the data doesn’t show me enough to put forth an article. I tried something like this in the past looking at the defensive side of things, but the data didn’t really show anything of note so it never went anywhere. Believe it or not, sometimes I write things that I don’t publish. If you think my writing sucks now, imagine how bad it would be if I put it all on here.
  • I have a pretty good grasp of in-game tactics and adjustments for someone who never coached. I don’t pretend like I could walk into a huddle and draw up a play because, well, Erwin Center security prevents that sort of thing even in the non-conference games. Also because I’m aware just how much more coaches know than I do. Earlier, I mentioned crashing coaching clinics, and one thing that sticks out to me is that even the coaches who the public considers failures still know a ridiculous amount about basketball. There’s a fluency there which I still lack and will probably never attain; there’s a difference between me pointing out that the offense wasn’t screening well and a D-I coach walking onto the floor and adjusting the feet of the screener. Sure, we might be seeing the same basic thing, but that coach will know precisely what to fix on a granular level I can’t reliably explain. Still, I do my homework and I try to learn what I can about the systems Texas employs in a given season so I can talk about it intelligently.
  • I work cheap. You’re welcome, Vox.

I don’t think much of this is groundbreaking information, the regulars here are probably aware of most if not all of this by now. Still, when going into a pivotal season that may have its share of ups and downs, it’s probably a good idea to start out on the same page about where I’m at. If you have anything you want to share, pass around the trust pillow in the comments.