By Rodney McKissic
NEWS COLLEGE BASKETBALL COLUMNIST
Sometimes coaches need to take a step back and gain perspective in order to rediscover success. In the case of Texas basketball, it needed to return to its roots.
The Longhorns lost their top four scorers from a year ago but have returned to the Top 25 after knocking off a string of ranked opponents in Iowa State, Kansas State and Baylor, with No. 6 Kansas on deck Saturday in Austin.
A few months ago, skepticism encircled the program and coach Rick Barnes after missing the NCAA Tournament for the first in his tenure at Texas. But a return to Barnes’ beliefs, and being more finicky with their recruiting, has the Longhorns sitting in sole possession of third place in the Big 12 with a 16-4 record a year after finishing 16-18 overall, 7-11 in the league and getting ousted in the first round of the CBI.
“When we walk on the floor against anyone we play we’re good enough to win,” said Texas associate head coach Rob Lanier, the Buffalo native and St. Bonaventure product. “It’s not because Rick got some magic because if he had some magic he would have used it last year.”
Pixie dust couldn’t help a team wrought with chemistry issues and players with a sense of entitlement. Too many players wanted to be the next Kevin Durant, LaMarcus Aldridge or Tristan Thompson without putting in the work. Myck Kabongo and Ioannis Papapetrou turned pro while Julian Lewis and Sheldon McClellan transferred. Observers assessed the damage and placed Barnes on the hot seat, but in hindsight it was a necessary purge.
“We’ve got good players who want to be coached and who want to be good and they are willing to do what it takes,” Lanier said.
Barnes has always coached with a chip on his shoulder while pursuing blue collar, hard-nosed recruits. When he was Providence, Syracuse, Georgetown and Connecticut were rolling and the Friars were right alongside them. He did a good enough job to land a job at Clemson and the ACC where Duke, North Carolina, Maryland and Georgia Tech reigned.
He took the same mentality to Texas when he landed All-America point guard T.J. Ford, a recruit who instantly changed the scope of Longhorns basketball. After an appearance in the 2003 Final Four, Texas was on top of the food chain and Barnes needed to feed the beast.
“He set a standard here at Texas that he’s being judged by in terms of recruiting McDonald’s All-Americans and all these different guys,” Lanier said. “With that success in recruiting you attract some stuff in your program that might not fit your core values as a coach.”
It was time to return to the culture that made Barnes successful. There was more personal interaction between the staff and players and in turn the coaches learned that the players wanted to improve and be coached.
There’s a tight bond. When junior Jonathan Holmes’ grandmother died recently the entire team insisted they travel to San Antonio for the funeral.
There was re-evaluation within the coaching staff. They liked the returning personnel but they were cognizant about adding the right kinds of players. It wasn’t about collecting talent. They wanted to put together a team that would reflect the resilient image of Barnes. There would be more of a collaborative effort when it came to recruiting with an eye on the big picture.
Tom Izzo doesn’t trot out numerous high school All-Americans at Michigan State and Billy Donovan and Florida has risen to No. 3 in the country with four senior starters. They build programs and Texas has taken a similar approach.
“Our job as assistant coaches is to know what’s best for Rick Barnes,” Lanier said. “It’s our job to go out and get guys who can play for him. It’s our job not to get enamored with guys who are talented and sexy and to really get the right guys who can play for him regardless of how they’re ranked.”
That’s not to say Texas will take a pass on talent. Myles Turner, the nation’s No. 2 ranked player from Bedford, Texas, is still in play. The Longhorns are in the mix for the 6-11 center — his mother is a Texas graduate - and he’ a lottery liber pick. He’s also serious about academics.
Texas wants great players, but not at the expense of character and commitment.
“That’s the makeup of our team right now,” Lanier said. “Talent wise we’re not trying to walk out there trying to overachieve. We have some good players.”
Old friends meet again
Jim Boeheim says it’s difficult having friends within the coaching community but he considers Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski a close friend.
The two met several years ago at a Duke celebrity golf tournament and became friends when Coach K led the FIBA World Championship team in 1990 with Boeheim and P. J. Carlesimo as assistants.
“We just hit it off and have been really good friends ever since,” said Boeheim, who hosts Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils on Saturday at the Carrier Dome in what is expected to be the largest crowd in Dome history. “Working the Olympics and the World Championships with him over the years we spent a lot of time together, many months and it’s been a great relationship. Our families get along very well — our wives, his kids, my kids and his grandkids. It’s been a great, great relationship and we’ve done some great basketball things over the years.”
Around the nation
• Looks like Ed Cooley has Providence pointed in the right direction. Since a blowout loss at Villanova on Jan. 5, the Friars have reeled off five in a row with wins over Creighton and Xavier. But we’ll learn if Providence is NCAA worthy in its final 11 games with seven on the road, starting tonight at Marquette and Saturday at DePaul.
• Can anyone explain what’s going on at Illinois? John Groce’s program is in a severe regression. After 23 wins and an NCAA berth in Groce’s first season in Champaign, the Illini are 13-8 with two wins — one against lowly Penn State — in the Big Ten. On deck are Iowa and Wisconsin so Illinois’ losing streak could extend to eight games.
• Here’s another reason to dislike the Big East: By stealing Creighton away from the Missouri Valley we’re missing out on as many as three games between the Bluejays and Wichita State, which is in position for a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. Speaking of Creighton, you can never waste too much ink on Doug McDermott, who scored a season-high 39 points Tuesday, including the winning 3-pointer against St. John’s. He’s now 259 points away from 3,000 in his career.
• While life has been a breeze for Syracuse in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the same cannot be said for Notre Dame. The Irish have lost six of seven and were totally embarrassed at home Tuesday by Virginia, 68-53. Five losses have come against North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Maryland, Florida State and Wake Forest, not exactly league juggernauts. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers are off to their best conference start since the Ralph Sampson-led team in 1982-83, which also started 7-1.