Rick Barnes in uncharted territory with Texas Longhorns

Posted Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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First, the history lesson: The last time a Texas men's basketball coach began a season with an 0-4 record in conference play, he did not return the next year.

Texas coach Rick Barnes finds his Longhorns (8-8, 0-3 in Big 12 play) in danger of matching the dismal start of predecessor Tom Penders, established during Penders' swan-song season of 1997-98, if his team does not beat No. 6 Kansas (14-1, 2-0) in Saturday's game in Austin.

Now, the reality check: It is way too early to believe Barnes will steer this season into a ditch and finish with a losing record, as Penders did while posting a 14-17 mark that cleared the way for Barnes to become his replacement.

It is also hard to believe Barnes, who is 14-for-14 in taking the Longhorns to the NCAA Tournament, is in jeopardy of losing his job unless this team completely tanks down the stretch.

Penders posted two losing records in his final six seasons, coupled with an ill-advised public release of a player's academic shortcomings that sealed his fate. Barnes, with 13 consecutive 20-win seasons, has none of those issues working against him.

But he does need to pick up the pace in a season that is teetering on the brink after Saturday's 82-62 loss at Iowa State (11-4, 1-1), capped by Barnes' post-game challenge to players -- notably guard Sheldon McClellan, the team's leading scorer -- to show improved effort.

"The one thing we have to get as a team is understanding how hard you've got to play consistently, every single day. We can't get where we want to be until everyone decides they're going to do their part," said Barnes, who limited McClellan to one minute against the Cyclones. "It's obvious it's not working [with the status quo]. We're at a point we're going to find out who wants to do it."

Barnes has all of this week to experiment with possible lineup tweaks and motivational ploys before the Kansas game. Expect changes Saturday for an inconsistent team that has blown out North Carolina, 85-67 and suffered an 86-73 loss to Chaminade, an NCAA Division II school.

The only certainty is that Texas must continue to play without its best player, point guard Myck Kabongo, until Feb. 13 because of NCAA sanctions unrelated to anything under Barnes' control.

Kabongo's return could be a season-turner for a team that entered the Iowa State game leading the nation in field-goal percentage defense (33.6) and 3-point percentage defense (23.2). But a turnaround won't happen unless realistic postseason hopes exist when Kabongo returns.

Although the defense struggled Saturday against one of the nation's top-scoring teams, it has been good enough to suggest a turnaround is possible if Texas' young lineup discovers a consistent scoring punch and shows enough hunger.

Barnes harped on the lack of consistent effort after Saturday's loss to Iowa State -- singling out McClellan for indifferent defensive moments in transition -- and after Wednesday's 57-53 overtime loss to West Virginia when the Longhorns blew a 10-point lead in the final 3:14 of regulation.

"As a coach, when you honestly see your opponent wanting the game more, I think that's the most frustrating thing," Barnes said. "It's the same thing that has happened a couple of times at the end of games. It gets down to toughness."

The remedy, he said, can come only from eliminating crunch-time breakdowns in an offense that averages 64.1 points per game, ranking 242nd nationally and next-to-last in the Big 12.

"You get the lead with your defense, and the offense has to keep it," Barnes said. "Until we learn to execute, it won't change.... It's going to get down to those individual battles and who wants it the most."

Barnes said McClellan and Julien Lewis need to make the transition from role players to primary players who can function despite drawing the focus of opposing defenses. And the team must rebound more consistently, especially on the defensive end.

McClellan, who has battled an ankle injury, did not talk to reporters after Saturday's loss. After Wednesday's loss to West Virginia, he said: "The guards, especially me, have to finish better. We have to stay positive right now, and not get too down on ourselves. It's a long season."

Barnes' track record suggests the season does not have to slide into a ditch despite the slow start in conference play. But with Kansas looming, the Longhorns are running out of time to get things corrected before they start skidding completely out of control.

Spotlight: NCAA Tournament highlights

In conjunction with this year's 75th anniversary of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, NCAA officials have published a list of the best players, teams and moments in the history of March Madness.

With online balloting from fans starting this month, the organization seeks to trim the list to the top 15 players and select a greatest team and best moment.

The early lists, prepared in conjunction with CBSSports.com, were gleaned from interviews with more than 100 former NCAA players.

Understandably, there are minimal highlights from colleges in Texas. Four players made the list: three from Houston (center Elvin Hayes, guard Clyde Drexler, center Hakeem Olajuwon) and one from Texas Western (guard Bobby Joe Hill), now known as UTEP.

Olajuwon, who played his last game for the Cougars in the 1984 NCAA Tournament, is the most recent player with Texas connections included on the list of 75 greatest players.

Hill's team, which became the first in NCAA history to win a championship with five African-American players in the starting lineup (defeating all-white Kentucky 72-65 in the 1966 title game), earned a nod among the tournament's 35 top moments for the historic significance of Texas Western's unexpected title run.

No school from Texas received a mention among the top 25 teams in tournament history.

UCLA was listed five times, most of any school.

All came during coach John Wooden's era of dominance (1966-67 through 1972-73 seasons). North Carolina received four mentions, each from a season in a different decade (1956-57, 1981-82, 1992-93 and 2008-09).

Storylines

Year of the Aggie: Texas A&M has extended its spectacular Southeastern Conference debut to basketball season.

With Saturday's 83-71 victory at Kentucky, which included a career-high 40 points from guard Elston Turner, the Aggies (12-3, 2-0 in SEC) have road victories over the reigning national champion in football (Alabama) and men's basketball (Kentucky) in the past two months. A&M meets No. 11 Florida (12-2, 2-0) on Thursday in College Station.

Surging SFA: Because Stephen F. Austin (14-1) plays in the Southland Conference, there has been no push to anoint the Lumberjacks as the best college team in Texas. But the school has the best record of any NCAA team in Texas.

Best bloodlines: No. 2 Michigan (16-1, 3-1 in Big Ten) is off to the best start in school history, even with Sunday's 56-53 loss at No. 15 Ohio State (13-3, 3-1), and features the sons/namesakes of two past college and NBA standouts: G Tim Hardaway Jr. (16.3 ppg) and F Glenn Robinson III (12.6 ppg).

Jimmy Burch, 817-390-7760

Twitter: @Jimmy_Burch

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