For a team Texas hasn’t played in 14 years, Arizona State is a fairly familiar foe.
Longhorns men’s athletic director Steve Patterson was hired after less than two years in as the Sun Devils’ AD. Arizona State coach Herb Sendek’s first job out of college was as an assistant under Texas coach Rick Barnes.
Barnes’ seventh-seeded Longhorns (23-10, 11-7 Big 12) and Sendek’s 10th-seeded Sun Devils (21-11, 10-8 Pac-12) will square off in their NCAA Tournament openers Thursday night in Milwaukee. The winner faces Michigan or Wofford on Saturday.
“When I went to Providence, he was the one guy I kept because I had known him. He knew the landscape at Providence. He was terrific, a brilliant guy,” Barnes said of Sendek. “His teams have always been sound. He’s played a lot of different styles and he’s always adapted to what he needs to do.”
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Texas and Arizona State had very similar seasons. They each won 10 of their first 12 games and lost of five of their final eight. Between those two stretches, they both lost their conference openers before an improbable string of wins including a victory over a top 10 team in early February, with the Longhorns taking down Kansas and the Sun Devils upsetting Arizona.
But, as Barnes has stressed to his squad since Selection Sunday, everyone is 0-0 again.
“That’s what you do this for, to have a chance to be a part of this tournament,” said Barnes. “I’ve said every year, you don’t take it for granted … The body of work they put together is something they should be proud of. It put them where they are now.”
The Longhorns missed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 15 years during a dismal 16-18 campaign last season — Barnes’ only losing one in 16 years at Texas. With only one player having NCAA Tournament experience on the roster, getting his guys to not take the postseason for granted shouldn’t be difficult.
“He helped put us in a good position to be a good team,” sophomore guard Demarcus Holland said of Barnes. “We’ve got good players and we’re still learning. We haven’t reached our peak and it’s the perfect time to try to reach our peak, here in the tournament.”
Arizona State, which hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2009, is the only team with two of the Pac-12’s top 11 scorers, thanks to Jahii Carson (18.6 points per game) and Jermaine Marshall (15.0). The Sun Devils’ other player scoring in double figures, 7-foot-2 center Jordan Bachynski, averages 11.1 points and leads the nation with 4.1 blocks per game.
Sendek also hasn’t forgotten about his relationship with Barnes, who he met more than 35 years ago.
“He’s the kind of man that, if you have a son, that’s who you want him to play for,” Sendek said of Barnes. “What he’s been able to do at Texas over the years is incredible. He’s really taken that program to unprecedented and sustained heights.”
Friends off the court, Barnes and his former assistant will still be trying to end the other’s season Thursday.