Embattled Barnes leads Longhorns’ turnaround

01/14/2014 6:11 PM

01/14/2014 6:22 PM

Rick Barnes says he won’t need to be told when it’s time for him to move on. He’ll know it before anyone else does.

Barnes is a self-proclaimed gym rat. That’s where he wants to be, whether it’s working with players on defensive technique or studying the flex offense with former NBA coach Jerry Sloan.

Last year, though, the 59-year-old Barnes admitted his love and desire to be at the gym wasn’t what it had been. His team wasn’t responding to coaching, wasn’t playing as a team and, quite simply, wasn’t living up to the lofty expectations that Barnes had created at Texas.

The dreadful 2012-13 season, which ended without an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time in Barnes’ 15 years as the Longhorns’ coach, raised questions about his job status. Those questions have gained more steam with a new men’s athletics director, Steve Patterson, now in charge.

Just look at what happened to Mack Brown, Barnes’ close friend and the longtime Texas football coach who resigned last month. Some believe Barnes could be headed for a similar fate as Brown in a few months, especially if this season’s teams misses the tournament again, but he shrugs off any such notion.

“I can only tell you this — I will know when my time is up,” Barnes said after Texas’ 67-64 victory over Texas Tech on Saturday. “Nobody is going to have to tell me because I’ve got too much respect for this university and the program, too much respect for the players who have come here, so believe me.

“I can tell you that I’m excited about Steve Patterson for one reason. I haven’t spent a lot of time with him, but I can just tell you this … Mack Brown said to me, ‘You can trust Steve Patterson. Everything he did with me, he was upfront, first-class, so you can trust everything he tells you.’ I just know we’ve got this program back to where we want it, and now it’s just building on it.”

Barnes believes the Longhorns could be “a player away” from getting back to discussion of national prominence for the right reasons. Maybe the player to help restore the program to prominence is Euless Trinity standout Myles Turner. He’s being heavily recruited by several schools, including Texas, and is expected to be a difference-maker wherever he winds up.

Even if Texas doesn’t land Turner or another high-profile recruit, there’s no question that Barnes has been rejuvenated by this season’s team. The Longhorns (13-4, 2-2 Big 12) won on the road at North Carolina in nonconference play and have won their past two conference games over Tech and West Virginia.

They may not have the talent level of, say, Barnes’ 2003 Final Four team, but they’re all dedicated to improving and winning. That’s a significant improvement from last year’s team.

Last year can only be described as a mess. Myck Kabongo, arguably their best player, had to serve a 23-game suspension to start the season. Then Texas had an early-season loss to Chaminade in the Maui Invitational, a five-game losing streak to start Big 12 play and finished the season with a first-round loss to Houston in the College Basketball Invitational.

Barnes and the players remaining from the 2012-13 team don’t even bother trying to sugarcoat it or attempt to find a silver lining.

“Last year was just … awful,” sophomore guard Demarcus Holland said. “Maybe we had a few bad apples on that team. This year, we love playing with each other and we have fun.”

Said Javan Felix: “We still have a bitter taste in our mouth from last year. It just felt like we let the whole city and school down. We got stagnant as a team and we just stopped competing for a little while, and that hurt us. That’s why we worked so hard in the off-season to come out here this year and get back to that winning tradition.”

Getting back essentially meant rebuilding from scratch. Gone from last year’s team are Kabongo and Ioannis Papapetrou, who left to pursue professional careers, and Julien Lewis and Sheldon McClellan, who transferred.

They joined a long list of players leaving the program earlier than expected, which helped put Texas into this hole. Jordan Hamilton left after two seasons, and Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson wound up being one-and-done players after a 28-8 season in 2010-11.

Another reason for the recent struggles at Texas, Barnes said, was the recruiting process.

“The recruiting process, we settled a little bit,” Barnes said. “Getting [associate head coach] Rob Lanier back was important because he knows the kind of players I like to coach. We’ve made a collective effort to find guys who fit the blueprint of what we’ve always done and that is where we got away from our program.

“But with this group, we’re building something here. Our best teams here were when players had both feet in, and this team is all-in.”

It can be seen on the court with the development of players such as Cameron Ridley, who is becoming a bigger force in the paint, and Jonathan Holmes, who has almost doubled his scoring average from last season (6.4 points to 12.5).

Still, in today’s ‘What have you done for me lately?’ society, Barnes understands the speculation over his job status. After a down season, as Barnes knows, it’s easy for people to forget the NCAA Tournament berths, the NBA draft picks or that Barnes isn’t too far removed from being a coaching candidate for NBA teams.

“We understand it, but I don’t concern myself with what other people might think other than the fact that I don’t want it to affect our recruiting or our players,” Barnes said.

The players hear the outside chatter, of course, but as Holmes said: “We don’t pay attention to any of that. We try to focus on us and getting better every day. People can say what they want. They’re not in the locker room, they’re not at practice. All they do is talk, so it’s not something we need to worry about.”

The results so far this season indicate that Barnes has gotten the program back on track. As he said, he’ll know when it’s his time to go, and right now doesn’t seem like the time for him.

Unfortunately for Barnes, though, coaches don’t make those decisions. Just ask the football coach.

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