Texas’ season of addition by subtraction continues to reap shocking dividends for basketball coach Rick Barnes.
On the surface, this does not compute: Lose your top four returning scorers to unplanned attrition yet match last season’s win total by the final week in January. And get there without adding any McDonald’s All-America signees while knocking off three consecutive Top 25 opponents for the first time in school history.
Texas reached that status Saturday with a 74-60 victory over No. 24 Baylor, continuing a turnaround season that should quiet (for now) any speculation about Barnes following football coach Mack Brown out the door any time soon in Austin.
The Longhorns got there in the Ferrell Center behind a career-high 27 points from freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor and a stifling defense that limited Baylor to a 32.1 percent shooting performance, including a dismal 3-of-17 effort from behind the 3-point arc.
The victory, combined with other triumphs in the past week over No. 8 Iowa State and No. 22 Kansas State, allowed Texas (16-4, 5-2 Big 12) to continue gaining ground in the league standings after an 0-2 start. Because Texas finished 16-18 last season, recording victory No. 16 in only 20 starts represented a moment to cherish for Barnes.
“I guess I went from being dumb to smart. Is that what you want me to say?” a smiling Barnes said about Texas’ surprising resurgence. “The bottom line is the players. The chemistry is the biggest difference, no doubt. Guys have improved, but from a team standpoint … I don’t think we have one guy on our team that’s selfish. They really want to win. And that’s the difference.”
While Texas appears headed toward a season debut in Monday’s updated Associated Press rankings, Baylor (13-6, 1-5) should fall out of the poll after dropping its fourth consecutive conference game.
It’s officially become a season on the brink for the Bears, who held an impromptu team meeting after Saturday’s loss to try and figure out where things have jumped the tracks after Baylor posted a 12-1 record in nonconference play. The Bears, ranked No. 7 nationally just three weeks ago, have victories over Kentucky, Colorado and South Carolina and played well in a 74-67 loss to undefeated, second-ranked Syracuse.
But Baylor has hit the skids in Big 12 play, continuing a disturbing trend from last season. The Bears are now 5-13 in their past 18 conference games after starting last season with a 5-1 break from the gate.
It is no stretch to wonder if coach Scott Drew is on the verge of losing this team mentally after Baylor’s third double-digit loss in its past four contests. Drew and Baylor players put up a brave front after the game, vowing improvement in Tuesday’s game against West Virginia.
“At the end of the day, we like this team. We’re not going to give up. We’re going to keep fighting,” Drew said. “We’d rather finish well than start well. So we’ll see what we can do.”
A couple of suggestions: Baylor’s 1-3-1 zone defense cannot continue allowing the type of penetration that Taylor enjoyed with regularity Saturday while hitting 10 of 18 shots, most of them floaters in the lane. Nor can Baylor continue its poor shot selection that led to an 0-for-9 effort from behind the arc in the first half while Texas seized momentum and quieted the pro-Baylor crowd.
“That’s on me, the shot selection,” Drew said. “I coach that. And we took some bad shots.”
Asked to gauge the mood of the team, Baylor guard Gary Franklin said: “We’re feeling a little bit down because we lost. But we’re very optimistic. We have a really good team. We’re going to figure it out.”
Perhaps. But for now, Baylor looks more like an NIT team than an NCAA Tournament team. Texas, meanwhile, flashed the type of physical play and defense that wins games in the Big Dance. Center Cameron Ridley (eight points, 14 rebounds) and forward Jonathan Holmes (14 points, eight rebounds) had their way in the paint when the game was in doubt.
Now, Texas must deal with elevated expectations created by its five-game winning streak and three consecutive triumphs over Top 25 opponents. Can it?
Holmes called it “a pretty big accomplishment” to knock off three consecutive ranked teams. But he stressed that the Longhorns are “not content with how we’re doing” despite being picked to finish in the bottom half of the Big 12 standings in the preseason.
“We really haven’t worried about what people from the outside have said. I don’t think that’s going to change now,” Holmes said. “If we’re in the Top 25, that’s fine. If we’re not, that’s fine … We’re trying to win a Big 12 championship. And we haven’t done that yet. So we can’t be content with this.”
Maybe not. But there is no denying that Saturday marked the latest example that Barnes’ addition-by-subtraction formula is working wonders this season.