Rick Barnes Deserves the Chance That Texas Didn't Give Mack Brown

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Rick Barnes Deserves the Chance That Texas Didn't Give Mack Brown
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A good University of Texas coach, the best in the history of the program, could get pushed to resign in a few months.

I didn't write this two months ago. It's not about Mack Brown, who resigned on Saturday after 16 years and a national championship because UT football just wasn't good enough anymore.

I'm writing about Texas basketball coach Rick Barnes.

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Barnes could find himself in a very similar situation in March to the one that faced Brown over the last few weeks.

Barnes is undeniably the best basketball coach Texas has ever had. He led the Longhorns to 14 straight NCAA tournament bids in his first 14 years in Austin. He took Texas to its only Final Four in the last 60 years in 2003. He has coached 10 first-round picks at UT.

But lately, just like with Brown and the football program, Barnes has not met the expectations he created.

The Longhorns missed the NCAA tournament for the first time in his tenure last season and five players left the program in the offseason—three transferred, Myck Kabongo declared for the NBA Draft and Ioannis Papapetrou left to play pro ball in Greece.

It was a frustrating season—only the second time in his 26-year career that Barnes had a losing record—but it hardly generated the kind of headlines that a Texas football season that doesn't end with a BCS bowl bid generates.

Texas basketball is not Texas football.

Basketball is an afterthought, mostly. A distraction between the bowl game and spring ball. But that doesn't mean there aren't still expectations.

Texas is one of the best jobs in America—maybe even top 10—because the money is good and the recruiting ground is fertile. Texas makes more and spends more than any athletic department, according to USA Today, and Barnes has a $2.4 million yearly salary. 

In the last five recruiting classes (2010-2014), the state of Texas has produced 20 top-40 prospects, according to Rivals.com. Barnes has signed only one, Cameron Ridley, and he has a chance with one of the four in the 2014 class. 

It's hard to say why the Longhorns have missed. There seems to be a perception that any coach who couldn't get to a Final Four with Kevin Durant cannot be a good coach. A perception that ESPN columnist Bill Simmons helped create

But that's hogwash to anyone who really knows college basketball. And the job Barnes is doing this year is proving he can still coach, even if the talent is not what he had been accustomed to in the past. 

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The Longhorns are off to a 9-1 start. They don't have any wins of great significance, but the product looks a lot better than what anyone could have anticipated after Barnes lost his four leading scorers. 

"There was no question that was going to happen," Barnes told Bleacher Report a few weeks ago when his team was playing in the CBE Classic in Kansas City, Mo. "Halfway through the season last year I made that decision, 'This is the way it's going to be.'

"And the guys that were in the program that came back, they knew what we were looking for."

Barnes realized early on last season that the culture of his program needed to be fixed. After a loss to Division II Chaminade in the Maui Invitational, Barnes said one of his players strolled through the locker room and asked: "What's the big deal?"

So Barnes had no qualms about parting ways with UT's three transfers. What the Longhorns had left was two project big men and a few role players. Barnes also signed four freshman guards.

It wasn't the kind of recruiting class that gets noticed, and Texas was picked by the league's coaches to finish eighth in the Big 12.

But the Longhorns are playing good basketball. I was convinced this would be Barnes' final year in Austin until watching the team play live at the CBE.

Cameron Ridley is quietly turning into a future pro after looking lost last year. He's averaged 13.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.2 blocks over the last six games.

"Our guards look for the big men unlike last year," Ridley said.

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports
Cameron Ridley has 29 blocks this season.

Ridley and Prince Ibeh form the best shot-blocking tandem in the country—the Longhorns block rate (20.8 percent) ranks second nationally, per KenPom.com (subscription required).

Offensively, freshman point guard Isaiah Taylor has been a pleasant surprise. He's helped the 'Horns play faster, and he's taking good care of the ball.

"I think things are different. We're a lot more focused," sophomore guard Javan Felix said. "We're a lot more detail-oriented. We're working toward being a team. I don't think last year at all times we were a team."

It's apparent when you watch the Longhorns play that they actually like each other. That might seem like an insignificant observation, but last year's team played like it was ready to get the season over with.

"The whole thing's different," Barnes said. "I like this group of guys. I didn't enjoy coaching basketball last year, the last couple years, but I enjoy coaching this basketball team because of the way they want to be good. And we're going to be good. We're going to be a good team."

Maybe Barnes is still trying to talk himself into it. He'll know a lot more after this week. The Longhorns travel to North Carolina on Wednesday and then play Michigan State in Austin on Saturday.

A win in either of the two could help how Barnes' new boss, Steve Patterson, sees the program.

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Most likely, Barnes is coaching an NIT team that could turn into an NCAA tourney team next season. Texas does not have one senior on the roster, and unless Ridley's stock soars, everyone should be back.

Texas is also in the hunt for in-state recruit Myles Turner, one of the best high school big men in the country and the highest-rated prospect still unsigned in the 2014 class.

Patterson will have to decide whether that kind of progress is worth leaving Barnes alone. Brown also had a semi-resurgent football season with an 8-4 record after a 1-2 start, but that wasn't enough to stop the money men from asking for change.

Those in power might not care as much about basketball, and that could ultimately buy Barnes some more time.

Assuming this season doesn't end in drama and transfers, Barnes deserves to see if he can resurrect the program like he did in 1998-99 when he took over with seven scholarship players and won the Big 12.

Once Barnes decides to go or is forced out, he will have left the program in much better shape than when he arrived. Everyone at UT should respect him for that. Brown accomplished the same thing with the football program. And he left like it was his idea. The example has been set.

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @cjmoore4.

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