As Longhorns Swoon, Coach Faces More Questions

Nati Harnik/Associated Press

Rick Barnes’s Texas team has shown enough flaws lately to be the prototypical office pool head-scratcher

March 1, 2011

As Longhorns Swoon, Coach Faces More Questions

AUSTIN, Tex. —Texas Coach Rick Barnes likes to perform magic tricks in home visits with recruits, pulling handkerchiefs from his sleeve to put family members at ease and showcase his homespun charm.       
On the summer recruiting trail, Barnes is the consummate prankster. He will find another coach’s cellphone number, call from a blocked ID and spin an elaborate story while watching the helpless victim squirm on the other side of the gym.       
With March’s arrival and a once-promising Texas season teetering for the second consecutive year, the laughs are hard to find in Austin these days. The No. 7 Longhorns lost to Kansas State, 75-70, on Monday night, their third loss to an unranked team in four games.       
And the big question lingering over the Longhorns is whether Barnes has again managed to take a talented team — this one has two projected first-round N.B.A. picks — and made its potential for a deep run in the N.C.A.A. tournament magically disappear.       
With his squad in a late-season tailspin, questions about Barnes’s shaky history of coaching in the N.C.A.A. tournament are being revived.       
“I would have cared 10 years ago,” he said of critics questioning his 19-18 N.C.A.A. tournament record. “This is not the most important thing in my life. It’s what I do, but it’s not the most important thing in my life.”       
The more immediate question for basketball fans will be whether they can trust picking Texas in their office pool.       
Two weeks ago, the Longhorns looked like a solid bet for a No. 1 seed, which would probably have placed them in San Antonio for the Round of 16. They could end up there as a No. 2 seed or worse, but Texas’ sudden slide has exposed its youth, inconsistencies and lack of defensive effort. All those weaknesses showed up in the sophomore Jordan Hamilton’s game on Monday, when he shot 5 of 18 from the field and fell asleep twice on defense to give up critical 3-pointers to Rodney McGruder.       
“Honestly, I don’t care what nobody thinks as far as trusting Texas or anything like that,” Hamilton said.       
Hamilton epitomizes this team’s promise and its fragility. He is a gifted scorer who will probably be among the first 10 picks in the N.B.A. draft. But in listless losses to Nebraska, Colorado and Kansas State in the past two weeks, he has shot 15 of 58 from the field. At times on Monday night he looked as if he would struggle to guard a mannequin.       
“Some of the breakdowns are baffling, to be honest with you,” Barnes said.       
Barnes did not name Hamilton, but said: “This time of year you have people beginning to game plan and pick on people. There are no secrets.”       
Four of the Longhorns’ top six players are freshmen or sophomores, albeit talented ones, like the first-year big man Tristan Thompson, who also projects as a first-round pick.       
But Barnes said his team stopped running the offense in the second half, stopped screening and wasted too many possessions on both ends of the floor.       
“I don’t think there’s any question that we’re capable,” he said. “You can’t be giving plays away, and we’ve done that too much.”       
So did last season’s team, which after a 17-0 start and No. 1 ranking, unraveled into a 7-10 record to close the season, ending with a first-round N.C.A.A. tournament loss.       
Considering that Texas had three players chosen in the N.B.A. draft from that team — Avery Bradley and Damion James in the first round, and Dexter Pittman in the second — it did not help Barnes’s coaching reputation.       
There is no way anyone can call Barnes a bad coach. He has won more than 500 games and will lead a team to the N.C.A.A. tournament this year for the 16th consecutive season, a stretch that dates to his days at Clemson. That ties Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski for the longest active streak. Texas is one of six colleges to advance to the Round of 16 in five of the past nine years. Included in that run is a trip to the 2003 Final Four, the first time since 1947 that Texas advanced that far.       
But the ghosts of N.C.A.A. tournaments past haunt Barnes. He is 0 for 5 coaching in first-round N.C.A.A. tournament games between No. 8 and No. 9 seeds. In his 12 N.C.A.A. tournament appearances at Texas, eight of his losses were against teams with lower seeds.       
Some of those were forgivable, like the No. 1 Longhorns’ loss to the eventual national champion Syracuse, a No. 3 seed, at the 2003 Final Four. But some losses still make Longhorns fans grimace, like the first-round losses to Temple, a No. 11 seed, in 2001 and to No. 10 Purdue in 1999.       
“I don’t care,” Barnes said late Tuesday of the criticism. “I’ve been in this so long, I could care less about what other people think. I quit a long time ago worrying about that.”       
Barnes is worried about his team, which showed that it had Final Four potential in victories over Kansas, North Carolina and Texas A&M. But Texas has also shown enough flaws lately to be the prototypical office pool head-scratcher.       
Will its N.B.A. talents and once boundless promise translate to March success? Much will depend on whether Barnes has any magic stored up his sleeve. 

  Copyright. The New York Times Company. All Rights Reserved 

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