San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

March 27th, 2008
What about Texas?

Points: A Sports Column
Editor at Large

The NCAA basketball tournament is one of few sporting events in which the promoters tell you, officially, who is supposed to win.

This year, it’s North Carolina, which took the No. 1 overall seed. North Carolina is the top seed because it opened against the winner of the play-in game.

After two rounds of the tournament, however, North Carolina is left with the toughest path to the Final Four. Only the East Regional, to which North Carolina belongs, still has its top four seeds alive. Maybe North Carolina isn’t such a lock, after all.

The Sweet 16 begins on Thursday. Any of about a dozen out of 16 remaining teams can still win it. And the local question is a good one: What about Texas?

Honestly, and not at all from the perspective of a Texas fan, it has to happen sometime. Ten years of Rick Barnes have earned that kind of confidence. You won’t find Barnes named among legends of basketball, but no one has turned less into more than Barnes in his ten years running the Longhorns.

Barnes has brought the Longhorns to the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in the last seven years, an unprecedented run of prosperity for the university basketball team. Ten years into his tenure, Barnes has taken Texas to the NCAA Tournament ten times.

None were sweeter than that first one in 1998-99, one of the most remarkable performances of coaching you’ll ever find. Recall that Barnes came to a program with only seven scholarship players, a program that lost complete credibility even from within after the staff of former Coach Tom Penders illegally released a player’s academic records to the media.

That first Barnes team was absolutely dreadful to start, losing five of its first six games to teams like Houston, South Florida and San Diego. But within a month, Barnes turned the group into a competitive team, largely by developing center Chris Mihm as a post player who could go to the hole, draw a foul and make a free throw.

Seven games into the season, the Horns beat 25th-ranked Utah, 73-68, at the Erwin Center, and the Longhorns looked so much more sure-footed than the team that lost its first two to Houston and South Florida. By the time Texas started the Big 12 season, the Horns played pretty gritty ball. They might have sneaked up on some teams, but they played hard and smart while Barnes deftly mixed and matched his very limited personnel.

From that team that began so terribly, Texas won the regular season Big 12 championship. The Horns ended up losing their first NCAA Tournament game, but they fixed up a lot to build up. And Barnes built it the right.

In retrospect, it is rather odd that Texas couldn’t build a national contender before Barnes by recruiting the best players in Texas. When one looks around the athletic landscape, Texas baseball players are all over the big league baseball, Texas football players all over the NFL and Texas athletes among the tops in track and field every year. Why wouldn’t a conglomeration of Texas basketball players be able to win?

The turning had to be the successful recruitment of Houston-area point guard T.J. Ford in 2001. Though Ford was an in-state kid, everybody wanted him and his selection of Texas gave the Horns new credibility on the recruiting trail.

With Ford running the offense, Texas went to the Sweet 16 in 2002, its first such appearance since under Barnes. In 2003, Ford led Texas to the Final Four for the first time since 1947.

Barnes coached up the best in Ford, who wasn’t much of a shooter, though be could drive and dish with like no one else. And when Ford wanted to turn pro after taking the Horns to the Final Four, Barnes didn’t stand in his way. Premium high school talent heard the message. If they went to Texas, they would play right away, they would be showcased, and they could leave.

Thus were opened the floodgates. In came P.J. Tucker from Raleigh, NC, followed by LaMarcus Aldridge from the Dallas area, then Kevin Durant from Rockville, MD, and D.J Augustin from New Orleans.

Unfortunately, and not at all ironically, Barnes recruits such premium talent that the Longhorns can’t build a team over time to make a tournament run to the end. Aldridge and Durant both left after only one year. Imagine the team Texas would put together this year with Aldridge, Durant, Augustin, A.J. Abrams, Damion James, Justin Mason and Gary Johnson.

But the Longhorns don’t have that team. As always these days, they’re playing with a precocious kiddie corps. The big contributors are sophomore Augustin (19.2 points, 5.8 assists), junior Abrams (16.6 points) and sophomore James (13.2 points, 10.7 rebounds).

The Longhorns are a perimeter-oriented three-guard basketball team that will go as far as Augustin and Abrams can take them. Then again, any team in the NCAA Tournament goes as far as their guards can take them, and no one has a better backcourt than the Longhorns.

But does that mean they can handle Stanford’s interior size Friday night? Does it mean they can hang with Memphis’ interior athleticism?

Doubtless, Longhorns fans would love to have Aldridge and Durant around to answer those questions. Texas fans also know that’s not the way basketball works. The NBA let Aldridge and Durant know after their freshmen years that they’re too good for the college game. Thus, Texas may not be good enough for the college championship.

But the Longhorns are still alive, and staying alive is what it takes. It has to happen sometime.

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