When Texas coach Rick Barnes hinted this fall that the personnel losses the Longhorns sustained this past offseason were addition by subtraction, I'll be the first to admit I didn't buy his argument.
Texas lost 18 games and finished near the bottom of the Big 12 last season mostly because of its punchless, cold-shooting offense. How could the Longhorns possibly get better when they didn't add any elite recruits and their four leading scorers either transferred or turned pro early?
It's time for me to eat crow, however, because Texas has improved more than I would have ever thought possible. The Longhorns matched last season's win total with their third straight victory over a ranked opponent on Saturday afternoon, a 74-60 road win at No. 24 Baylor that should propel Texas into the AP Top 25 when the new polls get released on Monday.
Saturday's victory at Baylor continues Barnes' unlikely rise from a fixture on most 'hot seat' lists before the season to national coach of the year candidate entering February.
Projected to finish in the bottom half of the rugged Big 12 before the season, Texas (16-4, 5-2) has instead bounced back from losses in its first two league games by reeling off five straight victories. In addition to beating Baylor, the Longhorns have also toppled Kansas State and Iowa State in league play and North Carolina during the non-conference portion of the schedule.
Those are pretty impressive accomplishments from a program many thought was on the decline and a coach many believed was past his prime.
Texas hadn't advanced past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament since 2008, it was no longer landing top in-state recruits and its own athletic director told SI.com in October he was more worried about the basketball program than the football program. And the Longhorns' new athletic director cut loose football coach Mack Brown, so imagine the amount of pressure Barnes must have felt.
Why is Texas better this season even with Myck Kabongo in the NBA, Ioannis Papapetrou in Greece and Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis at other schools? Barnes has hailed his team's superior effort and chemistry as the biggest factors.
"I guess I went from being dumb to smart," he joked with reporters Saturday. Then he got serious and added, "The bottom line is the players. They made a commitment."
Camaraderie and commitment can go a long way in college basketball, but Texas also has some talent in the frontcourt that has blossomed this season with last year's perimeter standouts no longer around to dominate the ball.
Jonathan Holmes, Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert combine to average an efficient 34.4 points per game and they do an excellent job cleaning up the glass and protecting the rim as well. Texas was seventh in the nation at 6.7 blocks per game entering Saturday and 24th in the nation in rebounding percentage.
Ice-cold perimeter shooting and questionable decision-making with the ball remain issues for Texas' young backcourt, but sophomore Javan Felix and freshman Isaiah Taylor are making strides. Taylor, a speedy 6-foot-1 slasher, lit up Baylor for 27 points on 10 of 18 shooting Saturday. Felix had 23 against Kansas State and 17 against Iowa State in Texas' previous two games.
It's probably too daunting a challenge for Texas to actually challenge Kansas for the Big 12 title, but the Longhorns have put themselves in position to finish in the league's upper tier and to return to the NCAA tournament.
Yes, that should be expected at a program with the resources and recruiting base Texas enjoys. Yes, it's Barnes' own fault that recruiting stalled to the point that expectations were so low for the Longhorns this season.
Nonetheless, Barnes deserves a ton of credit for the job he has done this season. With his job potentially on the line, he has squeezed the most out of a mildly talented roster and lifted himself off the hot seat and onto the short list of coach of the year contenders.
- Sports & Recreation