KANSAS CITY, Mo. – For Texas coach Rick Barnes, something just didn't seem right.
His team was the talk of college basketball last January with a 17-0 record and a No. 1 ranking for the first time in school history. Yet when Barnes stepped off the practice court each day, he was often more irritated than encouraged.
"There were things we were doing that I wasn't pleased with," Barnes said. "As a coach, you have a feel for your team, and sometimes you get a bad feeling even when things are going good."
Barnes had that vibe last winter – and his premonition was spot on.
In one of the greatest freefalls in recent memory, the Longhorns lost 10 of their final 17 games to finish 24-10 overall and sixth in the Big 12 Conference. The toughest loss was a setback against a mediocre Wake Forest squad in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.
One of the biggest topics at Big 12 Media Day on Thursday was whether Texas is equipped to rebound from last season's debacle.
"Last year there was a point where it was like, 'How do you practice with a team that's been almost perfect?'" forward Gary Johnson said. "Now the coaches know how to [handle] a team ranked so high."
The Longhorns won't be anywhere close to the top of the heap when the first Associated Press Top 25 poll comes out next week. For the first time since 2000, Texas may not be ranked at all in the initial poll.
Leading scorers Damion James, Dexter Pittman and Avery Bradley were each selected in last summer's NBA draft. Texas is still as talented as any team in the league thanks to the addition of freshmen Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph, but its failure to live up to expectations the past few years has voters wary.
Despite touting some of the nation's top talent, Texas has advanced past the Sweet 16 just once since 2006. The shortcomings have put a dent in the approval rating of Barnes, who was once considered one of the country's elite coaches.
"I don't think you ever stop learning as a coach," Barnes said. "If you ever think you know it all, that's the end of you. If I ever stop wanting to grow as a coach, I'll quit.
"It's the same thing with players. If they ever stop wanting to be coached or wanting to grow, it's not going to be fun for anybody."
Even with the loss of three starters, Texas has enough pieces to challenge Kansas, Kansas State and Baylor for the Big 12 title.
The biggest reason for optimism in Austin centers on Joseph and Thompson, both of whom are projected as first-round selections in the 2012 NBA draft.
Thompson is a 6-foot-9, 230-pounder who will help make up for some of the rebounding Texas lost with the graduation of James and Pittman. The 6-3 Joseph is expected to be the next great point guard for a school that has produced Daniel Gibson, T.J. Ford and D.J. Augustin.
"Both of us feel like we can make an impact," said Thompson, who has lost 20 pounds since arriving in Austin. "That's why we came here. It's going to be a learning process for us, but hopefully we'll catch on fast."
Talented as Joseph and Thompson may be, Barnes is quick to point out the dangers of depending on freshmen to carry a team. That's why he's hoping to see marked improvement from returnees such as Johnson and guards Dogus Balbay, J'Covan Brown and Jordan Hamilton. The foursome combined to average 33.4 points last season.
Balbay was regarded as one of the country's top defenders until an injury cut his junior season short. Brown, who played point guard as a freshman last season out of necessity, should flourish now that he can move off the ball. Johnson will team with Thompson to form a menacing duo in the paint.
The most improved player of the bunch, however, will likely be Hamilton, a 3-point shooter who averaged 10 points as a freshman. Even though he sometimes posted gaudy statistics, Hamilton said he often played selfishly in 2009-10.
"After the season I watched some film," he said. "Some of the shots I took … I thought, 'Man, I can't believe I took that shot.' There are bad shots and there are great shots. This year I want to go for great shots."
Hamilton spent part of his summer working out with NBA stars such as Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant. Along with becoming a better player, Hamilton said he emerged from the offseason with a newfound maturity. Upon returning to school Hamilton said he apologized to the Longhorns for being a less-than-ideal teammate last season.
"I apologized for some of the things I did and some of the shots I took," he said. "I thought it would be a good step for me so the guys would know I'm serious. Taking bad shots is a sign of immaturity. So is laughing in practice and not playing defense. My main thing now is just about growing up. I'm going for a better year this year."
That couldn't be any more refreshing for Barnes. After all, the biggest problem with last year's version of the Longhorns had nothing to do with skill or ability. Simply put, Texas' players didn't mesh. There were too many Longhorns with individual agendas and too many players questioning their roles.
Barnes knew it – and some of Texas' opponents did, too.
"I talk to Rick a lot," Texas Tech coach Pat Knight said. "He didn't like the chemistry. The cohesiveness wasn't there. I just don't think he enjoyed those guys. Some of the attitudes last year just didn't fit well with him. But he really likes this team. He likes coaching them."
Indeed, while last season was defined by frustration, Barnes is confident the mood on the practice court and in the locker room will be more upbeat in 2010-11. So committed to the "team concept" is Barnes that he now becomes testy when asked about the progress of certain players.
"They've all improved," Barnes said. "There's not one guy that has leveled off or not gotten better."
Not just on the court, but off of it. Every day last season, Barnes hoped that he'd walk into practice and discover that his team had meshed. It never happened.
One year later, Barnes said the Longhorns have already formed a bond that should pay huge dividends when they take the court for their first game next month.
"They've bought into what we want to do," said Barnes, smiling. "I've got a really good feeling about these guys."
Good thing. As Texas fans learned last year, Barnes' instincts are usually right.