What Does Rick Barnes’ Season Say About Coach of the Year Awards?Posted by Brian Goodman on January 29th, 2014
One of the biggest stories around the Big 12 this season has been the revitalization of Texas basketball. The Longhorns came into this season with their coach on the hot seat, but now they’re 16-4 with wins over North Carolina, Iowa State, Kansas State and Baylor, and are currently on a five-game winning streak. That stretch includes consecutive victories over three ranked teams, but even if you discount that qualification with a more realistic evaluation of the then-overrated Bears, there’s still no doubt that Texas has played better than pretty much everyone predicted coming into the season. They were picked to finish eighth in the Big 12 back in October, so naturally, their performance has led some to consider throwing Rick Barnes’ name into the hat when it comes to Big 12 Coach Of The Year honors. But the more interesting debate here is what Barnes’ case says about what we believe the award should be about.
The discussion has raised two camps. One contends that Barnes has done a fantastic job so far, given his limitations, and as such he should definitely be given consideration for the end-of-year honor. The Longhorns, along with Oklahoma, lead the pack trailing Kansas despite losing their top four scorers from last season. Barnes has rebuilt Texas in a style that emphasizes chemistry and is having success without the services of one-and-done talents like Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson. After a disappointing freshman season, Cameron Ridley is on the short list of the most improved players in the conference; Jonathan Holmes has turned the corner when Texas desperately needed him to do so; and Isaiah Taylor is third in scoring among Big 12 freshmen despite some ups and downs.
When I attended the CBE Classic in November, it was clear that this was a different Texas team, although it lost on that night to BYU. Even then, however, Barnes mentioned that he liked his roster because it was filled with guys who wanted to be there and he couldn’t have said that about last year’s group, which had four players who moved on. Now, that doesn’t mean I’m firmly in the camp of Barnes COY supporters, but some signs that Texas could be better than expected were there back in November.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the fence, there are those who say that Barnes should be out of the picture because fundamentally, the head coach at Texas should never be in a position of having to do more with less — the barometer by which the vast majority of Coach Of The Year cases are measured*, whether you personally agree with that methodology or not. Texas has outstanding facilities, a recruiting base more fertile than most areas of the country, and wide-ranging visibility drawn from the fact that it produced the second-best basketball player in the world. The skeptics argue that college isn’t like the professional ranks, where upper management holds all the cards when it comes to roster construction; so in evaluating Barnes’ position, you can’t dismiss the decline he has experienced on the recruiting trail. In other words, from a philosophical standpoint, if you have all of those resources and still lose out on premium in-state talent to the likes of Baylor (Isaiah Austin and Cory Jefferson) and Oklahoma State (Marcus Smart and Le’Bryan Nash), not to mention SMU (Emanuel Mudiay), that should be taken into account every bit as much as your performance with the talent you do bring in. Those points are valid, too.
It’s an intriguing discussion, and if Texas keeps pace and returns to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in three seasons, the volume will be raised even higher. But regardless of your stance at this very moment (even if you don’t care all that much about awards, which is fine, too), the Longhorns still face several challenges that could render the whole talk completely moot. They have two games against Kansas, which appears to be running away with the regular season conference title before we’ve even hit February, and they must also play Iowa State at Hilton Coliseum. An upcoming game versus Kansas State at Bramlage Coliseum is no walk in the park, and a trip to second-place Oklahoma in Norman also lies ahead.
Right now, Texas isn’t a lock for a bid, although the prospects look good at the moment. If that’s the final determinant in whether Barnes stays or goes, his fate in Austin is still a long way from being decided. But all of that is for another day. For now, Texas’ stark improvement is fascinating for a reason bigger than simply what people think of Rick Barnes.
*This is why Mike Krzyzewski hasn’t won the ACC’s Coach Of The Year award since 2000 despite winning the conference’s regular season title four times in that span, while Mike Brey won the Big East’s version three times without a single first-place finish.