AUSTIN -- A conversation with Rick Barnes unfolds like a meandering trip through country back roads, and there's no telling which direction the Texas basketball coach, in his western North Carolina twang, will take you next.
Over lunch last week, Barnes talked about everything from lobster rolls to former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci to Mack Brown's tenure as the Longhorns football coach. The conversational detours are part of Barnes' folksy charm. And the story of how Texas navigated its revival this season takes a similarly circuitous route, from a hellish season a year ago, through the AAU underbelly and the looming world of NBA agents and ends up with the Longhorns back in the NCAA tournament and Barnes extending his tenure as head coach for at least one more season.
"I never, ever thought that we couldn't fix it," said Barnes, a native of Hickory, N.C., who is now in his 16th season in Austin.
Coming off last year's 16-18 record -- its first losing season since the year before Barnes arrived -- Texas began the season picked eighth in the 10-team Big 12, and the agents and search-firm vultures began swirling around Austin. Even as the school's storied football program endured constant scrutiny about its present and future last fall, then-athletic director DeLoss Dodds told SI.com, "If I were going to pick one [program] to worry more about, I worry more about basketball."
Barnes' team quelled many of those concerns by jumping to a 10-1 start en route to a 22-9 regular season and a third-place finish in the Big 12 that has them as a lock for next week's NCAA tournament. The team's turnaround culminated in Barnes' fourth Big 12 Coach of the Year award, and new AD Steve Patterson recently said when asked about Barnes' job status, "I don't see us making any changes."
The Longhorns have cobbled together a season reminiscent of the gritty and overachieving teams Barnes coached at Clemson and Providence. Texas has no stars and no seniors but as TCU coach Trent Johnson said of his in-state rivals, "They play for each other. No one is worried about self as opposed to team."
No moment epitomized the freefall of Texas basketball more than the Longhorns' loss to Division II Chaminade in November 2012. The program that produced T.J. Ford, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kevin Durant got blown out, 86-73, in Maui. As the final minutes ticked off the clock, Chaminade began trending nationally on Twitter. Texas began trending toward irrelevancy.
"That defined our whole season," junior forward Jonathan Holmes said. "No effort and no execution. That's how the whole season went."
The program's decline actually began even earlier, however. The Longhorns haven't reached the Sweet 16 since 2008, too long a drought for a program in a world-class city and that has boasted its own cable television network since 2011. The conga line of first-round picks and early departures put the Longhorns in perpetual flux, and eventually the rosters turned over faster than leaders could emerge.
"We lost our culture," Barnes said. "In some ways our program, because of the amount of guys going to the NBA, it was like there was magic dust we can sprinkle on guys. It wasn't like that."
Holmes pinpoints the return of the culture to the day last March after Texas lost to Houston in the CBI. The team had a light workout with strength coach Todd Wright, minus the players who would eventually transfer -- Julien Lewis (to Fresno State), Sheldon McClellan (Miami) and Jaylen Bond (Temple).
In all, the Longhorns lost their four leading scorers, as sophomore guard Myck Kabongo declared for the NBA draft and Ioannis Papapetrou signed a professional contract in his native Greece to join transfers McClellan and Lewis out the door. While the talent dipped, the attitude spiked. Holmes and sophomore center Cameron Ridley confided to Barnes they were part of the problem last year and vowed to be part of the solution. Older players actively mentored the six freshmen, knowing how vital they'd be to any success this season.
"Everyone is all in," said freshman guard Isaiah Taylor, who has been the team's biggest surprise. An under-recruited gem from Hayward, Calif., that assistant coach Chris Ogden discovered, Taylor chose Texas over George Mason, San Jose State and Lehigh. In the Longhorns' defining home victory this season -- an 81-69 thumping of Kansas on Feb. 1 -- he was the best player on the floor, with a game-high 23 points.
Holmes, a versatile 6-foot-8 junior forward, scored 22 points that day, en route to doubling his scoring average to 13.0 points per game. He made second-team All-Big 12, but perhaps more importantly, he provided the selfless leadership missing in recent seasons.
The rise of Holmes and the emergence of Taylor coincided with the transformation of Ridley, a 6-9 former McDonald's All-American who began playing like one. He more than doubled his scoring average to 11.5 points per game, boosted his rebounds per game from 4.3 to 8.1 and significantly improved his shooting from both the field (.545, up from .462) and the free throw line (.620, up form .333) while making the Big 12's All-Defensive Team.
As the Longhorns reshaped their identity, Barnes didn't waver.
"The best thing about coach is that he hasn't changed one bit since I've been here," Holmes said. "He's been the same coach. He doesn't lie down for anyone. We had some guys last year that weren't going to listen and weren't going to change. He wasn't either. His way works. He's proven that."
The embers of change in the program flickered at different times. Assistant coach Russell Springmann quoted a Barnes observation -- coaches switched from managing behaviors to focusing on coaching players. Fellow assistant Rob Lanier pointed to a picture of the team walking off the court with their arms locked after winning at North Carolina on Dec. 18, the season's hallmark road victory.
The Longhorns have less talent compared to years past, but Barnes didn't exactly start recruiting intramural players. Six members of this year's team were top 100 recruits, but none are checking mock drafts in the locker room or have agents whispering NBA dreams in their ears.
Despite its strong season, Texas could still be susceptible to a first-round upset in the NCAAs. The Longhorns lack experience and consistent outside shooting and have sputtered down the stretch, losing five of nine to close the regular season. Still, few even expected Texas to be back in the tournament at all.
"Even though we're not a perfect team," Lanier said, "the pieces we do have do fit."
To show the scope of Texas' revival, it is necessary to note the exits of some players who've transitioned through the program, the downturn of which is related partly to agent ties and a general apathy that comes from the modern AAU culture.
The Longhorns began to slip in 2011-12, a forgettable season that ended with Texas getting a No. 11 seed in the NCAA tournament and losing its opening game to Cincinnati after falling behind 16-2 in the first 12 minutes.
The fate of that team's leading scorer, J'Covan Brown, summed up the ethos around the program. He left early for the NBA, invited 100 friends and family members to his draft party and didn't get picked. At the NBA draft combine, Brown's 12.5-percent body fat was the highest of any prospect, showing that his work ethic matched the advice he was receiving.
An atmosphere where players felt anointed as NBA prospects festered in the program. Kabongo, a heavily recruited guard who was considered the second best point guard in the 2010 recruiting class, left after Texas' train wreck last season. He played just 11 games as a sophomore after the NCAA suspended him for lying to Texas compliance officials. Kabongo, who averaged 14.6 points per game, also went undrafted. He plays for the D-League's Austin Toros.
Rhode Island head coach Dan Hurley coached Kabongo his first three years of high school at St. Benedict's Prep in New Jersey. He adores Kabongo, who he said wishes Hurley's wife a happy birthday and happy Mother's Day before he does every year. While Hurley projected Kabongo as a potential pro, his development stagnated.
"I think it's kind of, to some degree, it's a cultural issue of kids being treated like they've made it before they've made it," Hurley said. "I saw it day in and day out at St. Benedict's with the top players."
Barnes should also be to blame for the culture turning. He successfully recruited three top Canadian players from Ro Russell, a controversial Canadian AAU coach whose players historically offer more potential than production. (This Canadian television investigation of Russell sums up his history of exploiting players.) All three of those players -- Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and Kabongo -- selected Rich Paul as an agent. Kabongo's NCAA issues -- the institution ruled he accepted impermissible benefits like airfare and personal training instruction -- were tied to Paul. Kabongo has since fired Paul and insists Paul did nothing wrong.
Seventeen miles north of the Texas campus, Kabongo plays D-League games in a suburban arena where mid-possession music clips of the Chicken Dance drown out the noise from the kids' Bouncy House on the baseline. He's averaging 8.9 points per game.
"This is where I'm supposed to be," Kabongo said. "There's no regrets."
On the 22nd floor of an office building in downtown Austin, the backdrop behind Texas AD Steve Patterson provides a peek into the future. Looming over building projects are four construction cranes that locals refer to as the city's official bird.
Downtown Austin could become the home of Texas basketball in the next decade. Texas plays on campus in the Erwin Center, an antiseptic arena with all the energy of a Monday morning in high school homeroom and all the charm of a 1980s living room basement. With a new medical school slated for that part of campus, finding a new home for Longhorns basketball will soon emerge as one of Patterson's defining tasks.
When Patterson took over as Texas' athletic director in November, it appeared that the school's basketball program needed an overhaul as well. Though Barnes has claimed naivety to his job being in danger, names like Buzz Williams (Marquette) and Shaka Smart (VCU) were openly bandied about in the media as replacements. Barnes, though, never worried. He saw a culture shift with the defections and a roster far more talented than the public perception. With that victory at North Carolina in December, Texas established itself as a potential NCAA tournament team. It sealed that fate with a seven-game winning streak in Big 12 play, a stunning run in what ranks as the nation's toughest conference according to RPI.
Barnes didn't mince words when asked if this season should give him the chance to write his own ending at Texas. "I don't think there's any question," he said.
"That's a program that had to sort of retool and Rick did it in short order," Patterson said.
The AD and the head coach have not had a sit-down meeting since Patterson took over in November, but that's something Barnes attributes to Patterson respecting the grind of the season. So far, Patterson said Barnes has impressed him. Most of Patterson's sports background comes in basketball, as he served as the general manager of the Houston Rockets (1989-93) and president of the Portland Trailblazers (2003-07). As someone once in charge of building teams, Patterson sees a team well constructed for the future, especially since Texas has just one upperclassman, Holmes.
"It's fun to watch the teams that stick together for three or four years and mature as opposed to the one-and-done," Patterson said. "Given the level of teaching that goes on with Rick, you can see a lot of success out of that bunch."
While Barnes has solidified his fate in the short-term, the program still hasn't quite re-established itself as a consistent national contender. A high ranking Texas official told SI.com that he'd have said prior to the season that there's "no way" Barnes would return next year.
"Now I think he's earned another year," the official said.
And while Texas has pulled itself out of irrelevancy this season, the cranes in Austin still loom as a metaphor for the basketball program at Texas. The building must continue.
It will be interesting to see how history remembers the 59-year-old Barnes. He'll lead Texas to its 15th NCAA tournament in 16 seasons next week. He guided the Longhorns to the Final Four in 2003, and he's recruited 14 McDonald's All-Americans and coached 10 NBA first-round draft picks in his tenure. His career head coaching records of 582-298 over 27 years and 380-164 at Texas are staggering.
But Barnes is still often remembered more for what he hasn't accomplished, which includes winning a national championship.
"You go back, if there were no guys leaving early and all this, I think we would have stumbled into three of them because of who we had," Barnes said of national championships.
The expectations for next season's team will be completely flipped. Texas, which doesn't have any seniors, including walk-ons, will return every player from an NCAA tournament squad that spent several weeks late this season ranked in the top 25. But to be a Final Four contender, Barnes needs to reel in the type of player his team lacks this season.
Myles Turner is a 6-11 center considered the No. 2 overall prospect in the Class of 2014. He hails from the Dallas area, and he'll choose from among Texas, Duke, Kansas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Ohio State and SMU. Turner's time on campus projects to be measured in months instead of years. Texas coaches can't talk specifically about Turner, but they made it clear they haven't altered their recruiting philosophy to rule out one-and-done players.
"Part of the narrative that we want to fight is that we don't want guys who want to be pros," Lanier said. "We want pros. I think the difference is that we want guys while they're here to have both feet in, play your heart out."
Barnes still thinks big when he discusses the future of Texas basketball. He wants to win a national championship here, wants to take the final step where the program hasn't yet reached. He senses the program is again on the right track. "We're a piece or two away right now," he said.
And if Turner heads to Austin this summer, the program could end up on a path similar to a conversation with Barnes: There's no telling where it could go.