LAS VEGAS – Beginning a conversation with Rick Barnes is like jumping into a white water raft without any oars. You never know which direction you’re going or when you’re going to get thrashed, but you’re pretty sure you’re going to enjoy the ride. We spoke at the LeBron James Skills Academy a few days before his 60th birthday, and while Barnes has softened his edges in many ways (he no longer curses, for example), he still has boundless enthusiasm for his job, his program and his sport. “I feel good and I still love coaching,” he told me during a break between sessions. “It’s a blessing to be a part of all this.”
During the quietude of summer, I was curious to probe Barnes’s reflections on his team’s remarkable 2013-14 season. The Longhorns were coming off their first missed NCAA tournament in Barnes’ 16 years at the school. They had also lost their top four scorers. Most of us so-called experts labeled Barnes a dead man walking, but instead he engineered one of the season’s biggest surprises, leading Texas to a 24-11 record and a spot in the NCAA tournament, where it lost in the Round of 32 to Michigan.
Barnes certainly deserves much credit, but he also acknowledged that luck was involved, as it always is (good and bad). For example, when Texas’ incumbent point guard, Javan Felix, missed most of the preseason because of a hip injury, freshman Isaiah Taylor was forced into a starting role. He kept that spot even when Felix returned, averaging 12.7 points and 4 assists, which was one of the major reasons Texas won so many games Not only did Barnes concede that he did not realize how good Taylor was, he told me he had never even seen the kid play live until he came to Austin.
Barnes offered Taylor a scholarship largely on the recommendation of SMU coach Larry Brown, who liked the young man’s game but didn’t have a scholarship for him. As it happened, Brown was sitting just a few feet away. Lifting his chin in that direction, Barnes said, “The first guy who told me how good he was is right there.”
Brown smiled and replied, “I wouldn’t have made him cut his hair, though.”
This is why Barnes preaches to his players the importance of not “drinking the poison” when it comes to outside chatter – praise or criticism. Barnes uses the phrase so often that his assistant, Rob Lanier, took a bottle of orange soda, labeled it “Poison” and put it on a shelf in the coaches’ locker room. “We address constantly with the players that you just have to get better every day,” Barnes said. “If you do that, then it’s not that hard dealing with distractions.”
The poison will taste mighty different this fall, when the Longhorns are certain to enter the preseason ranked in Top 10 – and possibly the Top 5 – in the national polls. It’s not just because every player is returning from a good team. It is because of one very big addition: Myles Turner, the 6-foot-11 man-child from Bedford, Texas, who is being hailed as the program’s best freshman since Kevin Durant.
Barnes told me that Turner was a late bloomer who didn’t generate huge buzz until the spring of his junior year of high school. He also sounded even more excited about Turner’s character than his talent. Turner, he said, had recently arrived on campus but had yet to take his physical, so he couldn’t practice with the other players. Yet, he still showed up to an early morning workout so he could encourage his new teammates. “There’s more to him than talent,” Barnes said. “He understands the game, and he has a work ethic. He’s a very thought-out person who doesn’t want to be defined just by basketball.”
]Barnes will almost certainly have Turner for only one season before he leaves for the NBA, but that could be long enough to make a lasting impression. Turner will benefit from playing alongside Jonathan Holmes, a 6-8 senior forward who last year led the team in scoring (12.8 ppg) and was the second-leading rebounder (8.2). Holmes was also second on the Longhorns in made three-pointers. But more than that, he is the team’s heart and soul. “Jon Holmes is a warrior,” Barnes said. “He’s as respected as anybody on our team because of how hard he plays.”
Much will depend on whether Cameron Ridley, the 6-9, 285-pound center from Houston, who started all 35 games last year but averaged 25 minutes per game because of conditioning issues, heads into his junior season in better shape. If Ridley has improved as much this offseason as he did a year ago, then Texas will be that much more formidable.
The perimeter corps is a little more unsettled, but there are a lot of parts Barnes can shuffle around. Besides Taylor and Felix, he can go with Demarcus Holland, a 6-2 junior who started all 35 games last season, 6-3 sophomore Kendal Yancy and 6-4 sophomore Martez Walker, among others. Barnes will have options this season. This was the first time Barnes could recall not losing a single player from one of his teams. It’s also the first time in a long time he will be using his full complement of scholarships. Thus, the program is not only achieving excellence again, but also continuity, which had been lacking in recent years because of transfers and early defections. “You lose guys you’re not expected to lose, and then you have to scramble at the end. Sometimes it just doesn’t mesh together,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing everything we can not to put ourselves in that position again.”
Not surprisingly, Barnes was sanguine about his approaching 60th birthday. “I’m getting ready to turn 30 for the second time,” he said. He has done well to keep his even keel, and especially his sense of humor, but let’s not forget that Rick Barnes is a very good basketball coach. Next season, he’ll again have the players who could produce a season to remember.