KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A few feet away, under a pile of screaming humanity, lay the man who yanked the last screw out of Texas’ latest attempt to build something worthwhile. So the Longhorns lined up along the Sprint Center scoring table and waited for Monte Morris and the rest of the Iowa State players to finish celebrating their demise. At some point this season, everything was supposed to go right for Texas. Every glistening piece was supposed to come together. And it nearly happened Thursday, in the best game this team had played in some time. And then it all went wrong, yet again. And who knows what will happen next.
One thought following a 69-67 loss in the Big 12 tournament, a collapse wrapped up by Morris’ buzzer-beating jumper: It might not matter. Or it shouldn’t matter. The Longhorns probably are an NCAA tournament team, though they will have to sweat out that piece of it. But it’s inadvisable, and maybe even wildly irresponsible, to gauge a season or a coach through the prism of one game in Kansas City. Or, for that matter, a couple outings in the NCAA tournament. How you feel about the direction of this program—one teeming with potential but recently unable to meet it—shouldn’t swell or ebb on one night in Dayton.
So it might not matter. It might not matter what happens on Selection Sunday or beyond, short of a rousing run Texas hopes for but hardly anyone expects from a 20-13 team that was 8-10 in conference play. A loss like Thursday’s? It amounts to scribbles in a margin of a book that’s already written.
“It’s reality right now. We just have to face it,” Longhorns guard Javan Felix said. “At the beginning of the year, we expected to be in the tournament. We expected to be really good, better than what we are right now. It didn’t go that way.”
No one feels that more acutely than the man who shuffled into an arena hallway with a cup of water on his hand and few explanations for how this turned out the way it did.
“That was a tough one,” Rick Barnes said. None of this is to say the Texas coach is definitively on his way out after 17 years in Austin. None of this is to say Barnes worked his way off the hot seat last year, winning Big 12 coach of the year honors, only to trade it for one engulfed in flames this March. His is a fate easy to guess about but nearly impossible to know.
Whatever the assessment, it cannot change solely because a wildly talented team played remarkably well for about 35 minutes on Thursday only to crumble in the last five. Nor should cosmetic NCAA tournament success affect it, either. “We can do it all,” Barnes said. “I believe that. I think our guys believe that. We’ve come a long way, considering everything.”
Considering everything is why Barnes would be in trouble. Texas reached five Sweet 16s in seven years early in Barnes’ tenure, a stretch that included two Elite Eight appearances and one Final Four bid. The Longhorns haven’t returned to that level of success since 2008. Given the flow of talent through the program, the available high school talent within state lines and the resources of the athletic department, the evidence mounts for an indictment, no doubt.
Some reasons given for Texas’ struggles this year—point guard Isaiah Taylor’s wrist injury that cost him 10 games, concussions suffered by forward Jonathan Holmes and Felix—sound like half-truth, half-excuse. Meanwhile, no player seems to have gotten precipitously better, and the deployment and inconsistencies of coveted freshman Myles Turner remain mysteries. For all of that, there is ample blame to share.
Thursday was no different. Texas’ offense hummed for the better part of the game, with eight different players scoring. The Longhorns were connected on defense and resolute on the glass, asphyxiating Iowa State’s potent attack and offering no second chances; the Cyclones went nearly 10 minutes without a point in the first half. Every time Iowa State made a push, Texas had an answer, be it a Holmes 3-pointer or a Connor Lammert bomb or a Taylor drive. Indeed, the sophomore point guard began to cut up Iowa State on isolations when Barnes slowed the game down, at one point accounting for nine straight second-half points.
But then Iowa State ratcheted up full-court pressure in order to get the ball out of Taylor’s hands.
“The biggest thing was trying to make them uncomfortable,” Cyclones forward Georges Niang said. Sensing his point guard was tiring, Barnes went away from that attacking mindset. The result was Texas going the final seven and a half minutes without a field goal and nearly the last four minutes without a point. All that confident, cohesive play—on demonstration for the first time in what seemed like forever—dissolved bit by bit until there was nothing left.
[daily_cut.college basketball]Texas came together, and then it came apart, all in one night. It defied explanation during the regular season and little changed as March began.
“We’re trying to figure it out,” Holmes said. “We’ve been trying to figure it out all year.”
To say that on March 12 is to say dysfunction and inconsistency invaded a program’s bloodstream, terminally. Everyone could see it Thursday, both what could be at Texas and what is.
Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg, admittedly still trying to figure out how his team won, declared that Texas “absolutely belongs in the tournament.”
Barnes said he wasn’t “anymore concerned today than I was yesterday,” and that was a defensible position. Texas avoided certain disaster by beating Texas Tech in the conference tournament opener but the loss to the Cyclones likely doesn’t alter anyone’s perceptions tremendously. Texas lost seven of its last eight games against ranked Big 12 teams.
As its coach sighed afterward, it is what it is.
How it can be something more, that is the more pertinent issue. That is a question decision-makers ought to have been considering for some time. If they’re approaching it the smart way, they have an answer in mind already.
“I hope it works out for us,” Barnes said, again alluding to Selection Sunday in particular. “And it can. There’s no doubt.”
This can all work out. That is true. But it’s impossible to be doubtless about any of it.