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Defense is key to Texas' surprising season -- and Rick Barnes' future

Rick Barnes Can Texas' surprising performance this season save Rick Barnes' job? (Peyton Williams/Getty)

In his “Fast Five” column published Wednesday, SI’s Seth Davis addressed Texas coach Rick Barnes’ job security. The reason he even addressed this subject in the first place has a lot to do with the general perception that Barnes entered this season on the “hot seat.”

Prevailing wisdom held that Barnes needed to lead his team to the NCAA tournament to remain the Longhorns’ coach. For most of Barnes’ 15-plus year tenure, it was safe to assume the Texas coach would get his team into the NCAAs. But after 14 NCAA bids in as many seasons, the Longhorns weren’t invited to the Dance in 2013. Worse, Texas lost its top four scorers in the offseason. Guards Julien Lewis (Fresno State) and Sheldon McLellan (Miami) transferred, point guard Myck Kabongo declared for the NBA Draft and forward Ioannis Papapetrou signed a contract with Euroleague power Olympiacos.

Athletic department officials appeared to be losing faith in Barnes’ ability to push Texas back into Big 12 title contention. “I can’t imagine [Barnes] turning it around,” a high-ranking athletic department official told SI’s Pete Thamel in October.

Texas had not advanced past the Elite 8 since 2008, its grip on prep talent within state lines was slipping, former athletic director and longtime supporter DeLoss Dodds had announced that he was stepping down, and there were murmurs that the Texas coach had lost his competitive drive.

It was under these conditions that Barnes began the season with a young and largely unproven team, facing the difficult task of trying to avoid the dip most coaches would have to deal with after losing so much talent in an offseason. It seemed it would take one heck of a coaching job for Barnes, to quote the exact Twitter question Seth answered, to “save his job.”

Nineteen games into the season, it appears Barnes may have done exactly that.

On Tuesday, Junior forward Jonathan Holmes drilled a three at the buzzer to sink No. 22 Kansas State, 67-64. The win moved Texas to into a tie with No. 25 Oklahoma for second place in the Big 12 standings and came on the heels of Saturday’s victory over No. 16 Iowa State, marking the first time since January 2011 that Texas has won consecutive games against teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25.

(GIF source: SB Nation)

“I think we’ve been a good team from day one,” Barnes told reporters after Tuesday’s win. “It's obvious we have guys that are getting better. I don't think there is one guy on our team that hasn't improved, but there is a long way to go. I told our guys it's simple. There are six teams in the Big 12 ranked in the AP Top 25, and we're not one of them. If you don't think this was important, you better think long and hard about it. I do think we have a confident group of guys, and I do love them, but my expectations for them are higher than theirs.”

The Longhorns have exceeded expectations thanks in large part to their defense. Texas held both Iowa State and Kansas State to around 1.00 point per possession, (below their averages of 1.05 and 1.07 during conference play, respectively) and ranks fifth in the Big 12 in defensive efficiency against league opponents. It is blocking a higher percentage of opponents’ two-point field goal attempts than all but one team in the conference and opponents are taking just 28.5 percent of their shots at the rim, according to hoop-math.com, good for 31st in the country.

This team lacks the offensive firepower to challenge Kansas for the Big 12 title – though the strides its made on offense and rebounding should not be dismissed – but the Longhorns have cemented their identity as a tough defensive team that deters opponents from scoring in the paint. They rank 46th in the country in two-point field goal percentage defense, are blocking 17.6 percent of shots at the rim, per hoop-math, and Big 12 opponents are launching 38 percent of their field goals from three-point range, the highest rate in the conference.

According to Synergy Scouting data, the Longhorns have allowed just 0.81 points per possession in their half court defense and 0.795 when playing zone. Massive center Cameron Ridley is an elite rim protector (his 10.6 block rate ranks 30th in the country) that has held opponents to just 0.723 points per possession on post-ups this season, according to Synergy. Here’s Ridley defending Kansas State forward Thomas Gipson in the post, biting on a pump fake, leaving his feet, yet still recovering in time to strip Gipson on his way up.

With Texas’ guards thwarting forays into the paint and Ridley cleaning up anything that slips through, the Longhorns are a tough team to break down.

“They are definitely much more together this year than they were last year,” Kansas State coach Bruce Weber said. “They play really hard.”

Texas chances at landing an at large bid will become clearer as we move closer to March.  The Longhorns (15-4, 4-2 Big 12) have an RPI of 36 and are 2-4 against the RPI top-50 and 6-4 against the top 100. SI bubble watcher Michael Beller on Tuesday, before Texas beat the Wildcats, described Texas’ NCAA Tournament situation:

“The Longhorns did well to beat Iowa State last week, but they're still just 1-4 against teams inside the RPI top 50. They don't have any losses to teams outside the top 50 and have beaten North Carolina on the road and Mercer and Stephen F. Austin, two mid-majors that will likely go dancing. It will be an interesting resume come March, but one that likely needs another few big wins to earn a bid.”

Texas will have opportunities to notch a few more big wins before the Big 12 tournament begins on March 12. It plays at No. 24 Baylor Saturday before hosting No. 8 Kansas a week later. The Longhorns also have remaining games at Kansas State (Feb. 8), vs. No. 11 Oklahoma State (Feb. 11), at Iowa State (Feb. 18), at Kansas (Feb. 22), vs. Baylor (Feb. 26) and at No. 25 Oklahoma (Mar. 1).

“They are close to being in the top 25,” Weber said of Texas. “They are at Baylor next, that will be interesting, but they are capable of winning that match.”

Defense alone might not be enough for Texas to knock off some of the Big 12’s best. It will need its offense, which currently ranks seventh among Big 12 teams during conference play at 1.08 points per possession, to be more consistent.

But the Longhorns have definitely played themselves into the at-large discussion, and if they pick up a few more resumé-building wins between now and the end of the regular season, there’s a decent chance they’ll make the cut on selection Sunday.

“I mean, this time last year we were 1-5 right now, or 0-5 or something like that, but right now we have put ourselves in a position to control our own destiny,” Holmes, the buzzer-beater, said. “So, we are taking it one game at a time, and like I said we are playing a good Baylor team this Saturday, so that's what our focus is on right now.”

That much didn’t seem realistic as recently as October.
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