Distilling Barnes' job security, Payne's health, more mailbag

Wednesday January 22nd, 2014

Once left for dead, Rick Barnes has revived his job security with Texas' surprising resurgence.
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Every week in Fast Five, Seth Davis will answer five questions from Twitter followers whose questions were left over from his weekly Twenty for Tuesday live Twitter chat.

Charlie Allen (@TheGovernorOfKY): Has Rick Barnes saved his job in Austin?

Generally speaking, I don't like to address speculation on coaches' job security, but since these questions come up often from readers there is no way to avoid them. In this case, I am happy to speak to Barnes' situation at Texas because most of us who follow the sport assumed entering the season that Barnes was a dead man walking.

As it turns out, he has a lot of life left in him. Unlike last year's team, which went 7-11 in the Big 12 and suffered the program's first losing season in 15 years, this group of Longhorns is a spirited, cohesive unit whose whole is greater than the collection of its parts.

They proved as much again Tuesday night when they won their fourth straight over a Kansas State team that had been playing very well in its own right. The game was decided on a buzzer-beating three-pointer by 6-foot-8 junior Jonathan Holmes. It was Texas' second straight victory over a ranked team.

Of course, we're still almost two months away from the start of the NCAA tournament, and a lot can happen between now and then. But what's going on with Texas is a good reminder that conventional wisdom is often wrong when it comes to roster turnover. Last year's team did poorly, and then it lost its top four scorers -- Myck Kabongo, who entered the NBA draft; Julian Lewis and Sheldon McClellan, who transferred; and Ioannis Papapetrou, who left to play pro ball in Europe. Another reserve Jaylen Bond bolted for Temple. The departures appeared to augur an even greater disaster, but it's apparent that what they really amounted to was the loss of a lot of psychological dead weight. In the preseason, Barnes conceded that he did not enjoy coaching last year's team (for reasons other than its talent) and promised an improved culture. But even he couldn't have expected this many wins.

Keep in mind that Texas' eight-man rotation consists of no seniors, one junior, five sophomores and two freshmen. So the future is looking even brighter. It is highly doubtful any of those young players will enter the NBA draft.

Finally, let me add a personal word about Barnes. He has spent most of his life sporting a well-earned reputation for being brutally competitive. His teams have always played tough and been an extension of their chip-on-his-shoulder coach. But Barnes has softened noticeably the last few years. He has dealt with his wife's health issues and embraced his faith. He has even given up profanity (which if you know Barnes, took some doing).

There had been some scuttlebut in college basketball circles that Barnes had lost his competitive edge, but that proved unfounded. The success of this team proves that a coach doesn't have to be a cussing boor to get his guys to play hard. He just has to get them to believe in each other and believe in him. Barnes has done just that, which is why despite all the preseason conjecture, his job does indeed appear to be safe.

Drew Beadling (@DrewBeadling): Is MSU the best team in the country with a healthy [Adrien] Payne?

My answer is yes, but I also follow my answer with a question: Does it matter? Because it does not appear to me that Payne will ever be fully healthy this season. The 6-9 senior has been dealing with plantar fasciitis in his right foot all season. From everything I've heard about this condition, it is the type of thing that only gets better with several months of rest. That is obviously not possible if Payne wants to have an impact his senior season.

The Spartans coaches have tried to mitigate the situation by holding Payne out of practice, but that has only been effective in spurts. Plus, because Payne has been trying to play through the pain, he developed a sprain in that same foot. He has sat out the last two weeks, and it doesn't look like he will play in this weekend's huge matchup with Michigan. After the Spartans beat Indiana on Tuesday night, Tom Izzo said it would be "the toughest coaching decision of my life" in determining whether Payne would play.

Payne already has stamina issues related to a lung condition and asthma. So it is especially important that he get as many practice reps as he can to return to game shape.

Yes, the Spartans have lost just one game this season (at home to North Carolina), but they have been hanging by a thin thread of late. Their 11-game win streak includes two overtime wins at home (over Ohio State and Minnesota), and they had to struggle to beat an inferior Indiana team at home Tuesday night. After hosting Michigan on Saturday night, the Spartans play at a red-hot Iowa team next Tuesday.

The good news for Michigan State is that Gary Harris appears finally to be healthy, although I keep hearing rumblings that Harris has people outside the program whispering in his ear about how to best maximize his draft status. Keith Appling has been one of the top guards in America, but he was well off his game against the Hoosiers, making just 2 of 10 from the field.

All in all, lots of coaches would like to have Tom Izzo's problems, but Payne's lingering foot condition is definitely a big one. If Payne gets healthy and returns to form, the Spartans will emerge as the team to beat. But right now, that's a very big "if."

HAMILTON: Big Ten keeps getting weirder as no team performs as expected

Capable of taking over a game, DeAndre Daniels has been maddeningly inconsistent for UConn.
Cal Sport Media via AP

Stanley Yelnats (@MattyMillz85): How far can UCONN go if they get production out of DeAndre Daniels?

Yet another very big "if." You'd be hard pressed to find a player with this much talent who has been this inconsistent. Exhibit A, of course, is the team's recent five-day span. On Thursday, Daniels had his best game of the season in the team's biggest win, going for 23 points and 11 rebounds in a road win at Memphis. Two nights later, Daniels was nowhere to be found in a home loss to Louisville. He had 2 points on 1 for 9 shooting. Three days after that, he had 31 points and 12 rebounds in a thrashing of Temple.

Who knows what drives a player to be great one night and invisible a few nights later. The best answer is that Daniels is a junior in college who is still figuring out all the small but important things a young person must utilize in order to be at his best.

The only thing we do know is that UConn lacks productive frontcourt players, which leaves the team overly reliant on heroics from senior point guard Shabazz Napier (who has been phenomenal this season in his ability to deliver them). If Daniels is active on the glass and driving to the rim, UConn can be really good. If he's not, UConn can be really bad. The best Huskies fans can hope for is that Daniels doesn't have a bad game at the wrong time in March.

Brian Williams (@BrianWilliamsCA): Thoughts on #SDSU climbing ranks without facing unseeded teams?

Hey, I thought nobody cares about rankings in college basketball! For something so unimportant, I sure do get a lot of questions about it. My Sunday night ritual of releasing my AP ballot (and then slapping down all the angry trolls who complain about it) is one of my favorite Twitter segments of every week.

But Brian raises an interesting question about San Diego State, and it applies even better to Wichita State. These teams are ranked fifth and seventh, respectively, in this week's AP poll, but they also play in conferences that are ranked 10th and 11th, respectively, in the RPI. Is it really fair to keep bumping them up for beating bad teams in mediocre leagues, when the teams they are competing with in the rankings are losing to better ones?

If memory serves, at one point last year I declared I would not rank Gonzaga higher than fifth. I couldn't stick to it as the Zags continued to roll through the WCC and eventually assumed the No. 1 ranking heading into the NCAA tournament. They followed that, of course, by losing in the Round of 32 to Wichita State, which went to the Final Four and darn near knocked off Louisville. Perhaps that should serve as a cautionary tale.

For the time being, I have decided that even if Wichita State keeps winning, I will not rank the Shockers higher than No. 5 on my ballot. The same will likely apply to the Aztecs; they've gone high enough. However, there is a lot of basketball to be played between now and the start of the tournament, and if the other top-five teams fall by the wayside and these two mighty mid-majors keep winning, then it will be hard to keep them down.

THAMEL: Can San Diego State avoid another Mountain West postseason flop?

Brian Israel (@biz3520): Best pure shooter in college basketball is?

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on what the definition of "pure" is. If you're asking who would do best while standing in an empty gym, that's one thing. I'd rather have the guy who can do it not only in a game, but when a game is being decided.

Here, then, are my top five:

  1. Phil Forte, Okahoma State. The 5-11 sophomore is converting an even 50 percent from three-point range, which is up from the 33.8 he made as a freshman. He's also making 91 percent from the foul line. If he's in the gym, he's in his range.
  2. Doug McDermott, Creighton. Technically, The Dougie is making a lower percentage of threes (44) than his teammate Ethan Wragge (50), but the reason Wragge is so open for those shot attempts is because McDermott is drawing so much attention from the defense. When both these guys get hot -- as they were against Villanova, when they combined to shoot 14 for 22 from behind the arc -- then the Bluejays are near impossible to beat.
  3. Xavier Thames, San Diego State. He is the only bona fide perimeter scorer on this team, but Thames is still converting 47 percent from three-point range and 82 percent from the foul line. Last year, when he was struggling with back issues, Thames made just 36 percent from three.
  4. Nik Stauskas, Michigan. He's making 44 percent from behind the arc and 80 percent from the foul line, but he has also done a great job developing the rest of his offensive game. And as you saw from that between-the-legs stepback that he drilled to seal the win at Wisconsin, Stauskas is cold-blooded in crunch time.
  5. Michael Frazier II, Florida. The 6-4 sophomore has continued to be a valuable long-range weapon on a very good team. Through his first 17 games, he has made 52 of his 62 shots from three-point range. Overall, Frazier is making 46 percent from three and 86 percent from the foul line.

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