Rick Barnes is in the running for Big 12 Coach of the Year.
Don’t feel bad if that sentence surprises you. Few saw this Texas basketball team coming.
Remember, the Longhorns looked depleted when the season began. They had lost their top four scorers and Barnes was coming off his worst year in Austin. After 14 straight trips to the NCAA Tournament, they finished with a losing record. A quick turnaround seemed far-fetched. Some thought this team would struggle so mightily that it would cost Barnes his job.
Instead, Texas is one of the hottest teams in college basketball. The Longhorns (16-4, 5-2 Big 12) have won three straight games against ranked opponents to break into the national polls at No. 25. They are in a tie for second in the conference standings, and a must-see game awaits against first-place Kansas on Saturday at the Erwin Center.
It’s been a fun ride for everyone involved, especially Barnes.
“The chemistry has been good,” Barnes said. “We have a group of guys who want to win. It’s been fun coaching them.”
Cameron Ridley, Jonathan Holmes and Javan Felix have been the main catalysts for Texas during its surprise run. All three of them were complementary players a year ago next to Myck Kabongo, Ioannis Papapetrou, Julian Lewis and Sheldon McClellan. But they have turned into stars since those former players left the program.
Ridley, a sophomore center, is reminding everyone why he was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of high school. Holmes, a junior forward, hit a buzzer-beater against Kansas State. And Felix, a point guard, doesn’t appear to be scared of anything. All three vowed to improve during the offseason, and their hard work is now paying off.
The Longhorns might not have as much pure talent as they did a year ago, but they have the intangibles — leadership, unselfishness, poise and toughness — that every good team requires.
Barnes said he built this team with an eye toward those values. So far, it has exceeded expectations. But he wants more.
“Over the past couple games we have had some really good moments,” Barnes said. “But I think we can get better.”
It is a long season, of course. And the Longhorns have a history of fading late under Barnes. They haven’t made it past the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament or claimed a conference championship since 2008. There is plenty of time for things to go wrong. And no matter how well Texas plays, Barnes will have to compete with Bill Self for the league’s top coaching honor.
But he is in the conversation, and the Longhorns appear on their way back to the NCAA Tournament.
That, alone, is remarkable. Few saw this Texas team coming.
On the decline
What is wrong with Baylor?
The Bears entered Big 12 play with one of the best nonconference resumes out there. They defeated Kentucky on a neutral court, took down Colorado and pushed Syracuse until the final minutes. They were ranked in the top 10, and for good reason.
Now they appear headed to the NIT.
Baylor has lost four straight, and at 1-5 in conference play it is looking up at everyone other than TCU. Two home losses and a shocking defeat at Texas Tech have left the Bears in a gigantic hole.
Scott Drew blames the losing streak on poor free-throw shooting and strong competition. But a lack of offense seems to be the biggest problem of all. Baylor managed 60 points in a home loss to Texas on Saturday. Starting forwards Cory Jefferson and Isaiah Austin combined for 15 points and 15 rebounds and no one had more than two assists.
Baylor isn’t getting consistent production from its front court, and the team is low on confidence. It doesn’t have much time to figure things out. A tough schedule awaits. Still, Drew remains optimistic.
“At the end of day, we like this team, we’re not going to give up, we’re going to keep fighting,” Drew told reporters Saturday. “Last year, we were at this time 5-1 (in the Big 12). We thought everything was great and finished 9-9. ... We’d rather finish well than start well, so we’ll see what we can do.”
This may be a make-or-break week for West Virginia.
The Mountaineers are 3-4 in league play, and their next two games may determine whether they can go .500 in the Big 12. They play at reeling Baylor on Tuesday and return home for a game against Kansas State on Saturday. The Mountaineers may not be favored in either game, but both are winnable. A sweep could give them much-needed momentum and a winning league record. Two losses will leave them near the bottom of the Big 12 standings.
Players of the week
Cameron Ridley and Andrew Wiggins won weekly honors from the Big 12 on Monday. Ridley, a Texas center, helped lead the Longhorns to victories over K-State and Baylor by averaging 13 points and 10 rebounds. Wiggins was named newcomer of the week after scoring a career-high 27 points against TCU.
Big 12 bracketology
Because it’s never too early to predict who will qualify for the postseason: