Rick Barnes sees it for what it is.
Because he swears he knows what it’s not.
And the longtime Texas basketball coach vehemently promises his 15-year program is not falling into disarray as it might appear from the outside.
For everyone else, seeing will be believing. There’s evidence to suggest Barnes is losing his grip on his program. However, he vows that perception is mistaken, despite his first losing record at Texas, six absences from the Sweet 16 in the past seven seasons and major defections by everybody but the ballboy.
To be honest, I’m not sure if Barnes is properly defiant or just delusional. But that doesn’t stop him from saying, “With the guys coming in, I think we’re pretty good.”
The guys coming in had better be more than pretty good.
“If I said I was not concerned, that would not be accurate,” said Athletic Director DeLoss Dodds, who said he has had serious talks with Barnes. “I am concerned. I am troubled by it, and we need to get it fixed.”
Barnes, 58, will have at least another year, if not more, to prove he can rejuvenate one of the Big 12’s top franchises despite the recent transfers of two more of his best scorers — sophomores Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis — from an already offensively challenged team, a failure to land blue-chipper Julius Randle and the exodus of almost an entire recruiting class.
Of the six players Barnes signed in 2011, only forward Jonathan Holmes remains. There’s no returning star.
If anything, Barnes said he’ll be more demanding in the future.
“The culture we wanted and where we see our program wasn’t the fit they were looking for,” Barnes told me Thursday in a two-hour conversation.
So did he tell McClellan and Lewis to leave? No departing player has torched Barnes or the program.
“I think it was a mutual agreement,” he said, “for both parties.”
On the surface, these exits could be more disturbing because they deviate from a previous pattern. Whereas once Texas’ best players — 15 strong — left school early for the NBA, now they’re just leaving. For whereabouts unknown.
Among those who left, only point guard Myck Kabongo has packed his bags for the NBA, and he could go in the first or second round or not at all.
McClellan, one of Barnes’ most enigmatic players ever, has some outstanding offensive skills but lacks defensive commitment and a consistent work ethic. Barnes never loved his practice regimen, and now McClellan will have to sit out a year at a new school and for that time can only practice.
Lewis let the school know in April he wanted to transfer and made it public last week without a certain destination. Jaylen Bond, a frontcourt player who can rebound but brings few offensive weapons, wanted to showcase what few offensive skills he has in another system and tweeted that he’ll go to Temple.
Point guard Sterling Gibbs came here from New Jersey but left more than a year ago to return close to home and be near a sick relative, transferring to Seton Hall.
No one, Barnes assures.
Even so, he’ll be without his top three scorers, without an electrifying point guard and without a shred of momentum after finishing 16-18 and losing the first game in something called the College Basketball Invitational.
Barnes is preaching addition by subtraction because he insists everyone left behind has completely bought into the program and its core values.
But he does admit mistakes.
He said he and his staff had done some “poor evaluations” on how some players would fit in. Nor have they been lucky. A number of players who weren’t regarded as one-and-done types became just that. Tristan Thompson (Cleveland Cavaliers), Avery Bradley (Boston Celtics) and Cory Joseph (San Antonio Spurs) all had such short stays in Austin, but Barnes said Joseph has told Longhorns players “multiple times” he wishes he’d stayed in school longer.
So does Barnes see any NBA players on his roster?
“I like our team,” he said with a smile. “If Prince Ibeh does what he did against Houston in our last game, he’ll be gone (to the NBA) after next year.”
Some wonder where Barnes might be after next year as well. His contract, which pays him $2.6 million a year and included a $1 million annuity last March, runs through 2017. But do Texas and a disbelieving, shrinking fan base have the same patience Barnes has?
Is he worried for his job security?
“No, why?” he said. “I have a contract and a boss and a university that’s been loyal to me. It’s not something I think about. I’ve been doing this for 36 years.”
Much of his job security could rest with Dodds’ future. Many think the 73-year-old athletic director could step down within a year or so. Certainly that could affect Barnes.
“Rick put basketball at a different level here, and that is huge,” Dodds said. “He’s done a good job for us, and I think he deserves time, in my mind. Fans are impatient, and they’ve got a right to be. This is a program that needs to win constantly.”
At least it’s good someone’s sticking around.
AND THEN THERE WAS ONE
Back in 2011, Texas signed six freshmen to help offset the loss of NBA-bound underclassmen Cory Joseph, Tristan Thompson and Jordan Hamilton — all first-round picks. Two years later, five of those six recruits have left — or fled, depending on your point of view — the program:
Jaylen Bond, Forward
Left the team in March, after averaging 2.8 points, 3.2 rebounds and 11 minutes a game as a sophomore. Tweeted on Friday that he’s transferring to Temple, in his hometown of Philadelphia.
Sterling Gibbs, Point Guard
Like Bond, Gibbs — who’s from New Jersey and played for Seton Hall Prep — left Texas to go back home. He transferred to Seton Hall last year but isn’t eligible to play for the Pirates until this fall.
Julien Lewis, Guard
Texas’ latest defection, Lewis led the Horns in 3-pointers last season and started 21 games. But he was granted his release in April and announced Tuesday that he intends to transfer.
Myck Kabongo, Point Guard
After serving a 23-game ban last fall, he decided to jump into the NBA pool. He averaged 14.6 points a game in 11 games.
Sheldon McClellan, Guard
Texas’ second-leading scorer last season, McClellan had his share of clashes with Rick Barnes. Like Bond, he jumped the Horns’ ship in March, and he is looking for a new school.
So who’s left? Jonathan Holmes, who’ll be a junior forward, is the lone remaining member of Texas’ 2011 recruiting class. He’ll be one of only seven returning players from last season’s team.
THE PAST FIVE YEARS
How the Longhorns have fared the past five seasons:
2013;16-18;7-11 (7th);24th/NR;CBI first round
2012;20-14;9-9 (6th);NR/NR;NCAA first round
2011;28-7;13-3 (2nd);8th/NR;NCAA second round
2010;24-10;9-7 (T-6th);NR/NR;NCAA first round
2009;23-12;9-7 (T-4th);NR/23rd;NCAA second round
* Preseason/final national rankings