Rick Barnes has traded in his shovel for a ladder.
The Longhorns’ basketball coach has spent the past several seasons helping to dig a hole for his program, a condition he doesn’t deny. Now Barnes is trying to climb out, hoping his ladder — built with generally dedicated but less talented players than the ones who have filled the roster in the past — is sturdy enough.
Texas has two NCAA Tournament victories in the past five seasons and failed to reach the event last year for the first time since Barnes arrived in 1998.
That represents a significant drop-off from the standards of success Barnes once set — five trips to the NCAA Tournament round of 16 or beyond between 2002 and 2008.
Barnes helped induce the prolonged slump largely by signing the wrong players, although coaching tends to play a part in these situations as well. Some players cared more about reaching the NBA than winning in college. Several were the wrong fit. Others couldn’t handle a coach with a tough, old-school temperament.
Barnes, lacking any obvious NBA talent, is trying to win with better teamwork, part of what he hopes represents a changing culture.
“When we tell them to do something, they try to do it,” Barnes said.
They Longhorns are 6-1 against a weak lineup of opponents. But their one defeat was by four points on a neutral court against a Brigham Young team that appears poised for a good season.
The Longhorns have displayed an obvious flaw — the lack of a reliable 3-point shooter among the guards, although power forward Jonathan Holmes has hit 10 of 21.
That’s a team weakness that could be exacerbated by the NCAA’s new emphasis on enforcing a rule against hand-checking by defenders. As teams use more zone defenses to avoid fouling, it becomes imperative that opponents have players who can shoot over those alignments.
The Longhorns have partly compensated so far with strong offensive rebounding, particularly by Cam Ridley and Holmes. Texas averages 15 a game, the most in the Big 12.
Texas has also taken advantage of the speed of guards Demarcus Holland and Isaiah Taylor to create some fast-break points.
The Longhorn big men have not merely provided the team with second-chance points. Ridley and Prince Ibeh have turned away opponents who have driven by the Texas guards. The Longhorns lead the Big 12 with nearly eight blocks a game. Ridley and Ibeh rank second and fourth in the league.
Texas ranks third in the Big 12 in steals. Even so, Barnes is not pleased with the perimeter defense. Barnes said Taylor could be terrific but has used the hand-checking emphasis as an excuse to back off.
“We’ll make enough shots,” Barnes said. “We have to be better defensively.”
Holland is an exception. Barnes can’t find much fault with the 6-foot-2-inch sophomore, who averages 12 points and 6.1 rebounds. Holland has become one of the team’s two leaders, along with Holmes.
“It’s hard to talk about Demarcus without including Jon Holmes,” Barnes said. “They are at a level that we want to see all those guys join. Demarcus came in with it. Now Jon, his reputation was sometimes he had it, sometimes he didn’t. He’s learned to bring it.”
Barnes likes this team despite lapses that caused them to trail South Alabama by 17 points, Texas-Arlington by 12, Mercer and BYU by nine, and Stephen F. Austin by seven. Texas opponents have converted 41 percent of their 3-point attempts — far too many and one reason the Longhorns have fallen behind in games.
“I’m ready to kill them sometimes,” Barnes said.
He was joking, of course. Barnes would not want to destroy the steps of his new ladder.
TEXAS VS. VANDERBILT
8 p.m. Monday, ESPN2, 98.1
NO.; PLAYER; POS.; HT.; CL.;PTS.; REB.
0;Rod Odom; F;6-9;Sr.;13.7;4.8
*assists per game
TEXAS (6-1 )
*assists per game
Notes: This game is part of the Big 12/SEC challenge, a series of matchups that began this season. … Sophomore guard Eric McClellan, Vanderbilt’s leading scorer with 16.8 points a game, is an Austin High graduate who played collegiately for one season at Tulsa. McClellan scored a career-best 29 points during an 85-77 loss at Butler. He left Tulsa after coach Doug Wojcik was fired in March 2012. He had a connection at Vanderbilt, assistant coach David Cason, who originally recruited him for Tulsa. … Vanderbilt averages 28 free throw attempts a game.