Better Players, Worse Teams

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By Ross Lucksinger
Posted Dec 12, 2012
Copyright © 2014 InsideTexas.com


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Texas lost the USC in the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament (Texas Sports Photography)

Over the past decade, the overall talent on Rick Barnes' rosters has trended up while the on-court performance of his teams has trended down. So why has better players made for worse basketball teams?

The 2012 recruiting class was ranked No. 4 in the nation by ESPN.com. The six-man group included four players ranked in the top 100 in the country, with center Cameron Ridley leading the way. It was Barnes' fourth-straight top ten recruiting class, with three of those classes ranked in the top five nationally.

The 2011-2012 season ended with a loss in the first round to Cincinnati. In each of the last four seasons, the Longhorns' NCAA Tournament has ended in the first or second round.

[In an attempt to avoid confusion, I'm still going to refer to the first round the Longhorns played in as the “first round,” even though technically it is titled the “second round” by the NCAA, as the play-in games are now called the “first round.”]

Four consecutive years of top ten recruiting classes and four consecutive years of early exits. The contrast is gets even more stark when we look at the preceding years. The four years previous to that saw two Elite Eight appearances. The four years previous to that included three Sweet 16 appearances and a Final Four.

On the whole, we've seen a steady increase in the quality of players and a steady decrease in the quality of teams. What is the cause of this apparent disparity?

The “one and dones” are obviously a factor. The better the player, the more likely he is to declare for the NBA early and the Longhorns have certainly produced more than their fair share of high draft picks in recent years. But with Barnes' recruiting classes being so consistently stellar, there are always great players ready to replace the departed.

Back in April, Kentucky won a national championship with three freshman and two sophomore starters on a team that had lost four players to the NBA draft the season before. The lack of development due to “one and done” hasn't prevented inexperienced teams from winning championships.

Much like Kentucky in 2012, the Longhorns had a freshman-heavy team in 2007. But though the roster included one of the greatest players on the planet, the team was unable to make it past the second round. Kevin Durant's accomplishments the next season as a rookie showed that development was not an issue for the star forward. Yet without him, the Longhorns went to the Elite Eight the next season.

They did so because, though they lost Durant, the Horns still had D.J. Augustin. It was a speedy, tenacious, driving NBA point guard surrounded by a strong set of experienced role players such as Damion James, A.J. Abrams, Connor Atchley, Justin Mason, Gary Johnson and Dexter Pittman. It was reminiscent of 2003, the Longhorns' only trip to the Final Four. A speedy, tenacious, driving NBA point guard – T.J. Ford – was surrounded by a strong set of experienced role players – Royal Ivey, James Thomas, Brandon Mouton, Brian Boddicker, Brad Buckman and Sydmill Harris.

Due to the nature of Rick Barnes' offensive system, only this arrangement of players has resulted in consistent success. But there is a disconnect between the players he recruits and the system he runs. His recruiting classes are highly ranked because he targets top overall talent from across the country. But if a team's goal is simply to amass top talent, the coach must be flexible with his system and run the most appropriate offense and defense based on the players at hand, much like Kentucky or North Carolina or Kansas.

Rick Barnes is not. As a result, his teams were actually better when he wasn't able to pull in the best players. But now there is a disconnect between the players recruited and the system they're asked to execute.

With the disarray of the 2012-2013 Texas Longhorns, it is apparent that Myck Kabongo's presence is absolutely required. But Kabongo is still sitting out, waiting on the NCAA to rule on whether he acquired an agent and was honest with investigators back in May.

“I haven't heard anything,” Barnes said Monday. “...if we don't hear something in the next couple days it's frustrating, disappointing, whatever word you want to put on it.”

A couple days have passed. Still no word on Kabongo.

If Kabongo is ruled ineligible, or if the investigation continues to drag, then the adjustment is...shrug? More of this?

I do not doubt of the talent of Ridley and his fellow highly-touted teammates. But, as we've seen in the past, talent alone is not sufficient. In fact, under Rick Barnes, the more talented the Horns have gotten, the worse they've played.

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