Talented players only take Barnes so far

Huddled around a laptop in the locker room Sunday night, the Texas coaching staff tried to make sense of its latest collapse in the NCAA tournament.

They watched the final seconds of the fourth-seeded Longhorns’ 70-69 loss to fifth-seeded Arizona to review the lack of a foul call on guard J’Covan Brown’s missed high-arching runner on the game’s final possession, but were unsure whether the whistle should have been blown.

“Bad angle,” special assistant Kenton Paulino said.

Of course. There’s always some excuse when it comes to Texas and coach Rick Barnes in the NCAA tournament.

This year, it’s the no-call on Brown’s shot and the questionable five-second call on Longhorns guard Cory Joseph before he could call timeout while inbounding the ball. The latter set up Arizona forward Derrick Williams’ game-winning 3-point play with 9.6 seconds left.

“I just hope that it was a legit five-second count,” said Barnes, who is in his 13th season at Texas. “I can live with some of the other things because it’s a tough game to officiate. But counts, there’s no reason to not get those right.”

Texas can should’ve, would’ve, could’ve all it wants about the controversial officiating, but it won’t hide the painful truth about Barnes: he’s done less with perhaps more talent than any coach in college basketball recently.

Not that it’s a secret anymore. His team was far more talented than Arizona, and had two likely future first-round NBA draft picks in guard Jordan Hamilton and forward Tristan Thompson, but that still wasn’t enough to win.

Just like the five previous seasons when Barnes had eight NBA draft picks, five of which were first-rounders, including a guy named Kevin Durant.

And with all that talent, what does Barnes have to show for it? Not a single national championship, and only one Final Four appearance.

In fact, Barnes has now lost to a lower-seeded team in nine of his 13 NCAA tournament appearances at Texas and his lone Final Four appearance came eight seasons ago.

“I guess they’ll say we were another talented team that didn’t make it,” senior forward Gary Johnson said. “It sucks.”

Johnson is right, but Barnes can’t seem to fix this Texas-sized problem, no matter how many NBA first-round picks he brings in. Others disturbing trends are also emerging.

While not as mind-boggling as the bizarre plunge of last year’s Longhorns from No. 1 to losing in the NCAA tournament’s first round, this team too had a late-season swoon.

After being ranked as high as third in mid-February, it lost four of its final eight games entering the NCAA tournament to fall to a No. 4 seed. The NCAA tournament selection committee was blasted for the Longhorns’ seeding.

But the committee actually turned out to be right about Texas. Maybe its members had seen Texas play down to the level opponents enough to know that it’d happen again.

Or maybe they knew the Longhorns would be unprepared, not have a semblance of offense beyond standing around and watching one player try to make plays, and meltdown in the final seconds of a game.

Because guess what? Texas somehow accomplished all of those things in this loss.

“I don’t know what it is,” point guard Jai Lucas of Texas’ problems.

That leads us back to Barnes. He can attract the talent, but coaching it has been a different story.

So much that you can’t blame a staunch, burnt-orange blooded Texas fan from texting me and asking: “Do you think Barnes could win with the Dream Team?”

That’s obviously overkill, but during timeouts Sunday night, Barnes often looked perplexed as he huddled with his assistants before talking to his dysfunctional team. On the other end, Arizona coach Sean Miller was quick to dash in his team’s huddle and start drawing up plays on a dry-erase board.

That’s not why Texas lost to Arizona, but Barnes’ inability to make in-game adjustments was a factor. That’s been a knock against him for a while, but something he can still correct.

Any good leader should be able to recognize his weaknesses and surround himself with others who can make up for them. Maybe it’s time for Barnes to do what Texas football coach Mack Brown did after this past season and make changes to his coaching staff.

There’s also the issue of Barnes’ attitude about the NCAA tournament. He has repeatedly said winning is not the most important thing in his life.

That’s easy to say at Texas, where football is king, but maybe it’s time to make winning a little bigger priority. Because it does actually matter to the Longhorn faithful like a little girl who cried as the Eyes of Texas played after this heartbreaking loss.

Sadly, she is too young to know that early exits in the NCAA tournament by talent-packed, Barnes-coached teams aren’t anything new.

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