Barnes, Sendek bounce back in national picture
Posted February 5, 2014
Among the most improbable, intriguing stories of this college basketball season has been the rejuvenation of Rick Barnes at Texas. After the Longhorns went 9-9 in the Big 12 in 2011-12 and 7-9 (16-18 overall) last season, there was widespread speculation in preseason that Barnes, a 59-year-old Hickory native and former player at Lenior-Rhyne, was about to follow Longhorn football coach Mack Brown to the unemployment line.
Brown was forced out after his 2013 team went 8-5 and failed to seriously contend for the league title for the fourth straight season. He was replaced by Louisville’s Charlie Strong. Ironically, a large faction of Texas basketball fans wanted the school to boot Barnes and make a multi-million dollar pitch to Louisville’s Rick Pitino at the end of last season.
With a young team that was perceived to be low on talent and competing in what’s turning out to be the country’s toughest conference, Barnes didn’t bother to deny the obvious pressure before the season started. “You have to produce in his business or face the consequences,” he said. “But I’m going to coach with one eye on the court and one on the door.”
With about a month left in regular season, the crisis is all but over.
After Tuesday’s 59-54 win at Texas Christian University, Barnes’ team is 18-4 overall, 7-2 in the conference, 5-1 on the road and has wins over Kansas, Baylor, Kansas State, North Carolina, Temple and Vanderbilt.
There’s little doubt that he’s a frontrunner – probably the frontrunner – for national coach of the year and on track for his team to open the NCAA Tournament on friendly turf in San Antonio (March 21 & 23).
"We're a good team," Barnes said after an 81-69 win over Kansas on Feb. 1. "But it's such a fine line between winning and losing. If you start drinking the poison, it will all get away from you."
Citing Texas’ defense and quickness, Kansas coach Bill Self gave Barnes all due credit. “He’s just done a heck of job. They’re good, really good,” Self said.
And the Texas team is young. After losing four starters from a season ago, Barnes rushed freshman playmaker Isaiah Taylor into a lineup with three sophomores and junior post man Jonathan Holmes. No one in the group is expected to leave early for the NBA, either. The program’s future is brighter than the present in that regard.
For years, Barnes was the apple of N.C. State fans' eyes, and he aggressively tried to get in the hiring hunt when the Wolfpack replaced Jim Valvano with Les Robinson in 1990. At that time, Barnes was in his second season at Providence and third season as a college head coach. He didn’t then have any sort of national reputation.
When Herb Sendek replaced Robinson after the ’95-’96 season, Barnes was winning big at Clemson during an era when ACC schools rarely raided each other for coaches.
Then when State hired Sidney Lowe after Sendek went Arizona State in 2006, Barnes was firmly entrenched at Texas, coming off a 30-7 season and awarded with a long-term contract.
“The timing just was never right for me or State,” Barnes when his team reached the 2003 Final Four in New Orleans. “I was a State fan from the first time I knew anything about basketball. That ’74 team will always be my all-time favorite.”
Another Triangle-area team nabbed the headlines in that postseason when Roy Williams left Kansas and return to UNC.
Barnes’ team was stopped by Syracuse in the semifinal, 95-84 when the Carmelo Anthony and the Orange pulled away during the final 50 seconds. The Orange went on to defeat Williams' Jayhawks in the title game, 81-78.
Herb’s getting hot, too
Meanwhile, Sendek’s eighth season at Arizona State also is producing pleasant surprises.
Picked to finish ninth in most preseason Pac-12 outlooks, the Sun Devils are 5-4 in the league, 16-6 overall entering Saturday’s game against Oregon State (13-8, 5-4) and on target to return to the NCAA for the first time since 2009.
However, the desert road has been bumpy at times.
After his teams combined for a 10-26 league record and 22-40 overall in 2011 and ’12, Sendek’s popularity sunk in much the same manner that he encountered midway through his 10 seasons with the Wolfpack.
But Sendek’s a battler. His team rallied late last season to finish 21-12 (9-9 Pac-12) and landed an NIT bid before losing in the second round to Baylor, 89-86.
This year's team, led by sophomore guard Jahili Carson, is improved again. With six of the next nine games in Tempe, Sendek could go to the Pac-12 tournament (March 12-15) in Las Vegas playing with house money.