Published March 04, 2010
AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — The Texas Longhorns have taken a long, hard fall from No. 1.
When they were 17-0, no team was playing better, more talented or better situated as a national championship contender.
That was six weeks ago, before inconsistency set in and losses and injuries mounted. Before lousy free throwing shooting started costing them games and before fans started griping about coach Rick Barnes for the first time in his 12 years at Texas.
On Monday, Texas became just the fifth team in the history of The Associated Press rankings to fall out of the poll after reaching No. 1. The most recent team to do it was Alabama in 2003. To make things just a little bit more miserable, it had been the first time in school history Texas had reached No. 1 and it looked like the Longhorns just didn't know how to handle it.
"There's no doubt we've gone through some struggles," Barnes said. "I guess we've come a long way, but we've had some struggles."
Mostly the wrong way of late. After a 3-0 start in Big 12 play, Texas is 6-7 over the last 13 games.
At least the Longhorns have the month of March to look forward to. With the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments still out there, this is the time when a team as talented as Texas can still make a run at something big.
Texas hopes the turnaround started Monday night.
A few hours after dropping out of the rankings, Texas beat rival Oklahoma 87-76 in a critical win that guarantees the Longhorns (23-7, 9-6) a winning record in league play. Texas wraps up the regular season Saturday at No. 21 Baylor.
Although it was unlikely the slide would have knocked them out of an NCAA tournament at-large bid, a winning record in one of the toughest leagues in the country is an extra security blanket that Texas needs right now.
"We've been at the very top and bottom," senior forward Damion James said after scoring 24 points to push Texas over Oklahoma. "Today, we move forward."
Barnes is counting on some sort of big March turnaround.
"The thing that may be the best thing for us is we find ourselves at the most important time. I said I'd give it all up to be playing our best basketball at the end of the year (and) give up the (early wins)," Barnes said.
Barnes has faced criticism he hasn't heard before in Austin.
When he arrived, Texas was a sleeping giant of a program. Barnes has built it into a national power with a Final Four appearance in 2003 and two national players of the year (T.J. Ford and Kevin Durant). Those kind of results create high expectations and a new level of frustration when they aren't met. By reaching No. 1, Texas had taken a spot normally reserved for the likes of Kansas, North Carolina and other top-level programs.
For weeks, Barnes talked about trying to reach his players and pushing them to play better. He took away minutes on the court for mistakes or what he saw as lack of production on defense.
But after a loss at Texas A&M last Saturday, Barnes pointed the finger at himself.
"There's nobody to blame but me," he said. "It's probably, for whatever reason, as poor a coaching job as I've ever done. I haven't gotten the message across consistently."
Barnes was so frustrated that he turned to team strength coach Todd Wright to talk to the team about what it takes to win.
"Just keep working hard," James said. "We can't ever get down, we had a real personal talk and coach Todd was saying that's in the past. We've been at the very top and bottom, it doesn't feel good to be at bottom."
Texas' talent is indisputable. James is one of the best players in the Big 12. Dexter Pittman can be a wrecking ball in the middle with his 6-foot-10 frame packing about 290 pounds under the basket. Avery Bradley is a sharp-shooting freshman guard who can knock down just about any shot on the floor.
But Pittman's offense has disappeared for long stretches. Barnes insisted on starting Dogus Balbay and Justin Mason at guard, but both are limited offensively and averaged less than 10 points combined. Balbay, one of the top defenders in the league, is now out for the season with a knee injury.
Texas is also dead last in the Big 12 when it comes to free throws, converting just .627 percent — a real blow considering only Kansas State has attempted more free throws than the Longhorns in league play.
No player better epitomizes Texas' up-and-down season than freshman guard J'Covan Brown, who can make a spectacular play one moment and an equally confounding one the next.
At times, Barnes has given Brown the ball to lead the offense. He scored 28 points off the bench in a loss to Kansas.
In other games, he's hardly seen the court because of problems with turnovers and defense. In a win over Texas Tech, he played five minutes.
Brown did play a key role in the win over Oklahoma. Two days after being carried off the court at Texas A&M after hitting his head, Brown had 12 points and six assists against the Sooners, and his play helped spark a second-half rally.
"All freshmen struggle coming in and we knew that," Barnes said. "The one thing that I can tell you is that with as much as we have done, these guys have never quit on each other. They have struggled, but they have never quit."