(AP) – A year ago, Texas coach Rick Barnes was hearing a lot of speculation that his job was on the line. Now, he’s got a team that’s expected to compete for the Big 12 title.
Talk about a turnaround.
It was easy to see why Barnes was supposed to be on the hot seat. Fans were already frustrated by Texas’ recent lack of postseason success, the Longhorns were coming off their first losing season in 15 years and Barnes rolled out a lineup that had lost most of its scoring punch.
And Barnes had just watched Texas push out football coach Mack Brown after 16 years.
So Barnes and the basketball team responded by going 24-11 with a return to the NCAA tournament, and they’ll open this season of high expectations by hosting 2014 NCAA tourney team North Dakota State on Friday night.
Tenth-ranked Texas returns five starters, including point guard Isaiah Taylor, the surprise catalyst for last season’s turnaround. And they add top recruit Myles Turner, a 6-foot-11 forward, to a team that Barnes is now confident enough to welcome comparisons to the Texas team that made the 2003 Final Four or the one that came within one game in 2008.
”We’ve got the most depth that we’ve had in a long time. There’s not going to be one guy on the team who’s not going to be a big factor at some point,” Barnes said. ”I think is a team and coaching staff I’d like to see compared to those teams.”
Yet Taylor hardly sounded impressed with Texas’ turnaround last year. All those wins in the regular season still didn’t deliver a Big 12 trophy or a deep run into the NCAA tournament.
”We really didn’t accomplish anything,” Taylor said. “We didn’t win the Big 12. We lost in the round of 32.”
Taylor was one of the biggest surprises in the Big 12 last season, but now that he’s been around the league for a season he’ll have to improve his shooting and leading the Longhorns in half-court possessions. He led Texas in scoring and assists but shot just 39 percent.
”He’s improved in the half court,” Barnes said. ”I think he’s got the kind of swagger you want. He’s a confident player. There’s nothing he hasn’t gotten better at.”
Turner is the sort of big-time recruit Barnes landed in the past when he signed the likes of T.J. Ford and Kevin Durant. Turner was one of the top prospects in the country and chose Texas over Duke and Big 12 rivals Kansas and Oklahoma State. He’s considered an elite shot-blocker and can even step out for 3-pointers. He’ll be expected to have an immediate impact in an experienced lineup.
The Big 12 is a rough-and-tumble league and Texas will bring plenty of muscle with Turner, 6-foot-10 center Prince Ibeh and 6-9, 285-pound forward Cam Ridley. Barnes has said he’s tinkered in practice with lineups that used Taylor and four forwards, all 6-8 or taller.
The Longhorns need to find a go-to shooter in crunch time. Too often last season it was guard Javan Felix, who was just 36 percent on the season, prompting teammate Demarcus Holland to joke, ”He’s a points guard. All he does is shoot.”
Barnes insists the Longhorns can knock down shots when they need to.
”People question our shooting,” Barnes said. ”I do think we’ve got some guys on this team who can shoot the ball better than people think.”
Summit League champion North Dakota State went 26-7 last season – matching the school record for wins – and knocked off fifth-seeded Oklahoma 80-75 in overtime in the first round of the NCAA tournament before falling to 63-44 to San Diego State.
The Bison, however, lost six key players to graduation, including their top three scorers in Taylor Braun (17.6 points per game), Marshall Bjorklund (13.2) and TrayVonn Wright (11.4). Point guard Lawrence Alexander is the only returning senior and the only NDSU player that averaged double digits in points at 11.1. He and junior guard Kory Brown, a two-year starter who averaged 7.0 points last season, will be expected to lead the team offensively.
“I think what we’re all gonna figure out is we’re really gonna be a work in progress here for the next couple months for sure. … I’ve asked our guys if we can get a little better every day, but hopefully come early January we’re rounding into shape,” said coach David Richman, who took over after Saul Phillips was hired by Ohio University.
Texas and North Dakota State have never met. The Bison are 3-6 against Top 25 opponents and have lost six of the last seven.