Editor's Note: The following comments were from an interview with Longhorn coach Rick Barnes in the locker room after the Kansas State game in the Big 12 Tournament. The Longhorns went on to lose by a point in the CBI, but most of the comments deal with the season as a whole, or the program moving forward.
"I think everybody's really disappointed," Barnes said of the Kansas State loss, and the season's end result. "Because when you have expectations when you go back to the start of the year, or you go back to this tournament, I really believe that as a team, we felt we could come and win this tournament and to play the way we played against an outstanding team is just disappointing. Because we just didn't do the things consistently that we needed to do."
A lack of consistency, especially against the league's top teams, was certainly a theme this season. Texas was 0-7 in its games against the Big 12's top three teams — Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma State — and only one of the seven losses was a single-digit defeat.
"A lot went wrong," Barnes noted of the season. "I think there's a lot of things that [have been] documented about that. Again what you have to go through from start to finish with all the things that surrounded Myck's situation through the injuries and all that. It's disappointing because I don't think we ever got a chance to be the team that we could have been. With that said, we are where we are right now. And we've got work to do.
"You can always play the what-if game," Barnes said. "But there's no reason to do that. It's disappointing that we were ever even in that situation from the beginning, but we were put in it, and you can look back, but we are where we are right now, and we have to move forward."
What could Texas have been?
"There's no doubt in my mind we felt when the season started, I think every team feels when the season starts that you have a chance to have an outstanding season," Barnes said. "We go into every season wanting to win our league, wanting to certainly be an NCAA team, a team that is going to contend for titles, and we never got anything going. From the time we went to Hawaii back, we just could never get anything going because of what we had practiced throughout the summer, spring, spring summer fall, we just were never able to get to that because of Myck's situation right from the beginning and we just were always battling uphill from that point."
Now, the question surrounding Kabongo is whether he'll make the NBA leap he pondered a year ago.
I think every player at the end of the year, every player, not just Myck, but every player, has to evaluate themselves. And there's a lot of things that players have to do to analyze where they are. Not just Myck, but everybody."
Kabongo is a player whose stock would have been helped by a potential NCAA Tournament run, but the Longhorns weren't able to pull off a bid after starting 2-8 in Big 12 play before he joined back up with the team following his suspension.
"You're always disappointed because the goal is to have a chance to be in that tournament and have a chance to play for the national championship, and I've always said that's something that we've never taken for granted. When you're not in it, it's simple: you're not one of the best teams in the country, 64, 65, you're not one of them. It's hard to say that when you feel like you should be. Or you could be. But with everything that happened, we couldn't overcome everything. It's disappointing. Obviously, it's very disappointing."
According to KenPom, Texas was the country's youngest team this year, having a roster that included five scholarship sophomores and six scholarship freshmen. But to his credit, Barnes never used the Longhorns' youth as an excuse all season. But after the Kansas State game, he was able to find the silver lining in this year's performance in that a number of young players were forced into big roles.
"I do think we got some guys who have a future if they continue to develop," Barnes said. "And they're going to develop, there's no doubt in my mind. But we've got to get stronger. We've got to get a mindset that this should leave a bad taste in their mouth and you hope that all of us turn it around and say 'hey, this isn't acceptable.' We've got to do more. And so on those days when you think you're tired and don't want to do this or do that, you've just got to think about where we are and what we've just come through and say 'we've got to do more.'
"I think there's a lot [we need to get better at]," Barnes said. "I think that when you're young, and we are young, I think we've got to get stronger physically. I think we've got to understand the game better. That's the one thing from a coaching standpoint, you want a group of guys that understand taking care of the ball. We put ourselves in so many tough situations because of a lack of passing, just not protecting the ball. And lack of execution. Even today, we had some breakdowns where we just didn't have the execution. And that part shouldn't happen this time of year. So there are some things like that, I mean, I could make a list, rebounding, a lot of different things. But I think our ball-handling, skill development is really important."
At the same time, Barnes noted that he was encouraged in that a number of Texas players showed improvement over the course of the season, or showed flashes of the players that they could be. The key now, he said, would be extracting those top efforts — like Jonathan Holmes putting up a 12-8 over a seven-game stretch, or Cameron Ridley scoring 14 points and grabbing 10 rebounds against UCLA — on a more consistent basis.
"That's a great analogy right there. We've had guys that have shown it," Barnes said. "And that's the toughness part. That's the consistency part. That's the understanding that, as you do those things, teams start to game plan and they start coming after you a little bit differently. And then, can you handle that when it gets harder? Because it's always going to get harder. That's one of the things I think happened to this group this year. Guys were put into different roles, where they were game-planned for, as opposed to being secondary guys.
"John was on a great roll," Barnes said. I think John, we really felt like he had turned a corner, and got set back [by his injury]. John's a hard worker, he'll be back. But Cam, Prince [Ibeh], those guys have really improved. Cam's got to get stronger. Prince … will certainly have to continue to work on his skill. But those guys have done a lot. We've got to get better on the perimeter with skill, with taking care of the ball, making the right decisions and really understanding how it all comes together. Too many times this year, and it happened tonight, things broke down and instead of really coming together and executing, guys thought, well, I have to go make something happen. That's not how you think. That's not how you play the game."
Those small wasted possessions add up over the course of the game. And Barnes said almost every Texas loss could be narrowed down to a few of those possessions in key games that went the wrong way: "Just two of those plays can change the momentum," he said.
"That's what happened too many times this year," Barnes said. "We kept having to fight uphill. Our guys showed some character and really some desire to come back in games. But think about it: the last two years, that's all we've done. We've always had to fight back from behind, and that's because most of it, turnovers. Or a missed block out here. Or not coming up with a loose ball here or there. That's what's been really the story of our season."