Barnes' comments aside, Durant has dropped hints throughout his superlative freshman campaign that one more year in a Longhorn uniform might serve him well, both mentally and physically. All year, Barnes has counseled Durant to defer his decision until the end season.
"There's plenty of time to make that decision," Barnes said during the post-game interview. "You step back and let the emotional season, and what he's gone through, settle in. Obviously, he's had a great year, but he's disappointed. If you know him, it's all about wanting to win. And to lose this time of year leaves a tough taste in your mouth. But we'll step away from it for a little bit and then, in a couple of weeks, we'll all get together. It won't be any time soon. He's got plenty of time to weigh all of his options, and that's what we'll do. And he's said it's not important right now. I've said all along that he and his family will gather the information that they need and, when it comes time to make a decision, they will make the right decision."
Barnes will undoubtedly be a factor in that decision, just as he was with former All-American T.J. Ford's choice to leave school following his second season. Just a few weeks after Ford told media that he was "110 percent" certain of returning to Texas for a third season, he announced his decision to forego his junior year. Truth of the matter was that Ford actually intended to return, even after a Final Four appearance and receiving the John Wooden Award honoring college hoops' National Player of The Year. But, on the plane ride home from Los Angeles, Barnes asked Ford to consider all that he had already done for Texas, to discount what others (including teammates and fans) wanted him to do and, for once, make a decision that was right for him.
In short, Barnes maintained that there was little more that Ford could do to improve his Draft status and to consider the possibility that the league might be his best option.
"I wouldn't advise a player any different than I would advise my own son," Barnes noted.
Durant knows the NBA is ready for him; the biggest question -- in his mind -- is whether he is ready for the NBA. Durant is on record as stating that a jump from Montrose Christian to the NBA would have been ill-timed. The rigor and length of college basketball was a considerable adjustment for Durant, coaches said. The freshman hit the proverbial wall in mid-January (the week of the triple-OT loss at Oklahoma State). It was sobering for him to consider that an NBA regular season schedule is more than double the 35 collegiate contests in which he started as an 18-year old. He knows he needs to add lean muscle to his 6-9, 225-pound frame. He certainly understands that he can improve defensively. He definitely knows that he can accomplish that, and more, as a multi-millionaire in the NBA.
At the same time, Durant has spoken of his genuine love for his teammates, for the University of Texas and the joy he takes in simply being a student. He knows that once he leaves that behind, it can never be retrieved. And he has said that he wants to leave the University on better terms than a second-round exit. Texas will be a pre-season No. 1 in many publications if Durant surprises everyone with one more rodeo in Austin. Without Durant, the Horns are at least on the cusp of Top 10 status with four returning starters from this year's 25-10 squad.
"It's obvious that he's going to play in that league when he chooses to play in that league," USC coach Tim Floyd said. "When he does, he's going to be a guy that people are going to compare other players with. He's going to be a standard in that league. I really believe that."
Personally, I've had the pleasure of being in Durant's presence -- either courtside or during mid-week interviews -- for nearly five months. I don't know that I've ever been around a student-athlete (with the possible exception of QB Vince Young) who possess his rare combination of sheer giftedness, genuine humility and maturity beyond one's years. My gut feeling is that he probably does want to return for one more ride, but that it goes against conventional wisdom to turn down that much cha-ching even for one year.
Then again, Durant marches to the beat of a different drum. His very choice of Texas over traditional basketball powers North Carolina and Connecticut is testament to a personality that thrives on going against the grain. This much we know: whereas most national hoops pundits assume Durant's declaration for the Draft this year is a slam dunk, it's closer to a jump ball.
In other words, as of today, it's still up in the air.