Granted, the Horns got off to a surprising start with a 19-point win against then No.7 Tennessee followed by the upset at No. 1 UCLA. But then came the mid-season slump where Texas dropped three-of-five, including a Big 12 Conference opening loss at lightly-regarded Missouri (97-84). The season's lowlight was clearly the 80-63 meltdown at Texas A&M. The Aggie debacle represented the first of four games where Texas had to battle against double-digit deficits.
Now, the Horns have won nine-of-10, are ranked No. 7 in both major polls and check-in this week with a No. 5 RPI rating. Most bracketologists say Texas is no worse than a No. 2 seed, perhaps in what would be a Horn-friendly Houston Regional. What accounts for Texas' strong showing down the stretch?
Barnes listed three reasons Thursday:
1). Tenacious D. (During Texas' six-game win streak, the Horns have held opponents to 64.5 ppg and 37.6 percent from the floor. Junior A.J. Abrams has especially stepped it up defensively, Barnes noted)
2). Better shot selection (You can also credit Abrams for carrying the team offensively during a recent four-game stretch when D.J. Augustin struggled from the field. During a nine-day stretch when Texas notched wins over Baylor, Oklahoma, Iowa State and Kansas, Abrams averaged 20.3 ppg on 26-of-55 shooting)
3). Production from the post (Connor Atchley has re-established the low-post presence while continuing to knock down treys. F Gary Johnson's emergence cannot be underestimated; the freshman has averaged 9.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 23.8 minutes during the current six-game win streak).
But then there is the other reason. It has to do with a change in Barnes' demeanor and, consequently, his approach to his players. When Texas limped home from Missouri with its tail between its legs, Barnes began to realize there was another intangible that needed to be addressed: himself.
"I was coaching mad," Barnes admits. "I wasn't having any fun. I'd ask myself almost every day, 'Why am I doing this?'"
Barnes could not easily account for his team's mid-season slide following its impressive start. It ate at him, and he took it out on his players. So eager for his team to reach their potential, Barnes likened his coaching style to planting a seed and then uprooting it prematurely. Finally, Barnes decided to just "let it go." It was as simple and as difficult as that.
Barnes surrounds himself with trusted assistants whom he sometimes refers to as "truth-tellers". Among their responsibilities is to give Barnes' an honest assessment, solicited or not, of the current state of the Longhorn basketball union.
"They pick their spots carefully," Barnes grinned.
The team endured an immediate and unflinching film session following its 97-84 loss at Missouri.
"It was hard," Barnes said. "We didn't compete and we didn't play the way you'd expect a team to play in its first conference game. It was a hard game to let go. You're still trying to build your team that time of year, but those were a couple of weeks that were pretty hard on everybody. Sometimes when people think it's 'too hard', they think (in terms of) physically trying to push a team. Sometimes the mental level, where there are high levels of intensity on every play and you're trying to get everybody on the same page on every play, that level of intensity can be really demanding."
But as far as Texas' 17-point stinker at Texas A&M (Jan. 30)?
"We didn't spend more than three minutes looking at it (game film)," Barnes said.
The Horns haven't lost since, including 72-69 thriller against No. 3 Kansas and, more recently, Monday's thorough 77-50 dismantling of No. 22 Texas A&M.
THE NEXT TWO ARE KEY
Texas' claim to a No. 1 seed, not to mention a Big 12 title, will likely be determined by the next two contests. That's when Texas faces a pair of squads that are expected to qualify for the field of 64 on Selection Sunday (March 16). On tap Saturday is Oklahoma (18-8) that has won consecutive conference games in the final seconds. The Horns then travel Monday to Kansas State (18-8), a 71-64 upset victim at Nebraska Wednesday.
The Sooners were without injured C Longar Longar when Texas posted a 64-54 win in Norman on February 6. The 6-11 Longar, the Sooners' second-leading scorer (12.5 ppg), is expected to play Saturday in Austin.
Freshman F Blake Griffin leads his team in scoring (15.2 ppg) and rebounding (9.1 rpg).
"Griffin is as tough of a match-up as we'll face all year," Barnes noted.
The Sooners hold a 45-25 lead in the all-time series, but the Horns have won four straight, and nine of the past 12, in the hoops version of the Red River rivalry. Tip-off is set for 2:30 p.m. (CST) and will be televised regionally on ABC-Sports.