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March 16, 2011At some point, Texas being awarded a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament is a reflection on Rick Barnes.
For better or worse. Right or wrong.
And if I'm Rick Barnes, who happened to earn his 500th career victory this season, I take it personally. And I make sure my team takes it personally.
It's as if last season's epic fold from No. 1 has extended into this season.
It's as if the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee took one look at Texas' last month of work (three losses in four games) and slapped a sell stock order on the Longhorns. How else do you explain Texas getting a No. 4 seed and teams like Florida, San Diego State, Purdue and BYU landing ahead of UT with either lesser credentials or missing players?
Barnes is saying all the right things publicly. He says he's not paying attention to seeding, doubters or those who've made Texas into a kickball preparing to get punted from the tournament in the first round.
Longhorn players say they are ready for the games that matter most in the season. Jordan Hamilton, who is almost certainly down to his last games in a Texas uniform before jumping to the NBA, says he's "excited" and that he plays his best when he's excited.
Cory Joseph and Tristan Thompson assured me they'd have fun in the NCAA Tournament and not get uptight.
Speaking of uptight. Barnes said he used to treat the NCAA tourney as "life or death." He would tell players they couldn't have friends and family around. One former player even told me Barnes told his team before the Texas-Temple first-round game in New Orleans in 2001 that Barnes only wanted Maurice Evans shooting 3s.
After Evans opened the game ice cold from 3, Barnes then told Darren Kelly he could shoot the 3. But the team was already so uptight, the adjustments were virtually moot as the 6th-seeded Longhorns were upset by the 10th-seeded Owls.
Those days appear to be gone. Barnes now talks about having fun, adding "the fun is in the execution." And about having an "attack mentality."
"You don't back into winning this thing," Barnes said. "Someone is about to get hot. I think we're one of the teams capable of getting hot."
Barnes doesn't seem to hear the knocks on him. About how with Kevin Durant and D.J. Augustin, his team could only reach the second round of the NCAAs. About how he hasn't taken Texas past the second round of the tournament in three of the last four years.
The exception was 2008, when UT reached the Elite Eight at Reliant Stadium in Houston before succumbing to Memphis, led by Derrick Rose.
But Barnes is openly stating his team is capable of getting hot because it can. It has. There was that 11-0 start to Big 12 play - 10 of those 11 wins were by double digits, including the school's first ever win at Kansas.
A month ago, Texas was seen as maybe the best team in the country. Now, they are seen as fast-fading fool's gold.
Barnes once told me the team that usually wins it all is the team with the most future NBA players.
Texas has three of those: Jordan Hamilton, Tristan Thompson and Cory Joseph. Maybe four: J'Covan Brown.
That's enough elite players to tame March Madness.
Barnes knows this is a window of opportunity. It's why he compared this year's team to the one in 2003 that reached the Final Four when discussing the postseason with his players on Sunday night.
"He told us stories about the 2003 team because he believes we can make the same kind of run," Dogus Balbay said.
It's why, after yet another loss in the Big 12 Tournament finals (0-6 under Barnes; 0-4 vs. Kansas), Barnes said, "We can beat anybody."
Barnes knows this team is capable of something special. And he'll feel like he let one get away if the Longhorns don't maximize that opportunity.
The NCAA Selection Committee members have already spoken. They don't think Barnes and the Longhorns can do it.
They stuck him in Tulsa with an 11 a.m. tip time against one of the more dangerous double-digit seeds in the field - No. 13 Oakland, which has 6-11 scorer and shot-blocker Keith Benson (18 ppg, 10.1 rpg and nearly 4 blocks per game). The Grizzlies can also shoot the 3 and make their free throws (72 percent).
Heck the committee even put the Longhorns in the same region (Anaheim - not San Antonio or New Orleans) with Duke, Barnes' long-time nemesis, dating to his days at Clemson. Barnes beat Mike Krzyzewski four of the first five times he played Duke at Clemson from the 1994-95 season through the 1996-97 season. But Barnes hasn't beaten Coach K since, losing eight straight to the Blue Devils.
Now it's up to Barnes and his boys to prove all the doubters wrong. And show that last month's history is no parallel to last year's history.