By Jim Vertuno
The Associated Press
AUSTIN, Texas — The Texas Longhorns have been in a long, steady decline. And given the player exodus since last season, coach Rick Barnes is under increasing pressure to make a quick turnaround.
For more than a decade, Barnes pushed the Texas program to new heights: A Final Four appearance, the first No. 1 ranking in school history and two Longhorns, T.J. Ford and Kevin Durant, who earned national player of the year honors.
But a long drought of postseason success has dragged into its fifth year and last season’s 16-18 record — Texas’ first losing season since 1997 — have raised the pressure.
Athletic director DeLoss Dodds — who has announced he will retire next year — has publicly said he’s worried about the direction of the program even as football coach Mack Brown faces questions about his own job future.
But while Brown has a roster loaded with talent try to turn things around this season, Barnes must do it with a depleted roster that lost four of its top four scorers from a year ago to the NBA draft, transfers and the Greek basketball league.
Barnes has often recruited nationally, which meant landing players like Durant from the Washington, D.C., area, but also that the Longhorns started losing out on some of the best players from talent-rich Texas high schools. Barnes admits recruiting misfires. Not just players who leave early for professional leagues, but others like Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis who become unhappy and transferred out. Texas has no scholarship seniors.
“It came under my watch,” Barnes said. “I’m to blame for that.”
Barnes is left with a scrappy nucleus of returning players to try to get the program back on track. The leading returning scorer is sophomore guard Javan Felix, who averaged 6.8 points last season. Felix had off-season hip surgery but is expected to play this season.
“We know the guys that are here are full on 100 percent with the team,” sophomore forward Conner Lammert said. “The guys who transferred had different plans in mind.”
Here’s five things to know about the Longhorns, who start the season at home Nov. 8 against Mercer:
WHO WILL SCORE?: A good question, considering the Longhorns lost four players from last season who combined for nearly 50 points per game (Texas only averaged 66 ppg). Felix has shown he can be a hot shooter —he scored 26 against Baylor last season — and may prove more dependable if he doesn’t have to carry the load at point guard. Myck Kabongo’s 23-game suspension last season forced Felix take over point guard duties and it wore him down. “Javan proved a year ago he’s capable of putting up numbers,” Barnes said.
AT THE POINT: Kabongo’s suspension forced Felix to handle way more than Texas wanted last season. Look for the early point guard duties to go to freshman Isaiah Taylor, who led the private Village School in Houston to a 23-5 record last season. But Felix is still available if needed to run the offense.
DEFENSE: Barnes built the Texas program on a foundation of tough-as-nails defense. He’ll need it again given the lack of firepower on offense. The Longhorns lost eight games last season by seven points or less. New rules that will limit aggressive defense on the perimeter are a concern. “We’ve had to think long and hard about how we’re going to play without fouling,” Barnes said. “I’m a little bit more concerned about that side of it probably than the offense.”
BIGGER IN TEXAS: Texas has some size and they’ll need it in the Big 12. Center Prince Ibeh is 6-foot-10 and beefy forwards Cameron Ridley (6-9, 285 pounds) and Jonathan Holmes (6-8, 240) have shown they can be the Longhorns’ muscle under the basket. Ibeh and Ridley combined for 87 blocks last season. Holmes also the leading returning rebounder with 5.6 per game last season.
TOUGH SCHEDULE: Barnes has never been shy about scheduling tough opponents in order to get his team ready for the Big 12. This season the Longhorns play Vanderbilt and Michigan State and there are road trips to Temple and North Carolina. Not on the schedule is a return trip to the Maui Invitational, where the Longhorns were stunned by Division II Chaminade last season.
“It was a tough season last year,” Lammert said. “We’re going to be sure to try not to make the same mistakes as last year. We’re young, we have a lot of energy and we’re really excited.”