If this was the year the sleeping giant that is Texas basketball was fully awakened and its immense potential was (almost) fully realized with a trip to the Final Four and a national player of the year winner (T.J. Ford), then Rick Barnes is making sure that the Longhorns aren't going to go back to sleep.
|Rick Barnes' program gained a lot of national attention thanks to T.J. Ford.(Getty Images)|
One trip to college basketball's final weekend isn't the goal here.
"I've said all along Texas is one of the top 10 programs in the country," said Barnes. "But you have to work to keep it there."
Work ethic and focus has never been a problem for Barnes, and this spring proves it. Becoming a Final Four coach tends to move a person to a new level of celebrity. More golf invitations roll in. More speaking engagements are offered. More chances to make an extra buck are available.
Barnes has taken advantage of almost none of that. Instead of basking in the glow of a glorious season, he has spent the past seven weeks working as hard as he did when he first took over in Austin and a season like last year's seemed like a pipe dream.
Want proof? Check this out:
- Daniel Gibson, 6-3, Houston Jones
- LeMarcus Aldridge, 6-11, Dallas Seagoville
- Dion Dowell, 6-7, Texas City (Texas)
- Conner Atchley, 6-10, Clear Lake (Texas)
- Mike Williams, 6-8, Camden (Ala.) Wilcox Central
All five players are high school juniors. All five have verbally committed to Texas. Together they make up one of the most impressive groups of early commitments ever. It is simply unheard of to have a five-man group this good committed this early.
Gibson, Aldridge and Williams are all top 15 national players according, to the Hoop Scoop. Dowell is a top 50 talent, and Atchley is a fast rising big man with a ton of potential.
Barnes and his staff are now in position to spend much of the upcoming summer recruiting period scouting and recruiting sophomores and freshmen. If you happen to be a top sophomore such as Austin Jackson of Denton or Byron Eaton of Dallas or maybe Monta Ellis of Mississippi, you are likely to see a lot of Barnes this summer.
All of which means one thing. Did you see the Longhorns in the Final Four last month? Get used to it.
"You know how it is in recruiting," said Barnes, who can't speak specifically about any of his verbal commitments. "Some coaches will be out there saying, 'Texas can't be this or can't be that.' But now we know that is not true. We can have it all here."
That's what the Final Four means to the Longhorns. Barnes has always been an exceptional recruiter, drawing top players to Providence and Clemson before coming to the Lone Star State. So it wasn't a surprise that he put together one of the nation's deepest and most talented teams at UT.
But to recruit the 2002-03 'Horns, he had to sell a vision of winning big at a football school in a football state. He had to fight the perception -- whispered in local recruits' ears by national programs -- that staying home was selling yourself short.
Now he just has to point to the track record.
"We've changed that," said Barnes. "With T.J. Ford, we have a guy who came here when the table was not set like it is now and became the national player of the year, (went) to a Final Four and put himself in position to be a lottery pick.
"People always knew how good a place this was to live and go to school. Now there is no question how good we can be in basketball."
This was not an overnight thing. This is the slow steady growth of a program under the straight-talking North Carolina native. But last year was a special one for the 'Horns. Barnes just points to the NCAA South Regional held in San Antonio, where nearly 30,000 Texans packed the Alamodome and cheered UT on to the Final Four.
"It was such an electric atmosphere," he said. "People now realize how it can be."
It doesn't hurt that Dallas and San Antonio are currently waging a heated NBA series either.
"What that has made me realize is that there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that people in this state love basketball," he said.
Having Texas become a central part of that is Barnes' goal. Which is why he and his staff -- Frank Haith, Russell Springmann and Rodney Terry --sat down right after the Final Four and recommitted themselves to making it happen. Then they attacked the junior class and found some willing souls. Quickly.
The four in-state recruits represent an incredible local haul, especially in a state that routinely watched its best players go elsewhere. Just last season, three of the best freshman in, of all places, the Big Ten (Bracey Wright, Dan Horton and Deron Williams) hailed from Texas. But that might be starting to change.
"I've said this for years, but I'll be disappointed if kids in Texas who want to play basketball don't grow up dreaming of being Texas Longhorns," said Barnes.
Then there is Williams, a stud out of Alabama who was pursued by nearly everyone across the country. He represents UT's national recruiting pull -- the lure of Austin, the fun style of play and all those Big Monday appearances.
And so there they are. All five, verbally committed, wrapped up, and its not even June. The 'Horns are already going to be strong next season -- even minus Ford, four starters and nearly every role player returns. Now they look good for the long haul too.
Michigan State and Kentucky will stage a game Dec. 13 at Detroit's domed Ford Field that will attempt to break the all-time NCAA attendance record of 68,112. That mark was set in 1990 when Louisiana State played host to Notre Dame at the Superdome in New Orleans.
Ford Field seats 65,000 for football, but it's believed seats could be added on the floor to get the attendance over 70,000. That's quite a crowd.
There is no doubt Michigan State can bring out that kind of fan support. The Spartans drew a world-record 74,554 fans for an outdoor hockey game against Michigan in October of 2001. They set the rink down on the artificial turf of Spartan Stadium in East Lansing. Despite the terrible views and a windy and frigid night, people were actually scalping tickets outside.
At the time MSU officials joked about playing an early season basketball game in Spartan Stadium, an intriguing if unusual idea. There was also talk of Michigan throwing down a sheet of ice in the middle of its monster football stadium and drawing 110,000 fans to one-up its archrivals in the record book.
That hasn't happened.
For basketball, Ford Field sounds much better than Spartan Stadium. Drawing 70,000 or so to an indoor basketball game against the Wildcats should be no problem, especially in a huge metro area where State has hundreds of thousands of alums.
And it is not like some Kentucky fans won't roll up I-75 for the honor of helping out.
This is a cool thing and with any luck will rekindle the NCAA attendance record trend. UCLA and Houston started the attendance sensation in 1968 when they drew 52,693 fans to the Astrodome. The game not only featured the No. 1- and 2-ranked teams (UCLA was No. 1) but big stars Lew Alcindor (UCLA) and Elvin Hayes (Houston). Houston won, breaking UCLA's 47-game win streak in the first nationally televised college hoops game.
But since LSU made its run at the record 13-years ago, no one tries anymore. This could set off an interesting game of one-upsmanship.
If MSU and UK can get 70,000 in Detroit, why couldn't Indiana and Kentucky go for more than that at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, where every other year they easily sell out a 44,000-seat setup? Or maybe Illinois and Missouri can stuff the dome in St. Louis.
Or maybe LSU would get motivated to reclaim the title and get Texas to come over to the Big Easy.
Perhaps someone will even try the outdoor game. Preferably down south though.
Syracuse gets another
It is nice to be champs.
It is rare these days that a top prospect is still looking for a school, but that's what Paterson Catholic big man Darryl Watkins has been doing this spring. The 6-11 All-State selection was whittling down his college choices at the perfect time -- after the coaching shuffle, after the NBA defections, after a full season to look at the health of all the programs.
Little surprise then he picked the healthiest program of them all -- national champion Syracuse.
Watkins looked long and hard at Rutgers, but in the end, the lure of the NCAA champions and the chance to join an exceptional recruiting class -- power forward Terrence Roberts out of Jersey, small forward Demetris Nichols from Rhode Island and guard Louie McCroskey from the Bronx, N.Y. -- was too much.
Just another reason no one should expect the 'Cuse to fall too far next season. Even without Carmelo.
News and notes
- Woodland Hills (Calif.) Taft guard Jordan Farmer was named MVP of last weekend's Tournament of Champions traveling team event in North Carolina that Bob Gibbons puts on annually. Farmer, a 6-2 point, impressed scouts with his athletic ability and decision-making. UCLA has emerged as a serious player for Farmer, who previously was linked heavily with Florida by the recruiting gurus. Bruins coach Ben Howland already has sharpshooter Aaron Afflalo of Compton (Calif.) Centennial committed. Getting Farmer would give UCLA a dream future backcourt.
- While some college staffs are holding out hope that high school prospects might reverse course and pull their names from the NBA Draft, few league sources expect that to happen. Obviously LeBron James is a lock for the NBA. Mississippi State signee Travis Outlaw -- a projected first-rounder who is not academic qualified -- will also stay in the draft. For the four other prep players -- Ndudi Ebi (Arizona), Kendrick Perkins (Memphis), James Lang (unsigned) and Charlie Villanueva (unsigned) -- the future is less certain. None are consensus first-round selections, but league sources, agents and other insiders believe Ebi, Lang and Perkins will risk life in CBA to remain in the draft. Only Villanueva, who is still considering Kansas and Connecticut, is considered a 50-50 possibility of playing in the NCAA.
- Scouts also project between 10 and 12 foreign players will become first-round picks. Let's say the number turns out to be a dozen. Throw in James and Outlaw, and just 15 college basketball players will be first-round picks, a stunning trend that will continue to make borderline NCAA prospects reconsider the jump in future years.
- Of those 15, only five are expected to be college seniors -- Kansas' Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison, Louisville's Reece Gaines, UNLV's Marcus Banks, Xavier's David West. Illinois' Brian Cook and Duke's Dahntay Jones are also possible first-rounders but are more likely to slide to the second round.
- Interesting to note about Texas recruiting. Last fall the Longhorns spent a lot of time and effort trying to land Ndudi Ebi out of Houston and Kendrick Perkins from Beaumont. It turns out both might never play a minute of college hoops. Sometime you win by losing.
- Kentucky missed the boat when it didn't recruit Patrick Sparks out of Central City, Ky., two years ago. Sparks, 6-1, went to Western Kentucky and developed into one of the better point guards in the country while leading the Hilltoppers to consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. But give Tubby Smith credit for realizing his mistake. When Sparks decided to transfer from Western this spring after coach Dennis Felton left for Georgia, Smith stepped right in, and now Sparks is headed for Lexington. He'll have to sit out the 2003-04 season as a walk-on but should get a scholarship and the keys to the Wildcats for the next two season. Both Cliff Hawkins and Gerald Fitch are done next spring.
- Speaking of big commitments, Iowa landed a verbal from 7-foot Seth Gorney out of Ohio, giving the Hawkeyes three very good early verbals. Also in the fold are 6-8 Alex Thompson of Iowa and J.R. Angle of Indiana.
- According to the Tennessean, SEC commissioner Mike Slive, addressing head coaches at the league's annual meetings in Florida, said the oft-troubled conference should be "probation free" in five years. The most penalized conference in college athletics currently has three schools (Alabama, Arkansas and Kentucky) on probation and four more under investigation. Slive should be commended for addressing the problem and boldly demanding NCAA compliance. It may not change anything, but admitting you have a problem is the always the first step.
- One-time Purdue verbal commitment Robert Vaden, a 6-5 wing out Indianapolis Pike, has not only bailed on the Boilermakers but added insult to black-and-gold injury when he committed to archrival Indiana. He spent last weekend playing at a traveling team tournament in Bloomington and made it official soon after.
- Next time you are in Carp Lake, Mich., or its greater metropolitan region, be sure to stop by Clyde's. This is your basic country roadhouse type establishment -- pool table, fry-o-later and, most entertainingly, a country karaoke machine where the locals just plain get after it. You'd think it was the Grand Ole Opry. You just can't buy entertainment like country karaoke in the city.