An NCAA Tournament without the Longhorns is not an NCAA Tournament I’m accustomed to experiencing. Not since 1998—when the likes of Gabe Muoneke and Chico Vazquez were patrolling the Erwin Center floor, and Tom Penders’ Jheri Curl was illicitly releasing Luke Axtell’s report card (was it out of jealousy of Axtell’s mop top?)—had CBS’ Selection Sunday show been an excuse to go the grocery, or had my bracket-completing ritual been devoid of any jinxing concerns when figuring out how far to have the Horns advance. It’s been strange and frustrating and depressing, and it’s carved a void in my basketball soul that, unfortunately, only Julius Randle could’ve filled.
Though Rick Barnes is starting to look like a leader with no followers (Exhibit A and Exhibit B), his consecutive NCAA appearance streak was no joke, as it placed him among the game’s elite—all-time greats like Izzo, Williams, and Krzyzewski. And while it may have ended this year, Barnes does deserve some credit, some acknowledgement for creating anything positive and basketball-related that was old enough to be an eighth grader.
So as we sit here at March Madness’ halfway mark—five days in, five days to go—now seemed as good a time as any to look back and celebrate (and, in some cases, commiserate over) the five most defining Texas Tournament moments of the Rick Barnes’ era. It wasn’t always pretty, and they were all, in their own particular ways, ultimately disappointing, but that doesn’t mean they should be taken for granted. Say what you will about Barnes’ and his team’s shortcomings, but for over a decade, they at the very least had a sparkling attendance record…
In some ways, Kevin Durant’s one season on the 40 Acres was a microcosm Rick Barnes’ NCAA appearance streak—full of hope, moments of brilliance, and an early departure that spawned wonders of what might’ve been. Matched up with overmatched New Mexico State (who were coached by Soul Glo spokesman Reggie Theus), the No. 4 seed Longhorns made things much closer than they should’ve been, actually trailing the Aggies late in the second half before pulling away late, 79-67. Durant notched 27, and fellow freshman D.J. Augustin chipped in 19. While this tournament is undoubtedly remembered more for the Horns’ blowout loss in the next game against USC (“How do you not get past the second round with Kevin Durant???” is one of the chapters featured in The Unofficial Guide to Hating Rick Barnes), the lone March Madness victory for the greatest Longhorn ever is still worthy of a spot on this list.
4. We go from here
If Durant is the greatest Longhorn ever, then T.J. Ford is the most important. A nationally-recruited prospect out of Houston, he could’ve gone anywhere in the country, but instead chose the home-state Longhorns—and legitimized the program that Rick Barnes was building in the process. In the 2002 Tournament, despite being a six-seed, Texas was fortuitously sent to Dallas, where they won their first two games to advance to the Sweet 16 against Oregon. Ducks guard Freddie Jones’ layup with 2.8 seconds left broke a 70-70 tie, and Ford’s running jumper missed the mark as time expired. Walking off the floor, you could almost see the determination and resolve in Ford’s eyes—this was not the end, it was a new beginning. It’s what drove him to shave his dreads, to get in the gym the very next day and start working on taking his game to the next level. In the same way that, without Ford’s commitment to Texas, Kevin Durant is probably repping North Carolina in his latest commercial, the Longhorns probably don’t go to the Final Four the following year without the motivation from this heartbreaking loss.