Barnes’ 'babies' burst onto Big 12 Conference scene
Thus far in the 2006-07 season, Texas coach Rick Barnes' "New Kids on The Block" have enjoyed the same kind of success, as did the singing group by the same name in the late 1980s and early '90s.
Barnes' kids have hit only a few flat notes (losses to Michigan State, Gonzaga and Tennessee) as they wade into Big 12 Conference play.
With all five starters from last year's squad gone, Barnes has started four freshmen and has given the preponderance of playing time to six freshmen and two sophomores.
Youth has been served for the Longhorns after a Big 12 Conference opening-game rout in Colorado (102-78), where Kevin Durant set a league freshman scoring record with 37 points. No. 21 Texas (13-3) followed that up with a pair of Big 12 wins at home over Missouri (88-68) and Oklahoma (80-69).
The Longhorns never have lost a conference opener under coach Rick Barnes, who, even with the youth on his team, hopes to keep alive a streak of reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. Only Texas, Duke and Connecticut have reached the Sweet 16 in four of the last five seasons.
But Barnes, who is in his ninth year at Texas and will become the winningest coach in school history during this season, knows there are many miles to go before the any talk of Sweet 16s, etc.
"I'd like to think we're going to continue to get better," said Barnes, whose team entered Big 12 play unranked for the first time since 2002.
Kansas coach Bill Self has no doubt that Texas is going to get better.
"Everybody knows Texas will be terrific toward the end," Self said. "They're young right now."
Even the young are maturing, led by super frosh Durant, who arguably is one of the best players in the country. For the week of Jan. 15, Durant earned national player of the week honors from both ESPN.com and The Sporting News. He was also named Big 12 Player of the Week for the second straight week. Durant averaged 31 points and 13 rebounds in UT's wins over Missouri and Oklahoma.
Durant's 37-point showing in Colorado tied him for the highest single-game point total for a freshman in UT history.
Andy Katz of ESPN.com writes of Durant, "There's no more denying this fact: Kevin Durant may be the best player in the country. He is a serious national player of the year candidate and looks like the runaway winner of the freshman of the year award."
In the Missouri victory, he became the first freshman in conference history to record back-to-back 30-point outings, when he scored 34 points on 10-of-14 shooting to go along with 13 rebounds. Durant followed with 28 points and 13 rebounds during Saturday's win against Oklahoma.
For the year, Durant leads the team in scoring (23.7 ppg), rebounding (11.0 rpg) and blocked shots (29). He also leads the Big 12 Conference in both scoring and rebounding and ranks in the top 10 nationally in both categories. Durant has registered a league-leading 10 double-doubles and has reached the 20-point plateau seven straight and 14 of the first 16 contests.
Yet, it has been the prized freshman's defensive work that has most pleased Barnes, who puts a premium on the activity on that end of the floor and wants more physical play from all on his team as the season moves along.
"Kevin has made a real conscious effort to stand in his defensive stance and do the things we need him to do," Barnes said.
The Longhorns coach, borrowing from the Olivia Newton John recording of days past, wants his team to "get physical."
"And being physical is an attitude," Barnes said. "You can be physical by running the court, getting into position for a rebound, defending screens, getting position on offense."
While Barnes works for improvement, his youngsters certainly have played well through the non-conference and the start of conference play.
Guard D.J. Augustin has been another of the strong contributors in his freshman year, making his first big splash in the overtime victory against LSU in Houston in December.
Augustin, who is from Louisiana, led the way with 25 points, but it was "old man" A.J. Abrams, a sophomore, whose key three-pointer was the difference-maker against the team that eliminated the Horns from the NCAAs last spring.
The night before that game against 9th-ranked LSU, Barnes told his team, "You get a chance to play a top 10 team, so let's embrace it."
The Horns gave it a bear hug.
"They didn't flinch," said Barnes with a smile, talking about his team.
Freshmen Justin Mason, whose driving layup and free throw won the Arkansas game, and Damion James also have made an impression thus far. James, likely, will make even more of an impact as he concentrates on defense and rebounding.
"Coach has been telling us that in part two of the season we won't have as many days off between games and won't have as much time to adjust to different styles of play," Abrams said.
"I think we can sneak up on a few people."
For now, maybe, but not for much longer.