To tell the truth: Menís Basketball continues to improve
Texas men's basketball coach Rick Barnes is direct and doesn't apologize for it.
"I've never been too good at sugar-coating," he admitted. "Actually, our whole staff really is pretty direct."
Barnes believes that you have to have "truth-tellers." He is happy to embrace the role for his players.
"As I have told them," he began, "you can be a proud peacock today and a feather duster tomorrow."
The Longhorns, their loss at Oklahoma to end January notwithstanding, have been all peacock following a two-game losing streak in mid-December, ripping off nine straight victories. Particularly impressive were wins in Memphis against the then-No. 4 Tigers, and a triumph in the Erwin Center against then-No. 3 Villanova.
Oh, about those two games in December, which featured losses to Duke (97-66) in New Jersey and Tennessee (95-78) in the Erwin Center...
"You know, you are what you are," Barnes said, when asked the impact of those two defeats. "And right then, we weren't very good. There were no ifs or buts about that. We could make 1,000 excuses. We had injuries to Daniel (Gibson) and Buck (Brad Buckman), but we knew we had to get better.
"We wanted to get back on the court and start working. You hope you can bounce back. We couldn't wait to get back on the court and start working."
They got back on the court, started working and won.
No question the victory in Memphis at the time was key.
"We had the wins against Texas State and Prairie View and they were good wins immediately after Duke and Tennessee," Barnes said. "In Memphis, we knew we were going to be tested by one of the best teams in the country. That was a big game because we showed how good we can be."
Barnes focused on what produced those results, which was the improved and inspired play of guards Kenton Paulino, A.J. Abrams and Gibson, as well as the continued growth and maturation of sophomore center LaMarcus Aldridge.
"The development of A.J. is huge," Barnes said of his 5-foot-10 freshman. "I had told him he had to learn how to guard to get to play. I always have believed that the bench was a great motivator."
To that end, Barnes had Abrams play defense only for one entire practice.
"I've been pretty demanding on him," Barnes said. "I'm sure he wonders sometimes when he is going to get out jail."
Paulino, a 6-foot-2 senior, wasn't so much worried about getting out of jail, but getting out of rehab and on the floor to be able to have a big finish to a UT career that hasn't been what he'd hoped for when he was the co-Player of the Year in the Los Angeles City Section.
His runner off the glass late helped the Longhorns nudge Villanova.
"Kenton knows that the end (of his UT career) is near," Barnes said. "He's matured. His approach has changed."
Hamstring problems that hampered Paulino the last two years have not been a factor this year.
"I have some confidence for the first time," he said.
Barnes has confidence in him, too.
"There never was any question about his basketball I.Q." Barnes said. "Other things had to come together."
And lest we forget steady play from P.J. Tucker and Buckman. Tucker already has been Big 12 Player of the Week multiple times this year.
Gibson's outside shooting made him a threat, but more so than his offense was his defense during the nine-game winning streak.
The 6-foot-2 sophomore backcourt man took the challenge of the top scorers and recorded some impressive numbers, creating problems for Villanova's Allan Ray (4-for-20), Oklahoma State's JamesOn Curry (1-for-7) and Colorado's Richard Roby (3-for-13).
Playing strong defense is the way to Barnes' heart for all of the Longhorns.
"Daniel is a great defender," Barnes said. "The problem was that he was struggling with his offense and he let that affect his defense."
The 6-foot-10 Aldridge, who at this time last year was out for the season with a hip injury, continues to show improvement in his offense, with a turnaround jumper and jump hook. His presence on defense causes Barnes to note that you sleep a little bit better knowing he's there to guard the basket.
"His maturity is remarkable," Barnes said.
To that end, Aldridge is one of the last to leave the practice floor each day.
"LaMarcus wants to be special," Barnes said.
As Barnes wants this team to be come March.