- Elena Bergeron
This article appears in the March 8 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
Let's say there's a checklist for building a Final Four contender, and it looks something like this: Finesse bigs and intimidating brutes, lane drivers and long bombers, a mismatch-causing wing and a guy who can lock down three positions. Just wrangling a portion of that list is a coup. And then there's Texas, which roped them all in. Besides boasting the No. 4 recruiting class (ace defender, intuitive slasher, bucket-finding wing, finesse big: check), the Longhorns returned two pro prospects in 6'10", 290-pound senior center Dexter Pittman (big-bodied brute: check) and 6'7" senior wing Damion James (match-up nightmare: check). In fact, Rick Barnes' team has at least one five-star option at every position, sometimes two or three.
But after reaching No. 1 in the rankings in
January, Texas lost six of its next 11 games, plagued by the same trouble as anyone who's
ever shopped for an iPhone app: the paradox of choice. "If you have a deep team, you should be able to go to your bench and play any style," Barnes says. "We ought to have some answer for what we're up against." The Horns didn't when Baylor zoned. Or when Oklahoma went motion.
Or when Kansas matched them sub-for-sub. Just over a month before Selection Sunday, Texas still didn't have surefire starters or a set rotation.
Barnes isn't the only coach who has struggled in the deep end. Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor,
a former starter, aired the worst-kept secret in Lawrence when he admitted he didn't know just what his role was after the Jayhawks' only loss in January. Coach Bill Self clarified for Taylor: a sixth man's shots (6.8 points per game), a starter's
minutes (22.3 per) and zipped lips (a canceled Facebook account). John Calipari rang up John Wooden to ask for advice on how to keep a young Kentucky team grounded after it took over
Texas' No. 1 ranking. For Cal, a new Woodenism: Shorten your bench. At least things are going well for those teams. North Carolina? Not so much.With its second-ranked recruiting class and deep frontline, UNC started five different lineups in seven games in January. Over that stretch,
Roy Williams' boys went 2-5.
The trouble with playing a long bench is that it runs contrary to some of coaching's basic tenets: Put the five best guys on the court; impose your will on opponents, not vice versa. But for teams that can go 10 deep, the ones that can adjust to any style just by subbing, those old rules
don't always apply. Talent-heavy squads -- like
the loaded 1995-96 Kentucky team that won it all playing top frosh Ron Mercer only 18.8 minutes a game -- make up their own mandates for handling all those options. And at Texas, Barnes' approach to managing his riches sounds like a For Dummies guide to taking a deep team the distance.
But the Horns haven't quite been sticking to the script. And the script itself has a few flaws.
Elena Bergeron examines why Texas appears to have all the pieces for a national championship, but is unable to put them together.