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There is order in the kingdom of Rick Barnes, but it has not always been this way. On a Friday morning at the end of January his Longhorns have yet to lose a Big 12 game and are on their way to being ranked No. 1. The only other presence in the coaches' lounge is his pastor, Ronnie Smith; Barnes rededicated himself to his faith in '08 and now no longer even swears during practices or games. He mixes his beverage of choice—a scoop of Metamucil powder mixed with water—and prepares to watch film. Last year he presided over a painful meltdown, with his team falling from No. 1 in January to a first-round exit as an eighth seed in March. He is about to show what has changed, that he has found not only religion and an adequate amount of fiber but also a structured way to score.
Barnes's first teaching tool is an NBA DVD. "He watches more of this than he does college," says graduate manager Chris Babcock, whose father is Timberwolves scouting director Rob Babcock, as he cues up an October game between the Suns and the Jazz, then coached by Jerry Sloan.
This matchup has significance: The Suns are what Texas was. Barnes borrowed heavily from former Phoenix coach Mike D'Antoni's random ball-screening system—built around Steve Nash—to cater to point guard D.J. Augustin from 2006--07 to '07--08. Barnes stuck with that scheme, perhaps against his better judgment, for two more seasons.
The Jazz is what the Longhorns are. After being advised by numerous NBA friends that Sloan's flex-motion offense was the hardest system to guard due to its high volume of options and emphasis on precise execution, Barnes made a pilgrimage to Salt Lake City last July to meet with Sloan's top assistant, Phil Johnson, then returned during Utah's training camp in late September to conduct further X's-and-O's study. Barnes melded elements of the Jazz's system into his own, copying plays, such as Sloan's signature 1--4 sets. He even borrowed wardrobe tips from Utah, calling Texas equipment manager Rob Lazare from Salt Lake City and telling him to arrange for players to wear identical T-shirts, warmup suits and sneakers on road trips this season, something Sloan's Jazz did in the name of team unity.
After screening three successful Jazz possessions, the last featuring forward Andrei Kirilenko whipping a crisp, perfectly timed pass to point guard Deron Williams coming off a curl for an open jumper, Barnes hits pause and asks, "What was the biggest difference between that and college?" He then answers his own question: "Dribbling. There wasn't any. College teams overdribble."
The Longhorns were particularly guilty of this in their '09--10 late-season swoon—and this year's star, sophomore Jordan Hamilton, still has lapses. Switching to footage of a win over Oklahoma State Jan. 26, Barnes highlights his 18.6-points-per-game swingman with a green laser pointer and says, "That's the Jordan Hamilton of a year ago: catches it, puts it on the floor, goes sideways, through his legs, takes a bad shot. But watch—he's learned a lot."
A clip from a 71--58 win over Missouri the following night shows a more calm, collected Hamilton putting effort into moving without the ball. In the first half, Texas replicates one of the Jazz's 1--4 sets, with senior power forward Gary Johnson waiting on the right elbow for Hamilton to set up his defender on the weak side. Hamilton then curls off a down screen from center Tristan Thompson, receives a pass from Johnson, pivots and swishes a free-throw-line jumper in one fluid motion (chart).
The Longhorns can play variations on this set, with Hamilton taking a higher path for an open three or, if his man cheats over the screen, cutting baseline for a layup. "These sets have given Jordan stability," says senior forward Matt Hill. "He doesn't have to go looking for trouble, because he knows that we can create open shots for him." Likewise, the system has positioned Johnson to take more midrange jumpers (his "kill zone," according to Barnes) and helped freshman combo guard Corey Joseph (10.5 points per game) get free off the same "rub" cuts that Williams regularly used in Utah.
But in late February—perhaps symbolically, after the breakup of the Jazz, with the retirement of Sloan and a trade sending Williams to the Nets—the Longhorns stagnated, dropping three of their final five regular-season games. "When we struggled," Barnes said in the week before the Big 12 tournament, "it's because we got away from executing."
Can the Longhorns stay committed to structure and make a deep NCAA tournament run? An appearance in the Big 12 title game (in which they lost to 85--73 to Kansas) may indicate things are turning around. During the losing streak, Barnes's most influential mentor, Bob Knight, urged him—just as he did this past summer—to rededicate his team to structure, proper spacing, screening and cutting. Sitting in Barnes's lounge earlier in the season, when Texas was cruising, the General had passed along a message from his wife, Karen, who was a Hall of Fame high school girls' coach in Oklahoma. "She watched you play," Knight said, "and she told me, 'Rick is finally running an offense.' "