Feb 29 2012; Austin, TX, USA; Texas Longhorns guard Sheldon McClellan (1) dunks against Oklahoma Sooners guard Carl Blair (14) during the first half at the Frank Erwin Special Events Center. Mandatory Credit: Brendan Maloney-US PRESSWIRE
It's not because players like J'Covan Brown continue to leave a year too early or because Rick Barnes can't coach them while they are on campus. The lack of consistent fan support makes having a Top 10 program nearly impossible.
With J'Covan Brown declaring for the NBA Draft and Myck Kabongo rumored to be following him out the door, Texas basketball continues its snake-bitten streak of players declaring for the pros a year too early.
The Longhorns have made the NCAA Tournament 14 straight times under coach Rick Barnes, but every time they seem to be poised for a real chance at contending for a national championship, they're hit by a wave of defections to the NBA.
No one begrudges lottery picks like LaMarcus Aldridge, Kevin Durant and DJ Augustin for declaring early, but when underclassmen leave only to become late first-round or second-round picks it stings. In the last five years, there was Daniel Gibson and PJ Tucker (2006), Avery Bradley (2010), Cory Joseph and Jordan Hamilton (2011).
However, on closer inspection, what first seems like bad luck is actually a systemic flaw in how Rick Barnes' program works.
A McDonald's All-American who wants to enjoy the college experience isn't coming to Austin. Not when he can go to a place like Kansas, Duke, Kentucky or North Carolina where college basketball is part of the lifeblood of the university.
When I was a student at Texas earlier in the mid-2000's, the basketball program almost never sold out the Erwin Center, which has consistently been one of the worst home-courts of any Top 25 program in the nation. The students are shunted to the "O-Zone" behind each basket while the vast majority of the lower bowl is given over to donors to the football program who can barely be bothered to politely applause after a nice play. During finals, anyone can walk all the way down to the floor-side seats in the cavernously empty arena.
The recruits who come to play for Rick Barnes, who generally churns out Top 10-15 classes every year, chose the school in spite of this. They come to Austin not because they've been wowed by the general malaise surrounding the basketball program but because Barnes and strength and conditioning coach Todd Wright have consistently proven they know how to prepare players for the next level.
Given the inherent difficulties of recruiting players to come to a football school whose fan base is generally indifferent to the hardwood, Barnes' strategy is a good fit. Those who think he is underselling the potential of Texas basketball need only look at the school's history of success before he came.
Unfortunately, the downside of getting players who are more interested in the next level is that they are unlikely to resist the call of the NBA. If a player like Cory Joseph would have been receptive to the idea of returning to school and playing for a Final Four contender, he probably wouldn't have been at Texas in the first place. He would have went to a school closer to his home country of Canada, to a school like UConn that lives and bleeds college basketball.
Now, after this latest wave of defections, many Texas fans are ready to give up on going after one-and-done players like Bradley, Joseph and (possibly) Kabongo.
Personally, I'd rather continue rolling the dice on five-star recruits. I'd rather be Texas than Texas A&M, a school which hasn't been able to crack the upper crust of recruiting and plummeted down the standings this year due to a lack of elite talent. In contrast, a down year for Barnes' program is still an NCAA Tournament team who gave a Sweet 16 one (Cincinnati) all they could handle in the first round.
Without the ability to consistently sell out your home arena, it's almost** impossible to sustain a consistent Top 10 program. Rick Barnes may not be Bill Self, but he's proven that he's capable of sustaining a Top 25 program over the long haul, which is looking the ceiling of what Texas basketball can be.
** Baylor is, as always, the exception that proves the rule.