On April 30th, a 6-11 five-star big man, flanked by his family at a podium in the middle of the Euless Trinity basketball court surrounded by a full-capacity audience, was handed a large, odd-looking case by his younger sister. That moment represented the height of anxiety throughout the recruitment of that five-star prospect for Texas fans, coaches, and probably players. For lead recruiter Chris Ogden, that moment was set to determine if a year of tireless work was about to soon result in extreme jubilation or frustrating heartbreak.
Inside was a burnt orange Longhorns bucket hat, and when Myles Turner put that hat on, it, along with him, became a symbol of a complete overhaul completed by Rick Barnes and the Longhorn basketball program.
"That was pretty nice, wasn't it? I've never had one," said Rick Barnes about the hat with a laugh after Texas received Turner's signed letter of intent. "I'd wear that hat… at the right place."
If the Longhorns have the season they think they can have in 2014-15, we'll see Barnes in a bucket hat. Guaranteed. But before everyone projects the future, the most important part for Texas was the journey to that moment when on national television it won the Turner sweepstakes.
About a year earlier, Texas was again in one of these situations, but despite being listed as a finalist for Julius Randle, it was never in the race. Instead, rumors, unconfirmed, swirled about things like Randle being told on his visit to Texas not to come by one of the players. Defections from the program happened, some way more encouraged than others, and the Longhorns set out to completely change the culture of the program. Considering where Texas was - it finished 16-18 in 2012-2013 after a CBI first-round loss to Houston - the idea of a complete and successful overhaul in just one year that resulted in winning a Randle-type recruitment seemed impossible.
That's when players like Jonathan Holmes and Demarcus Holland set the tone for Texas moving forward, and all of the Longhorns that stayed through the struggles bought in to the idea of being a team concerned about the team before anything else. And that environment allowed for the incoming freshmen to fit in by learning how to go about their work the right way. So when the 2013-14 season rolled around, the Longhorns started turning heads with big wins, and although they didn't exceed their expectations, they shocked a lot of people.
They did it with a business-like approach that thrived on teamwork, chemistry, and a blue-collar work ethic. When a particular five-star big man arrived on campus to watch the Longhorns work, he noticed.
"It was a given more than anything. They talked about it a little bit, but I really got to see it first-hand when I went down there and watched them practice," Turner said about Texas' blue-collar-type of hoops approach. "They were working real hard and were able to set away all distractions."
Soon, Turner would establish strong bonds with numerous Texas players. Instead of being the toxic situation it was a year earlier, the Longhorn players and their experiences as Texas players were suddenly the reasons why Turner would eventually pick Texas.
"They were the MVPs," Ogden said about the Texas players, specifically Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh, in regards to Turner's recruitment. "I'll tell you... assistants across the country, we all do the same thing. We all put in the work. But really what it comes down to are the players that used to play for you and are the players that are playing for you now... are they selling the program and having a good experience? And our guys are and he felt that and knew that. You can't fake that when you come on campus. The players are the guys that really go this done."
They didn't reach the heights in 2013-14 that they wanted to, but the Longhorns did absolutely accomplish one of their main objectives, which was get back to a program made of core players that are known for toughness and work ethic and get back to the team being about the team above all else. Barnes, who couldn't once hide how much he enjoyed being around the 2013-14 team, said it all year. The players said it all year. And everyone saw it, including Turner.
"Really, when I watched them play Kansas and they beat Kansas at home," mentioned Turner about a moment that really stood out to him about Texas. "The fact that they were able to go in there and rally together… really the whole city to come in there and rally together. That was really inspiring."
Barnes is quick to deflect any sort of praise, and makes it as well-known as a coach can make it that the players are the ones that turned the program around. A group of young players that could have bolted like others stuck around, grew close, and became a team. And in the process, they were rewarded in the form of an impressive season and the addition of an extremely talented piece to the 2014-15 puzzle, a piece that puts them in a position to reach those sky-high expectations they want to.
"Yeah, the turnaround happened with those guys and they realized going forward they know what kind of team they want to have and they know anybody our staff brings in here is important to us," Barnes said about his current players. "And we've always told recruits that have come in here that we want you to spend time with our players and talk to them. I think the fact that Myles alluded to Jon Holmes [says a lot]. Myles said Jon can help him and he can he should and he will because he's been through it three years now. Our guys as a team know Myles can help us moving forward the way we want to. So, they did their part and they let him be known they really want him to be a part of it."
There was a time the Longhorns thought they weren't going to win out. Not only would it have been a huge loss for basketball reasons on the court, but it would have been another sign that the Longhorns aren't the recruiting force they used to be. As SMU becomes a serious recruiting presence in Texas in addition to Baylor and some of the state's top prospects leave for places like Duke and Kansas, the Longhorns needed to flex some muscle.
"Nerve-racking," responded Ogden, Turner's primary recruiter, about those final moments leading up to the announcement. "We didn't know. They didn't tell us yes, no, maybe. Well, they told us maybe. But they didn't tell us yes or no. So, we were sitting there like everybody else. He's got a really good personality. Now that we got him, I think they were messing with me a little bit because they didn't give me anything. In fact, from talking to the mom on Sunday night I could have sworn we weren't getting the kid. It just… it wasn't as warm and fuzzy as I wanted it, right? I figured we were three days away from an announcement. I [wanted] to hear, 'Alright, he's yours in three days.' And I wasn't hearing that, so that's just the way it goes. A lot of hard work and time. It was fun to see that (Turner picking Texas). And the way he did it I thought was very well-done. It was a neat experience."
They did win out. They did send a message across the college basketball universe that they are back to looking like Texas again, and more than anything it was because of the message the Longhorn players that stuck around delivered with their actions immediately after Texas' rock-bottom.
"I was obviously really excited for everybody. From the time that we really set down and had our first really in-depth conversation with Myles it was apparent to us that what was important to him was the kind of program and team he wanted to play with," stated Barnes. "And he talked about that. I really think he made that decision to come to Texas based on the guys that are here right now. When he came down on his visit and he was around them, I think he felt the chemistry and what was going on with these guys and the way they were themselves. I really think he chose the University of Texas because of what we have going right now."
Now, the Longhorns will enter the upcoming season expected to do great things, which hasn't been the case in recent years. But that's just the way they like it.
"I guarantee you no one's expectations will be higher than ours," said Barnes.
If Texas meets those, you might see Barnes in a new hat come March.