Is today the most important day in the history of the Texas basketball program under Rick Barnes?
Julius Randle's decision today at noon will direcly affect Texas' 2013-14 season.
If you look at it simply in terms of Texas trying to make its ascent back up the mountain, the argument can certainly be made.
I'm not even talking about the 16-17 Longhorns needing to beat Houston in tonight's opening game of the CBI at Hofheinz Pavilion. In the grand scheme of things the outcome of the game ranks somewhere between closed preason scrimmages and summer pickup games in terms of importance for next year's outlook.
The fate of the Longhorns' 2013-14 campaign could very well be sealed at around noon today. That's when Julius Randle, the nation's No. 2-ranked prospect, will make his college decision.
While Florida is one of Randle's finalists there's been virtually no buzz about the Gators being a legitimate threat to land the 6-foot-9, 250-pound All-American. That leaves three schools – Texas, Kansas and Kentucky – as a possible destination.
While Randle would add to stacked recruiting classes if he picks the Jayhawks or Wildcats, the ultimate draw is he makes either program a legit national title contender with his presence. Winning is important to Randle, more important than it is to most recruits of his ilk.
Winning is something Texas hasn't done lately.
Since reaching the Elite Eight in 2008, a game where it seemed like Derrick Rose, Joey Dorsey and the rest of an uber-talented Memphis team spent portions of the game participating in a glorified dunk contest, things haven't been the same for the Longhorns.
There was a second round exit in 2009. Then the abomination that became of the 2010 season. Which was followed by the gut-wrenching loss to Arizona that ended 2011. Finally last year's first round tournament exit made it four straight years where a Texas program that had grown accustomed to advancing to the Sweet 16 (the Longhorns made it there four times in a five-year stretch) failed to advance to the tournament's second weekend.
“I don't know of anyone in college basketball today that hasn't a tough time at some point in time with their program,” Barnes said. “You want to start with the winningest coach of all time, Mike Krzyzewski. You want to go with the coach that won the national championship a year ago (John Calipari). That's what athletics is about. That's why we do it.”
If it feels like a long time since the Longhorns parlayed a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament into the first and only Final Four berth in the Barnes era, it's because it's been a long time. A decade has now passed since that memorable run by T.J. Ford and Co., and the Longhorns now seem light years away from being in that position again.
Randle might not be able to single-handedly get the Longhorns to next year's Final Four at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington. That said, he's good enough to take what otherwise might be a mediocre Texas team and lift it into the second weekend of the Big Dance.
If Myck Kabongo heads off to the NBA and anyone else joins Jaylen Bond in opting to seek playing time elsewhere, it's hard to imagine the product next season being much better than it was this season. Randle can change that, and at this point getting the Longhorn back on the right track is what Barnes hopes wins Randle over at the end of the day.
"Some guys will look at it and see a great opportunity and say, 'Hey I want to go play' and I think that people understand through the years what this program has done,” Barnes said. “I think if you know anything about sports you're going to have tough times, but that's where you find out what you're about, find out what you're willing to do with it.”
Even without Kabongo, Randle gives the Longhorns the superstar caliber player who can allow the functional pieces around him to become better. Cameron Ridley and Prince Ibeh can be on the floor with a difference maker in the front court. Sheldon McClellan and Julien Lewis would figure to get plenty of open looks with teams sagging down on Randle.
Julius Randle's commitment would give Longhorn basketball fans something they don't necessarily have right now – hope.
Beyond just putting a good product on the floor, Texas needs to win to get some recruiting momentum back. Randle's commitment would mean the Longhorns land the state's top prospect. With 2014 already shaping up to be a battle, perhaps Randle's commitment would play big with a guy like five-star swingman Kelly Oubre to feel good about the program he's walking into and give Texas a lot to sell recruits.
All would be well. The Longhorns would have something tangible to show that things are going to get better.
But what if they don't.
There's a good chance Randle picks Kansas – who humiliated Texas inside Allen Fieldhouse on Randle's KU official visit – or Kentucky in a couple of hours. That outcome would be a cold slap of reality to the collective face of the Longhorn fan base.
Texas would be shutout on the elite recruits in a good year inside the state for 2013. The Longhorns would then also be faced going into 2013-14 without Kabongo, Randle or another marquee player.
Barnes and his assistants have done a good job of recruiting guys who can develop into solid players down the road. That said, you can have all of the four-year guys you want. It takes much more than experience to knock off teams with NBA talent in March.
So the Longhorns' wait continues. Randle's decision will signal a time where either hope can rule the day or if apathy will continue be the feeling of choice for the Texas fan base.
Without Julius Randle, the climb back up the hill for Texas gets even steeper.
“It's competition,” Barnes said. “You compete. If you're a competitor you're going to find a way to fight back and be where you want to be."
Without Randle, fight likely won't be enough.
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