Chris Beard would like you to know this mess of a Texas Longhorns men’s basketball season isn’t his fault. No use pussyfooting around a hard truth: Texas is the country’s most disappointing team because Texas has, according to Chris Beard, too many players who don’t know how to win.
This isn’t the same thing as a head coach labeling his guys a bunch of losers, but it’s closer to it than almost any other coach would venture. Beard is surely going to regret these words because they’re going to be used against him in recruiting faster than you can say “Scott Drew.”
Beard didn’t hold back last week after watching his team blow a twenty-point lead on its way to a 65–60 loss to TCU in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament. Rather than repeat the coaching platitudes about not putting the players in position to succeed or about how this loss was a wake-up call for the entire roster and coaching staff, Beard let loose.
“Yeah, we’ll just start with the players,” Beard snapped. “Anybody got a question for the players?”
Question for the players? This is the same control freak who micromanages media access to his players and who refused to make players available to the press after a January loss to Oklahoma State. All of a sudden, the Longhorns fall on their faces and Beard wants the players to talk.
To put it another way: “I win ’em, they lose ’em.”
Photographic evidence has verified Beard’s presence on the Texas sideline during this game. He could be seen holding a clipboard, calling time-outs, drawing up plays, and doing things coaches typically do. Some coaches would have seen blowing a twenty-point lead as their failure. Beard took a different approach.
Never mind that he recruited most of the players he threw under the bus. When it was Beard’s turn to speak, he offered the following:
“I hate to lose more than I like to win, and I’ve got some guys that I’m trying to teach that to.”
“I thought one team today wanted to . . . hate to lose it more. Our guys are out there trying to win the game; they don’t really understand how you get here.”
“I think we’ve got a bunch of guys that think they have the answers, but they really don’t.”
Someone should have told him to take a big, deep breath and say something about this being the best time of the year for college basketball fans. Instead, he looked like a man struggling to handle the stress of his new job—and all those outsized UT expectations.
Chris Beard’s best news conferences are the stuff reporters dream of: great insight, snappy lines, and buckets of charm. At other times, though—and isn’t this true of many coaches?—he’s unable to tamp down his competitive fires to offer a simple cliché and get out of there without causing a scene. In short, watching him attempt to resurrect an underachieving program during his first season in Austin has been fascinating.
Almost a year after the hallelujahs that accompanied Texas’s move last year to pry Beard away from Texas Tech with a seven-year, $35 million contract, and months since the hype of UT’s preseason number five ranking in the Associated Press poll, the Longhorns are limping into the NCAA tournament having lost three in a row and five of their last eight. Texas, a number six seed in the East Region, will face number eleven, Virginia Tech, Friday in Milwaukee. The victor will play either Purdue or Yale for a Sweet Sixteen berth.
Here’s the thing about the TCU loss that inspired Beard to blow his top. It doesn’t matter. It. Does. Not. Matter.
For Texas, the season begins now. Beard was hired to win NCAA tournament games. Period. (Texas hasn’t advanced out of the first round since 2015.) That’s what Beard should have emphasized after the TCU upset, no matter how ugly or disappointing it was.
Beard may actually have caught a break with his team’s poor finish in the Big 12 tourney. It gave him time to take his players back to Austin, let ’em rest for a day or two, and then begin preparing for the Big Dance after a much-needed reset.
Forget the letdown of a regular season that ended with Texas ranked twenty-fifth. Texas still has enough talent to beat any team in the tournament. Beard had a terrific summer by surrounding the Longhorns’ top returning players—Andrew Jones, Courtney Ramey, Brock Cunningham—with an array of transfers who had some experts projecting Texas as a potential preseason number one. Plenty of that transfer talent is legit, especially Timmy Allen and Marcus Carr, who’ve shown flashes of brilliance amid inconsistent stretches.
To watch the Longhorns at their best is to see a smothering defense and three playmakers—Allen, Ramey, and Jones—capable of slashing into the lane and creating offense.
Texas too often settles for contested jumpers because of the team’s lack of size around the basket. But when they’re not taking ill-advised shots, the speed and versatility of UT’s small lineup is what makes the team such a defensive menace.
To win in March Madness, the Longhorns’ best players must be at their best. If they can get their act together to play three weeks of winning basketball, the most disappointing team in college hoops could erase a season’s worth of bad memories.
And when they’re communicating well and playing aggressively on defense, good luck scoring on this team. The Longhorns might not have the discipline to lock down opponents as consistently as Texas Tech does, but at their best, they can get stops against any team in the country. Texas allowed just 59.6 points per game, sixth lowest in Division I. Problem is, the Longhorns average only 68.3 points per game, ranking them eighth in the Big 12 (which, in case you forgot, only has ten teams).
In wins over Kansas, Tennessee, and Iowa State, the Longhorns looked like a Sweet Sixteen team. But UT’s record is also stained by ugly defeats—perhaps there’s no shame in being swept by in-state rivals Baylor and Texas Tech (although good luck selling that line in Austin), but Texas also lost to three unranked opponents—Kansas State, Oklahoma State, and TCU.
This week, if UT can win two games and advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 2008, Beard can declare his first season in Austin a smashing success, giving the program huge momentum heading into his second year. And March is when Beard has been at his best. His Texas Tech teams were 9–3 in three NCAA tournament appearances, including a trip to the Elite Eight in 2018 and the national championship game the following season.
At the moment, Beard looks like a man feeling the pressure of leaving Texas Tech—a program that he built into a powerhouse and a campus that loved him for it—for a glitzy coaching gig in which nothing he accomplishes will ever be enough.
When the Longhorns take the floor for their first-round matchup with Virginia Tech, it’ll be interesting to watch how the players respond to getting torched in public by their coach. So far, they’ve done a better job of saying the right things than Beard.
“This isn’t our first loss,” Carr said after the TCU game. “Hoping it’s our last one.”
On Sunday, Beard took his players to Austin’s Shoal Creek Saloon—his postgame victory hangout—to watch the NCAA tournament selection show and lighten the mood. His players appeared loose and happy. So did the coach.
“I think you never take for granted getting in the NCAA Tournament,” he said, according to the Austin American-Statesman. “There’s a lot of good teams today that wanted to see their names come across. They didn’t. So I have a lot of appreciation of our players, coaching change, first year, and to get back in the tournament with a good seed and a chance to make a run, I’m super proud of the players.”
At this point, the most memorable moments in Beard’s UT tenure have occurred off the court. One was his February 1 return to Lubbock, where hundreds of Texas Tech students camped outside United Supermarkets Arena for three nights for the chance to boo Beard.
Then, eighteen days later, Tech supporters showed up in big numbers again to watch the Red Raiders beat Texas in Austin. Before the game, so many Tech fans bought tickets to get inside the Erwin Center that UT officials cut off sales.
Beard has done a great job marketing his new program with various outreach efforts to get UT students to attend games. Attendance this season was up from last year, and the home crowd was loud and engaged during conference play. The coach’s social media “fireside chats,” especially those with former Texas coach Rick Barnes and Matthew McConaughey (on the Erwin Center roof), were first-rate.
But whether all that slick packaging gets remembered as anything more than empty PR fluff depends on this week. The next two games will decide if Beard’s first season at Texas is considered a success. He was UT athletic director Chris Del Conte’s first and only choice for the job, and the two men needed about three hours in a Lubbock hotel to agree on a deal that would include up to $850,000 in performance bonuses, two dealer cars, twenty hours of private airplane use, and a $250,000 moving allowance, in addition to a $5 million annual base salary.
The Longhorns have played so poorly over their last ten games that no one would be surprised by a first-round exit. Beard has to turn that into an advantage for his team, and if he can convince the players to adopt a “nobody believes in us” attitude—and play with corresponding levels of effort and focus—then Texas will be dangerous.
“I think we’ve got a chance to be a real factor in this year’s tournament,” Beard said Monday. “This never gets old, guys—to make the NCAA tournament. You never take it for granted. . . . The whole deal is to try to play your best when it matters most.”
Stay tuned. This is when the fun stuff begins.