I come from a clean place when writing about Texas basketball. I'm a paying customer. I eschew the convenience of the press table for the cleansing catharsis of a normal fan. I cheer. I boo. I scream at officials. I bang my head on the shoulder of strangers when Bernard Smith again mistakes an empty seat in the third row for a teammate. And, if I can't stand it anymore, I can leave. Which I did. And so, as a fan, I say to my friend Bill Little, Bill, I'd rather have a hemorrhoid removed than be humiliated - at home - by another bad team.
A post-game interview with Tom Penders goes like this:
* A win: Q. "Tom, another win. This one sure must feel good?" A. "Yes, Bill, it sure does. Our kids, bless their hearts, played hard. Tonight the shots just dropped."
* A loss: Q. "Tom, another tough loss. This one must really hurt." A. "Yes, Bill, it sure does. Our kids, bless 'em, played their hearts out. Our shots just didn't drop." Maybe Bill has a win tape and a loss tape. Today, as was the case often this trying season, the loss tape was put in the machine.
I'm sorry, guys, but with all due respect, I don't think the kids played their hearts out. Nor did most of the 10,000 silent fans think so. The kids just played badly. Then, they played worse. Until Colorado - in the end - looked like Kansas.
Before a ball was bounced in anger, I was the only writer in the country with a rational view of the '98 Horns. Why this team, so filled with question marks, was being so fantastically overrated, was completely beyond me. But then, what do I know? I'm just a lowly fan. That said, I must admit, I expected and looked forward to an improving team which would (as Penders promised) be much better in February than in December. Alas, the opposite has come to pass. This team was better in December than they are now.
Freshman Luke Axtell, who showed such unexpected early promise, hit a wall in January and went backwards. What good, I ask you, is a 6'9" guard if he takes nothing but three point shots? His height is of no advantage 30 feet out. He, in effect, makes himself small. A tall guard's only real advantage is posting up smaller defenders inside.
How many times did I see anything resembling this? Not too often. Up in row 13, after it became clear Anthony Goode was never, no matter how badly everyone else was playing, ever going to get into a game, we started to like Bernie at the point. He's a freshman, I know. He'll be better next year. Still, he too, looked better in January than he does today.
Gabe Muoneke went though some rough times in my section. Was he a crazy person? Or, was he just misunderstood? Upon reflection, I'd say Gabe, who could at times look like Charles Barkley, then at other times become invisible, is a little of both. This is called schizoid. That, or Gabe's unathletic twin brother was wearing #3 the last four games of the season.
Kris Clack and Chico Vazquez both played okay. Are they any better than in their sophomore years? Not that I can tell. Chris Mihm, the guy I thought was going to be another soft, no-dunk Texas center, is the exception who proved the rule. Mihm, fighting upstream, got better and better. If this were the rule, we'd be talking about NCAA seedings, and not about next year.
Let's be honest. If this were football and the team played this badly... well, Mack Brown, don't go there. We just saw that show. It had a bad ending. But people like Penders and after all, it's only basketball. Penders, unlike Mr. Mackovic, is open, accessible, and pretty well-liked by the media. This buys a couple of bad years. This was a bad year. With no stars to cover up glaring mistakes, his team slid backward.
I've never gotten too heavily on the Penders-can't-coach bandwagon. Reggie or B.J. covered up lots of mistakes. But this is the kind of team - talented, but young, with no stars to rely on - with which a coach could really show his stuff. And the only stuff I see is confusion, discouragement, and uncorrected mistakes.
As we heard repeatedly this fall, Big Time coaches make Big Time money to win. Penders should be held to these standards, and don't tell me about consecutive tournament appearances. Up on row 13, section 29, seat 4, all I want, as Coach The Fan, is a team playing an organized, well-thought-out game of basketball. As the season ends - thank merciful God - the Longhorns too often resembled blindfolded adults playing pin the tail on the donkey.