Longhorns bow out of the NCAA basketball tourney in disappointing fashion; what happened to Chris Mihm?
It wasn't supposed to end this way. Texas was supposed to bow out of the tournament buried under a 3-point fusillade, courtesy of their predictably inconsistent guard play. The box score says Texas hit almost half of 20 triples. Ninety-nine times out of 100 that spells a win. But not today. Senior guard Ivan Wagner had the game of his life, playing all but three minutes, scoring 19 points including five 3s. On that stat alone, many would bet the house on a Texas win. Gabe Muoneke, playing his last game in Burnt Orange, had a solid day. Turnovers were not a factor. Rebounding was even. What happened?
It never occurred to me that Texas' best, most dead-consistent player, Chris Mihm, would have his worst game of the year. Or that the team's steadiest free throw shooter, also Mihm (admittedly a relative compliment), struggled to get any of his eight tosses above the front of the rim. Consider this strange statistic: UT's free throw percentage was almost identical to their 3-point percentage. They had 17 trips to the line, eight by Mihm. The All-American center made only three, mirroring almost exactly the team's pathetic 47%. Texas lost by 5. A golden opportunity flushed down the drain.
Coaches are fond of saying that basketball's a team game, and so it is. On this afternoon the team did its job. Mihm didn't. He was again pushed around and thrown off his game by a stronger, more aggressive opponent ... and Stromile Swift isn't Dikembe Mutombo. This isn't to deny that on many afternoons Mihm's efforts carried the team, but this wasn't just another afternoon. It was the second round of the NCAA tournament. An upset-plagued round. Texas lost a game it should have won. After the dust settled and the carcasses of the high seeds were carted away, the University of Texas could have had a legitimate shot at a national title.
LSU was a good opponent. The teams looked like if they played 10 times it might end up 5-5. On this afternoon Texas seemed a step quicker. The critical outside shots were dropping. But their best player had a nightmarish game, where everything that could possibly go wrong did just that. You don't have to be Dean Smith to understand that your star can't go 5-for-14 and miss most of his free throws against a quality opponent and expect to win. LSU's big man played big. LSU made 70% of their free throws. Texas deserved to lose. These are the hard facts.
I feel most for Ivan Wagner. In an odd symmetry, Wagner's first game (a loss) and final game -- separated by three years -- were against LSU. Ugly bookends on a courageous career. In those last hours as Penders' Titanic broke up, Wagner looked like he'd never be much of a player. He couldn't shoot. He couldn't dribble. He could defend, though that was not particulary a virtue in the Days of Tom. And he would work -- which was a quality Rick Barnes valued. Wagner was made for Barnes. Barnes made Wagner his starting point guard. Unlike some of his better-known, older teammates, Ivan worked hard on his shortcomings. He improved every game. He'd made himself into a legitimate college point guard -- an impossible thought just two years ago. He should be cutting down nets in Albuquerque next week ... but all losing teams have dreams. Each a compelling story. The NCAA tournament's played in the dead zone. You win or you die. It gives cause to reconsider the wisdom of a football tournament, but that's for another week.
I can't pretend to be Chris Mihm. I can only play the game this way: If I were Mihm I'd stay in school because I don't play for money. I play for fun. College is fun. Being a star is fun. Getting a degree is something to be proud of. Sure, I could play pro. But how good will I be? I want to be honest with myself. I need to be better, stronger. It's a cold, pitiless world, the NBA. There's no time or patience for teaching. Another year in Austin and I'll be ready. The money will still be there. But more than this stuff (more than anything!) I don't want to be defined, in my hometown, by my last game ... an awful afternoon in Salt Lake City.