Coach's Corner

It's odds & ends week as the basketball playoffs (college and pro) approach.

Odds and ends: It's mid-March in Austin. To basketball fans of the Texas Longhorns, March is a humbling, predictable section of the calendar. Thus has it been every March, ever since the arrival of Tom Penders 13 years ago. Since the 1989-90 season, UT has seen its basketball program upgraded significantly. Yet despite yearly trips to the NCAA tournament, the Longhorns are still stuck in the same pool of quicksand -- give or take a few yards -- they stumbled into 13 years ago: a respectable but basically overachieving group of guys happy to be there. Reality is a hard, demanding mistress. In the harsh glare of bright March lights, where the margin of error is nil, where excuses equal a trip back home, where tomorrow is next November, in this pitiless place teams like Texas stand exposed. In 1990 it was a hopeful place. Basketball at UT was on the rise. Today, in 2002, it's become depressing and glum. Bright lights don't lie. Reality's a bitch.

It's usually an NCAA second-round loss that exposes Texas, but this year the reality check came early, in the Big 12 Tournament final. I watched Oklahoma defeat Kansas in a brutal but fluid contest under a national spotlight with both teams playing at a high, pressure-packed level. Despite close home losses in overtime to both, Texas still has a long way to go to match the talent levels of Kansas and Oklahoma. Not a single player of UT's young starting five -- not even the Savior, T.J. Ford -- would start at OU or Kansas. UT's sixth man, Brian Boddicker, wouldn't play at all. There are always minutes for guys like James Thomas, but he'd be a role player. Sophomores Ivey and Mouton would have to wait until next year. T.J. would've spent his freshman year as a redshirt or on the bench -- a reality which may explain why he's at UT. Jason Klotz would still be a project.

This isn't an indictment of these players or Rick Barnes. Just a statement of what is. Kansas is a basketball blue-chip company, but Oklahoma's strictly blue-collar. Hardly a man is still alive who can remember the last time Texas beat OU on the basketball court. From Billy Tubbs to Kelvin Sampson, the Sooners (with no more basketball tradition than UT) flat out-recruit Penders/Barnes by a disturbing margin every year. To avoid being labeled negative, I offer a solution: Set aside, say, a half million of Mack Brown's billion dollar salary and have him hit the recruiting trail with Rick ...

I don't get what's up with Ricky Williams, but the same must be said for football folk smarter than me. Here at UT, Williams seemed the picture of the model football citizen: a humble but gifted superstar. As Ricky gets traded for a few low-level first round picks (at the most) to Miami I wonder: 1) if his troubled, injury riddled, often sullen (but still productive) years in New Orleans were the result of the horrible rookie contract the nation's best running back so giddily -- belligerently! -- signed; or 2) was he always a spoiled prima donna, protected and coddled by the UT Athletic Dept., waiting to happen? Williams says he's happy with the change and desperate to be appreciated, which I guess two Saint coaches didn't do well enough. This puzzles me too, because Mike Ditka mortgaged the franchise for him. Then Iron Mike and later Jim Haslett made Ricky the spotlight of the Saints' offense. Like I said, I don't get what's up with Ricky Williams ...

With the NBA finally approaching their real season, the most dangerous team in the league is the backbiting, underachieving, contentious, inharmonic Portland Trail Blazers. Two months ago I could see no way the Lakers could be beat. None. But since then, things have started going rotten in L.A., and I'm not talking about a few meaningless losses. Kobe's been in two fistfights, one with a teammate. Shaq's big toe really seems to be bothering him. He looks completely helpless at the free-throw line, and I say that in relation to Shaq. Meanwhile, Portland has quietly, very quietly, run off 12 straight wins, moving from 11th in the West to sixth. The Blazers look like a new team. Scottie Pippen is, when he chooses, still a remarkable athlete. These days he chooses. He seems happy, looks in great shape, runs the team with aplomb, and is still devastating in the passing lanes. Rasheed Wallace isn't bitching about every foul. Baby Bonzi Wells has recovered from a bad knee injury. I don't know. The only thing holding me back is this: these are the Portland Trail Blazers ...

I don't understand the dizzying, hand wringing dither fans (even coaches, who should know better) get caught up in over NCAA seeds. Ten years ago, when an underclassman going pro was a rare event, this wasn't the case but today, outside of the No. 1 seeds (and even they're flawed teams) the difference between a 2 and a 12 is a hot hand for the 12 and a cold one for the 2. The virtual disappearance of the upperclassmen from college rosters has led to the democratization of college basketball. Sixty of the 65 teams (forget the 16s) can make a plausible argument for a Sweet 16 spot. Even Texas! Form, as any player of office pools can tell you, no longer exists in college basketball.

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