Texas has played two Big Monday games this year and I've found myself on airplanes in both instances. Perhaps just as well, considering the results (ugly road losses to OU and A&M), and if I had to pick any pair to have been spared, those might top the list. Or would they? This season has been especially challenging for fans precisely because each of the Longhorns' eight losses have been heartbreaking or disheartening, or both. Find your inner masochist and walk through it with me.
Loss 1: Notre Dame (Maui Invitational 2nd Round), 80-81
Lead up to game --Some general early-season optimism that accompanies sustained success like Rick Barnes has produced, but a near-consensus cynicism about the guard play in general and Abrams as PG in particular.
Performance -- Setting aside my thoughts on Notre Dame then and now (not impressed), the performance by Texas shocked my sensibilities more so than any recent game in the Rick Barnes era that I can recall. Who was worse - Damion James or AJ Abrams? Or was their collateral poor play that made this one unwatchable? Let's move on.
Post-game feeling in 10 words: It's hard to imagine a happy ending sans Balbay development.
Loss 2: Michigan State (semi-home at Toyota Center, Houston), 63-67
Lead up -- As putrid as was the ND loss, the six wins which succeeded it more than revived fans' hopes for another strong year. Texas dispatched UCLA and Villanova in succession, Justin Mason was masterful in emergency point guard duty, and the team played cohesively with Abrams back doing what he does best.
Performance -- Texas played well enough to win, led late enough to win, and all things considered should have closed out the win. They did not. After playing 36 minutes in the same manner that had defined the preceding six wins, Texas devolved into stand-dribble-jack mode, Michigan State hit a decisive three, and that was that. In retrospect, the loss at the Toyota Center may be the one which best defines this year's squad -- capable of good basketball, but critically short in enough key areas that dreams of a deep March run are likely wishcasting.
Post-game feeling in 10 words: Among Rick's many strengths, endgame coaching has never been one.
Loss 3: at Arkansas, 61-67
Lead up -- Texas followed the MSU loss with a gutty rebound win in Madison, restoring good vibes and hope that the team's ceiling remained high, given the multitude of players who were likely to progress substantially over the next two and a half months.
Performance -- At least it was a true road loss, but outside that minor caveat the Longhorns' effort in Fayetteville was notably poor. Already, Texas is giving fans the torture treatment with a steady stream of "Okay, the performance in that win was as encouraging as we could have hoped to see" followed soon thereafter with a loss that provoked "The impressive wins are effectively meaningless if this team is consistently going to lay this kind of egg soon thereafter."
Post-game feeling in 10 words: At its worst, this halfcourt offense could lose to anyone.
Loss 4: at Oklahoma, 63-78
Lead up -- One game removed from Arkansas, a somewhat rare conference road win seemed highly unlikely.
Performance -- And yet few expected the piss poor blowout that we actually got. Texas followed up the 1-14 three point shooting at Arkansas with a 5-23 effort against the Sooners. We have discovered the most efficient way to lose on the road, no matter the quality of competition.
Post-game feeling in 10 words: I'm glad I didn't change flights to watch that trainwreck.
Losses 5, 6, 7: K-State 81-85, Missouri 65-69, at Nebraska 55-58
Lead up -- Prior to this trilogy of suck, the 'Horns had trounced Tech and A&M, then stolen what appeared to be a huge road win in Waco against the (pre-tailspin) Bears. Texas beat Baylor despite forgettable evenings from both James and Johnson, my Balbay As Savior narrative looked plausible given his contributions, and the team had a huge opportunity to make a move with both KSU and Mizzou coming to Austin.
Performance -- Clemente more than doubles his previous career high.... Texas refuses to run against Missouri and is outscored 40-31 in the second half, while Balbay plays 2 minutes.... Nebraska outscores Texas 36-26(!) in the second half, not even guarding Balbay, who still only decides to shoot the ball once all game. My head explodes.
Post-game feeling in 10 words: My narrative sucks. Texas sucks. Time to serial drink bourbon.
Loss 8: at A&M, 66-81
Lead up -- After things bottomed out, Texas teased its fans with a 99-point eruption against Oklahoma State. As it happened, the eruption coincided with Balbay's first start of the year, providing for the wishcasters among us reason to start peddling optimism again. While Texas' follow-up near-choke in Boulder was a frightening game, both Andrew and I have over the years trained ourselves to tally as successful any Big 12 road game, regardless of style points.
Performance -- Though this Texas team's offensive inconsistency hasn't been especially surprising, every hopeful take on the squad has been founded in large part on defensive excellence carrying the day. My own dogged optimism certainly was -- elite defense carrying the team to 20 wins by March, just as Balbay's development spiked and the offense as a whole elevated to competitive levels. Though the Turkish point guard is steadily progressing, the gap between where he is and what my optimism requires is awfully wide, with the postseason now right around the corner. But even if my particular flavor of hope was a stretch from the get-go, I'm not sure how anyone's flavor still tastes palatable after a Mark Turgeon-coached team pistol whips the defense as did the Aggies. Are there any optimists left?
Post-game feeling in 10 words: Crushing optimism: "You are what you are" wins out. Again.
If we're being fair, the frustrations of this season are unquestionably preferable to total meltdown or something indicative of overall program stagnation/unhealthiness. The annoying truth is that at the collegiate level inconsistency is commonplace, while the vast majority of squads which begin the year good-not-great stay that way. To groan about the frustrations of the 2008-09 season is not, then, to ring any emergency bell, but to chronicle the particular way that this good-not-great team -- despite enough teasing to keep hope alive -- hasn't been one of the rare exceptions to buck the rule.
If there's a silver lining for those who may be as optimistically inclined as am I, this team's modus operandi has been to shoot a gust of air into our hopeful balloons each time we think the latest crash was the one on which to quit. If the trend holds, you might reason, a win on Saturday night against Oklahoma may yet catalyze an elevation in team play, while giving fans one last boost of optimistic energy just in time for March Madness.
Frankly, whatever you actually believe about Texas' chances Saturday night, I encourage you drink that kool-aid. Not only would the win give us one more reason to squint hopefully at the horizon, and not only would it -- as Andrew discussed in the A&M review lock Texas into the NCAA Tournament, but a loss (particularly an ugly one, on national TV, with Game Day on hand) would shove Texas onto the dreaded bubble, with work to do to enjoy a stress free Selection Sunday.
I've got preview duties on the game, so details will wait until Friday, but Andrew's not being hyperbolic in stressing the importance of this one. Maybe Texas "is what it is" and regardless of Saturday's outcome the team's ability to make a run to the second weekend of March Madness is what it is. And maybe, regardless of Saturday's outcome, we can all comfort ourselves a little with some version of my view that the program's overall health is so strong that even a wheels-come-off close to the season means little-to-nothing in the grand scheme of things. In either case, at the very least Saturday's game provides what is probably the last best chance for fans of the team to enjoy rooting through the end with one more dose of optimism. As much success as we've enjoyed of late, appreciating that particular kind of enjoyment isn't the first that usually comes to mind, if it comes at all.
But count me among those who, despite the most recent painful setback to the elevation in team play we've hoped for, wants very much for a Saturday win to fuel in me one last burst of fan energy on which I can sustain close scrutiny of the team -- long enough, at the least, to put off one last time the eulogy on this team's quest to elevate above merely good.
And hey, if none of that moves you in any meaningful way... just keep it simple and remember that OU Sucks. Now and always. On that, I have no doubt we all agree.