Andy Cotton: Hoops Horns' Margin For Error? Zero

The seven days before the Super Bowl is the dreariest stretch in the 52-week cycle of the sports year.

Long ago I resolved not to read anything about the game after the Conference title games. It's the rare resolution I've kept. I glanced at two headlines during the first week asking the comical question, "Is two weeks too much hype?" To paraphrase an obscure 60's R&B song, it's like pouring water on a drowning man. The fact national columnists are actually writing stories with that absurd premise -- in the first week! -- pretty much answers the question.

Even Jasper and Petra, 180 lbs. of Rhodesian Ridgeback, seemed depressed by Sunday morning. They were sulking after being banished into the house for turning a winter of creative sod and seed work into a roiling, chaotic sea of black mud. Indeed, the dreary weekend was brightened only by the George Straight concert on Friday night. The downside was $131 I had to pay to the always customer service oriented car towing industry and a two-day hangover.

A Sunday where the only thing I have to look forward to is a tape delayed broadcast of the Australian Open, the Bob Hope Open or PBA Bowling does, however, provide space for reflection.

It’s been a few weeks since the wicked combination of P.J. Tucker’s suspension and the serious hip injury that might cost Lamarcus Aldridge the season. I’m a fan, so maybe I do take it a little personally, but even after the passage of time, I can’t help but feel a bit betrayed by Tucker. An individual basketball player, being 1/10th of the team, is by definition more important than an individual football player who is 1/100th of his team. When you’re the best player on the team, that percentage goes a lot higher.

But if Tucker can’t handle six hours of college work, he shouldn’t be mocked. It’s really a sad thing and a terrible indictment of our entire education system, starting in grade school. It’s also an eye-opening look into Division I sports. I had no idea that’s all an athlete had to do to keep his eligibility. Just pass six hours of anything. College athletes should at least keep up with the "no pass no play" rules of high school.

This begs the question: do we as fans want to win or have guys who go to class and graduate? I want both. If every D-I school had tougher but equal academic standards this could happen, but no one really cares. I won’t hold my breath.

Injuries happen and Texas has been remarkably fortunate in this area for a long time. Off the top of my admittedly groggy head I can’t recall many. Chris Owens was lost to a knee injury. Then I have to go way back to Mike Wacker, and that was long ago.

Anyway, it is what it is. In this short period of time we’ve seen what we can realistically expect from this Texas team for the rest of the season. Since Tucker’s last appearance against Oklahoma State the team has gone 1-2. A win at home against Texas Tech, a tight loss on the road against Oklahoma and a methodical whipping at Lawrence. This tells me Texas has a margin for error of zero. A missed free throw counts for more. A personal foul counts for more. A missed put-back counts for more. On a bad night anybody in the Big 12 can beat them. Conversely, on a good night they have to play hard and well to win at home and even better to win on the road. Against a good team on a neutral court, if the other team plays well, they have to be close to perfect. A season so promising a few weeks ago has gone poof.

Realistically, any thought of UT playing in the Regionals on their home floor has also gone through the top of the teepee. Ah yes, the operative word is realistic: a word coaches of all sports on all levels hate. It’s why coaches and athletes are always accusing the media/public of being negative. Coaches, who are required to be the coldest of heartless realists as they assess talent and dole out playing time (Buddy Ryan was once asked by the Philadelphia media why some likable kid wasn’t getting on the field very much and he said, "I love my son very much, but I don’t want him playing linebacker for the Eagles") simply can’t afford, on any level, probably even to themselves, to be "realistic" when looking at big picture strategic implications.

I guess that’s why they insist on prolonging 15-point losses with a minute to go by fouling every time their opponent touches the ball. I’m a realist. The game’s over. Let’s go home. He’d consider me negative and point to one game a decade ago when a team did overcome 15 points in 60 seconds. And I guess they think it sends a poor message to their players. Who knows? It’s the coach equivalent of going into a survival fetal position.

So Rick Barnes lost his best player, maybe his two best players. Most of us see that for what it really is: disaster. A good coach like Barnes can’t even begin to let himself think that way. He’s paid to win, not make excuses for his impressionable 18-year-olds to lose. Again, it’s coach survival mode. He can’t change what’s happened. He needs his team to believe in something that won’t happen. And they will.

For me, well, I’ll have fun and ride the train as far as it goes. I’ll be getting off before the stop in St. Louis, that’s for sure. If anything else bad happens the train might not even make it to the NCAA tournament.

But that’s just me. I’ve never seen a glass that wasn’t half empty.

For ten years Andy Cotton wrote the Coach's Corner for the Austin Chronicle, where he was voted Austin's Best Sportswriter three times and was runner up twice. During his tenure at the Chronicle he covered all the major sports including tennis, golf, major league baseball, the NBA and, of course, the University of Texas. He has authored a book on the mini-tours of golf called It's Not Fun… Life Below the Radar of the PGA Tour, which is available at Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.


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