Andy Cotton: Requiem For The Horn

Standing on a tee box early last fall at the UT Golf Club, Rick Barnes was brimming with confidence over a season about to begin. He talked first about P.J. Tucker and how hard he’d been working with the incoming UT freshmen. It was clear with the passing of last year’s senior class, the mantle of leadership had moved to Tucker.

In retrospect, Barnes’ confidence in Tucker appears, in the most benign interpretation, misguided. Was it possible the head coach had no idea of the impending academic disaster just entering the tunnel? A sports academic advisor told me the coaching staff knows about every class, every quiz and every grade. What then, blind denial?

Would Texas have been better off if Barnes had started the year without Tucker? Learning to play and how to win in low-pressure games, without Tucker’s remarkable skills? Well, Rick gets paid well to make those decisions, but maybe he blew this one.

He couldn’t wait to unveil his new freshmen, LaMarcus Aldridge, Mike Williams and Daniel Gibson… especially Gibson. As the early season moved from Texas State, to Hawaii and Wake Forest, the promise of this team became obvious. Then, in what seemed like a single breath of rancid air, it all evaporated. Aside from the obvious, what happened?

Seniors Sydmill Harris and Kenny Taylor both had ragged, frustrating ends to their college careers. Sydmill was never going to be a leader of this team, but it was clear by his increased playing time that Harris was going to figure more prominently in the ’05 Longhorns. We were never told the extent (or even the origin) of Syd’s groin injury, but its results were obvious. He often didn’t practice. A game didn’t go by without his leg collapsing after a hard defensive cut. Harris, a beautiful and deadly spot-shooter, became a shell of his old self. Shots that always dropped, now almost never did. I feel bad for Syd.

An odd thing happened to Taylor. Coaches always worry about players falling in love with the three-point shot, but the opposite seemed to happen to Kenny. One of the league’s premiere three-point shooters, Taylor fell in love with driving the ball, forgetting about the long-range threat he posed. As the year went on he almost never looked for the three, predictably -- and not very effectively -- choosing to drive the ball instead. The net effect was two of the league’s (and certainly the Longhorns') best shooters were lost. UT’s scoring options became disastrously limited. Defenses clogged the middle and focused all their attention on the remaining long-range threat, Gibson.

Let’s view the outstanding talent of Gibson to further appreciate what a unique player the Horns had in T.J. Ford. Gibson, Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, can be defended. Big 12 defenses, with so many of UT’s weapons neutralized or gone, put all their attention on #1. As the season progressed they took the ball out of his hands. Defensively, they tag-teamed him. He wore down. His productivity decreased.

That’s because Gibson, playing out of his natural shooting guard position, is a "normal" player with exceptional skills. T.J.’s thoroughly unique blend of speed and quickness, impossible to defend by any player or scheme or on any level, combined with his uncanny ability to find easy shots for his teammates, made Ford stand out from ordinary greatness, if there is such a thing.

In an earlier column I predicted Brad Buckman would be the heart-and-soul of this team. Give me an 0 for 10 shooting night on that one. That role went instead to Jason Klotz. The big 5th year senior showed up every night. Brad’s wildly consistent inconsistency puts an often-underappreciated side to big time athletics on display. We don’t tend to think of a sport so clearly athletic like basketball as mental but Buckman shows us it is. When you put ten Division 1 scholarship athletes on the floor, there can’t be that great a difference in actual talent. How could a skinny, relatively skill-less kid like Dennis Rodman lead a league of big, mean men in rebounding year after year? Because he wanted to. Every night.

How could Buckman repeatably go from a 20-20 night to invisible? I don’t know but it’s not physical. There have been other talented but erratic players like this at UT. Gabe Muoneke comes to mind.

Mike Williams was forced to be a player right now, but instead he looked like the freshman he is. Kenton Paulino, an adequate college guard hobbled by foot injuries, looked slow and mismatched against his fellow Big 12 point guards.

The fact Texas got the number 8 death seed for the NCAA Tournament is more a testament to the respect Barnes has created for the UT program, than the season he had. If Texas changed uniforms to Baylor, then the term "bubble team" would have been considered highly optimistic.

I’m already looking to next year. I doubt Texas will beat Nevada and then, that’s that. I hope Aldridge recovers. I hope everybody went to class and at least got C’s. I hope Tucker comes back and sees education as a ticket to the future and not basketball. I hope Barnes graduates more of his players. I hope the Horns get some quick guys next year that can shoot the ball. Lots and lots of guards would be good. I hope next season isn’t so damn hard.

A Final Shot: The heckling that greets Bob Knight in every road gym is savage. Even in the famously pacific Erwin Center, the catcalls that greet Knight are so mean-spirited it makes me cringe. Let’s take a step back and give the man some credit. Lubbock, when I was there last summer, is still 500 miles from anywhere and fifty miles east of nowhere. Its basketball tradition is zero. Tech, with truly nothing to lose, hired the beleaguered Knight. He’s awarded the administration with five consecutive 20-win seasons in the Big 12. For a godforsaken backwater, this is an almost incomprehensible accomplishment. Honestly, do you think Tech is the number 1 choice of any basketball player? I’m thinking, probably not.

I’m reminded of the final scene in the twisted movie, Sid and Nancy. A wasted, but total unrepentant Sid Vicious, is screaming Sinatra’s "I Did it My Way."

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 and Barnes & Noble.

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