Fittingly, the final game of the 2011-12 Texas basketball season played out the same way that the entire season had unfolded. The Longhorns dug themselves a big hole, missed numerous chances within spitting distance of the rim, fought back with suffocating defense, and ultimately failed to execute in the final minutes. For fans who hadn’t had a chance to really get to know this young Longhorn team, the NCAA Second Round loss to Cincinnati was a perfect microcosm of a season filled with growing pains and gut-wrenching losses.
For most of the Texas fanbase, the defeat closed the book on something of a lost season. Nine of the team’s 13 non-conference games were on the Longhorn Network, a channel with practically non-existent distribution in the school’s own city of Austin. The first year of a new sports channel is certainly filled with roadblocks, as evidenced by the well-told history of the Big Ten Network. But the timing couldn’t have been worse for fans of Texas basketball, as the Horns returned just three scholarship players and welcomed six freshmen. Without exposure in the non-conference months of the schedule, most fans had their first good look at a brand new roster when Big 12 play opened in January.
The first month of conference play was rough, to say the least. The Longhorns opened things up with a road loss to Iowa State — a defeat that looked terrible at the time, but eventually proved to be just one of many big wins at Hilton for the Cyclones. Texas was able to right the ship with a pair of victories at home over Oklahoma State and A&M, but then had to march directly into a brutal six game stretch against the Big 12’s top teams. By the end of January, the Horns were just 3-6 in league play, and those fans who were forced to miss the first half of the season were quickly getting restless.
A recurring theme throughout the year was Texas’ inability to execute late in close games. Five of the Longhorns’ first six conference losses came by six points or less, and the team would finish the season with a dismal 3-9 record in two-possession games, including the 65-59 loss to Cincinnati to cap the year. In almost every late-game situation, Texas would spread the floor and lose all semblance of off-the-ball movement. Against the Bearcats, they did that exact thing on each of the three possessions following the under-four media timeout. Combine those wasted possessions with three fruitful ones for the Cincinnati offense, and you had the recipe for yet another last-minute defeat.
The repetition of the same mistakes and problems made much of the 2011-12 campaign feel like Damon Lindelof and Calton Cuse had FedExed a late-season LOST script to the Texas basketball offices. For the fans, watching Texas basketball was just as frustrating as some of the final episodes of that confounding TV show. If you looked at the big picture for Texas basketball, it seemed like the building blocks were being established for something greater down the road. In the meantime, though, the team seemed to simply be spinning its wheels.
Loyal readers of this website were probably tired of the “counting wins for an NCAA bid” and “unable to execute in the clutch” storylines by mid-January. But the fact of the matter is that when the team or a player made strides in one area, another part of the boat sprung a leak. One game we would be excited over the flashes of brilliance from Sheldon McClellan or the improvements of Clint Chapman. By the next game, McClellan would be struggling once more and Chapman would get himself into early foul trouble. The same storylines carried throughout the year, because the Longhorns couldn’t find a way to turn the page. Narratively, they were stuck somewhere in the second act.
The one positive in having such clearly defined, repetitive issues is that it makes those areas for improvement a top priority in the offseason. This year, the NCAA will allow coaches to work with their team over the summer, something that will be very important for the five returning Longhorn freshman and the stellar incoming class of recruits. Texas fans, coaches, and players know what problems need to be addressed heading into 2012-13. Now the only question is whether or not the Longhorns can make the necessary changes.
The feeling that this season was simply a table-setter for the future wasn’t limited to just the product on the court. There was never a moment during this long and difficult season where I doubted that Longhorn Road Trip would continue into a seventh season. While Rick Barnes and his big freshman class were building the foundation for future glory, I was carefully laying the plans to bring LRT and this incredible journey to a fitting end.
Longhorn Road Trip started six years ago as a crazy idea to attend every game for one season. Every year, there seemed to be another reason to keep it going. The unbalanced Big 12 schedule meant I didn’t travel to Hilton Coliseum, Mizzou Arena, or Bramlage Coliseum during the first year, so the second season seemed only natural. The Maui Invitational and the goal of 100 games brought me back for a third year, while Season Four offered a chance to see the college careers of Damion James, Justin Mason, and Dexter Pittman from start to finish. Road games in Greensboro, East Lansing, and L.A. made Season Five appealing, and the quest for 200 consecutive games meant there was no way I was missing a sixth year of trips.
But even after reaching that 200-game milestone in the road loss to Iowa State, I knew that Season Seven was on the agenda — and that it would be the last for Longhorn Road Trip in its current form. The storyline for 2011-12 was simply whether or not this young, untested team could reach the NCAA tournament and extend Texas’ streak to 14-consecutive appearances. While I was enjoying the opportunity to cover the team’s pursuit of that goal, even bigger goals and richer story arcs were just a year away.
When you throw in another trip to the Maui Invitational, a showdown with a Big East power in New York City, another excellent Big 10 road trip, return games with UCLA and North Carolina, and the first road games against West Virginia and TCU, Season Seven is going to be full of exciting trips and thrilling games. My better half — who has stuck with me through the last four years of this crazy journey — even wants to join in on XLRT2013, and I’m exploring options to hit every round of the NCAA tourney, from the First Four to the Final Four. It’s safe to say that we’ll be going out with a bang in the final full season of LRT, one that will include my 250th-consecutive game sometime in late February or early March.
With those big plans on the horizon, the icing on the cake came in the form of Myck Kabongo’s return and the signing of incoming freshman Cameron Ridley. Texas fans have been burned by numerous early entries in recent years, leading to their pessimistic view that both Kabongo and J’Covan Brown would be leaving the program at season’s end. Although Brown did elect to pursue his NBA dreams, Kabongo chose to remain on the 40 Acres, leaving the Horns with a prescient point guard that has only scratched the surface of his potential.
The signing of Ridley and big man Prince Ibeh will help to replace seniors forwards Chapman and Alexis Wangmene, although the freshmen will likely take time to adjust to the physical nature of frontcourt play in the Big 12. Sophomores Jonathan Holmes and Jaylen Bond will have to step up in a big way, as once again the interior will be the biggest question mark for UT at the start of the season.
But even with those concerns, fans will finally be greeted with a fairly familiar roster when the season tips off in early November. If the sophomore quintet can make strides during this crucial offseason, the outlook is rosy for a much more successful campaign in 2012-13. And, for the seventh-straight year, LRT will be there to cover it for you, every step of the way.