Posted by Ryan Clark at 11:47PM

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.

Clint Chapman’s collegiate career ended in Nashville
(Photo credit: Donn Jones/Associated Press)

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.

Myck Kabongo will return to lead the Horns next season
(Photo credit: Michael Thomas/Associated Press)

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.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 9:42PM

If you’re not following along on Twitter, you might be completely oblivious to the fact that I’ve spent the last six days on the road, crossing the Midwest on my quest to experience the electricity of even more college hoops havens. Each season, the schedule usually offers an opportunity or two to extend a typical UT-based road trip into an even longer one where I can visit other gyms that I wouldn’t normally get a chance to see. I like to call these super-sized trips “XLRT”, and the map below shows the 2012 edition.

Thursday evening, I set out for Columbia, Missouri, where I was witness to the final Big 12 meeting at Mizzou Arena between the Tigers and Longhorns. Sunday morning, it was back on the road to Terre Haute, Indiana, to see a Missouri Valley clash between Wichita State and Indiana State. After a short night’s rest, it was back to the interstate on Monday as I raced up to Milwaukee in time for a special 2:30 P.M. tip on MLK Day for Louisville and Marquette.

After three straight days packed with travel and hoops, today offered a white-knuckle drive out of snowy Milwaukee and all the way to Kansas City. The trip wraps up tomorrow night at Bramlage Coliseum, when the Longhorns and Kansas State Wildcats square off. Look for Notes from the Road and perhaps even some photos to start making their way to the site after the Iowa State game next week.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 4:09AM

Ish Smith put an end to Texas’ tumultuous season
(Photo credit:John Bazemore/Associated Press)

The question grew rather tiresome throughout the course of the season. “Is this the last year you’ll be making all the games?”

I’d heard it each of the previous two seasons, but this year it came with a bit of assumption tied to that curly question mark. As if my friends and acquaintances simply expected the 2009-10 year to be the big finish.

And why not? When writing about a college team, four years feels like a natural length, a fitting time frame to follow one group of players around the country and document their trials and growths. Throw in the fact that this year was supposed to be magical, that this team could finally be The One……well, you could almost feel like my inquisitors hoped I’d be witness to a storybook ending.

Somewhere along the way, that all went to hell. It was certainly long after the team’s brief stay at No. 1 in the national rankings, but also well before they crashed and burned in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But while those hopes and dreams were plummeting to Earth, that damned question changed, too. No longer were people asking me if I was going to end things at a natural stopping point. Now people were asking the question as if they thought I needed to be put out of my misery.

* * * * * * * *

It seemed a bit fitting that the season ended with a buzzer-beater loss that left me staring blankly at the court in New Orleans Arena. After all, the third contest in this crazy 150-game journey ended with Kenton Paulino‘s three-pointer at the horn in the 2006 Sweet Sixteen. So while that buzzer-beating win and this buzzer-beating loss weren’t quite perfectly-mirrored bookends to a four-year quest, they were certainly close enough.

Standing in that ugly arena, with absolutely nothing to look forward to, I suddenly started to laugh. I couldn’t help but picture Rick Barnes as a poor, beleaguered soul, helplessly bailing water out of a tiny rowboat that kept springing leaks. For whatever reason, my mind latched on to this image as the metaphor for the season, and the interminable nine-hour drive back to Austin gave me ample opportunity to flesh it out.

Peter Bean of the fabulous Burnt Orange Nation tried pinning down the team’s troubles sometime in mid-February. I remember reading it on a tiny cell phone screen in the wee hours of the morning as I traveled to Missouri, back from Lubbock, or on the way to some other equally-thrilling locale. The details are murky, as this Season of Suck eventually blended together into one bloody mess.

The thrust of that rambling paragraph, however, was supposed to be that Peter tried to chronologically chart the different problems Texas had faced and he couldn’t even make it past November before his fingers fell off. As he tried to document, the Longhorns were simply unable to play two consecutive games without having something go wrong. Fix one issue, and something else would crop up. Remedy that problem, and an older one would enter the picture again.

Jordan Hamilton tasted both defeat and his jersey
(Photo credit:Patrick Semansky/Associated Press)

This constant juggling act was the storyline of the season, and it left fans with little confidence and little optimism. When the team finally started making free throws, the offense was otherwise useless. They would play good defense, and suddenly the team couldn’t rebound. Sometimes, all the issues even came together to make a beautiful disaster like the 732-0 run the Longhorns allowed Kansas to piece together on February 8th.

* * * * * * * *

It’s been nearly impossible for me to sit down and get any words written that have any flow whatsoever. I’d even make the case that this exercise in summation is failing miserably, as well. Now, more than a week since the bitter pill of 2009-10 was finally crammed down our throats for the last time, I still haven’t been able to swallow the damned thing. How can one possibly be expected to encapsulate such a messy, enigmatic season in 1,000 words or less?

The confounding nature of this season has led to hundreds of theories from fans and pundits across the country. Texas fans — always known for bellowing loudly anytime their team isn’t playing for championships — immediately latched on to the “Fire Rick Barnes” bandwagon. Others blamed an overwhelmed freshman class and its alleged “me-first” attitude. Still others laid it at the feet of senior leaders Damion James and Dexter Pittman. The only people who seemed to escape the barbs and vitriol were Shawn Williams and Varez Ward, who spent most of the season in sweatshirts and jumpsuits.

That uncertainty is spilling into the offseason, and it leaves the outlook cloudy and questionable. Which of the freshmen will return to the team? Is Dogus Balbay going back to Turkey after another knee injury? Will Texas actually land point-guard prospect Cory Joseph? Add in the restless fanbase with its itchy trigger finger, and 2010-11 seems like it will be a bellwether year for the Longhorn program.

* * * * * * * *

So that brings us back to The Question. The damned, incessant question that I’ve had to hear for the last three years. And to be quite honest, I still don’t have an answer. I’m planning on making it to L.A. and New York for the games in November and December. I wouldn’t miss another trip to Allen Fieldhouse. And if the road game at the Breslin Center actually happens, it would take an act of God to keep me out of the arena.

But the truth of the matter is that I’m getting older, the bank account is getting smaller, and it gets a little harder each time I see a random Wednesday trip to the middle of a cornfield in Iowa or Nebraska. I’ve got designs on spinning this site into something with a little more national appeal, but funding issues and “real world” concerns are but a few of the hurdles standing in my way.

So, go ahead. Ask me that question one more time. We both know that my heart will always belong in the gym. We’ll just have to see how much longer I travel down this burnt-orange road.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 4:41PM

We’re getting a little bit of a later start than anticipated, but it’s time to begin our sojourn northward to Ames, Iowa. Tonight’s leg will get us to Wichita, Kansas for a few hours of rest before we finish the journey on Wednesday. Game preview will be headed your way in the A.M. hours, while any short tidbits from the road will show up on the Twitter feed.

Posted by Ryan Clark at 4:38PM

Who knew that trying to cram four days with a 40-hour work week, a 20-hour drive to Greensboro, a little bit of sleep, and a lot of game watching would be next to impossible? Unfortunately, I’m only about 30 minutes from hitting the road for this weekend’s game(s?) in North Carolina, and I’ve spent maybe a total of 15 minutes looking at the brackets since the selection show. As a result, the bracket I just threw together in the last five minutes looks like…well, a bracket thrown together in five minutes.

If you want to challenge (and destroy) that bracket in a free pool, click on over to the Longhorn Road Trip group in the SI Bracket Challenge on Facebook. Winner will earn unending fame on LRT and their choice of one of next year’s two t-shirt designs.

We’re going to be cutting it close on the back end of this trip, as we should be pulling into Greensboro about four hours before the Longhorns tip against the Gophers. I’m not sure what kind of preview (if any) I’ll be able to write for the game, but you can get your hoops fix covered by reading the preview from the fine folks at Burnt Orange Nation and seeing what fellow our blogpollers at The Daily Gopher think about Thursday night’s match-up.

In the meantime, think fondly of us as we travel the long, purple line below. Because while you might wish that you were skipping work to criss-cross the country on a basketball sojourn, the fact of the matter is that we’ll be in the middle of nowhere running on a refined mixture of Starburst, Wheat Thins, and energy drinks. We’re just living the dream.

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