You know who had the second-most bids in the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament, just after the Big East conference (which had eight)? That’s right—the state of Texas. Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M, North Texas, Sam Houston State, Houston, and UTEP were all in the field of 64, though only Baylor made it to the Sweet 16 (they face St. Mary’s Friday night in Houston).
I was in Spokane, Washington for the first weekend, along with Texas A&M and Houston. And wouldn’t you know it, everyone was pulling for the Aggies—the Aggies of #12 seeded Utah State, that is. As a #5 seed, A&M ought to be proud—when no one but your own alums are pulling for you, that means you’ve become a power program, rather than a fleeting Cinderella. In fact, with the win over the “other” Aggies, Mark Turgeon’s squad joined the University of Pittsburgh as the only two to get into the tournament and win a first round game the past five years.
Small consolation after losing to Purdue on Sunday (“We didn’t come here just to win the first game,” Turgeon had said of the statistic), but at least that gives them bragging rights over a certain Big 12 rival that has been the decade’s glamour program. The slumping, injured Longhorns were written off as championship material in February, though I’m not sure anybody figured that Rick Barnes would fare no better than Tom Penders, whom he replaced as Texas coach in 1998.
Penders’s Houston Cougars snuck into Spokane as a #13 seed, having overcome a mediocre (15-15) season to beat UTEP in the Conference USA tournament final—part of a four-game winning streak that started when Penders told the team they were a “DMW”—dead man walking. Of course, if you peel back a little amber, UTEP and Houston still might be the state’s most storied programs. The Miners won the national championship as Texas Western in 1966, and Houston went to five Final Fours under head coach Guy Lewis, most famously with the Phi Slama Jama teams of 1983 and 1984. But UTEP hasn’t won an NCAA game since 1992, and that was also the last year Houston even played in one. This season Houston had the leading scorer in the country in guard Aubrey Coleman, a speedy, shoot-first Allen Iverson-type aerialist, with greater height and heft. Heard of him? At least being in the NCAA tournament fixed that, right down to the snarky Twitter comments about his massive keloid neck scar. The Cougars took on Maryland, which was a #4 seed; coincidentally, Penders and Maryland coach Gary Williams entered the game tied for 5th among active coaches in all-time wins, with 648.
It was Williams who would break the tie, and if Penders plans to win another game it’s going to be at another school; he resigned on Monday after six years with UH, his job security having been a subject of speculation all season. The rumored fantasy successor would be tarnished ex-Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie, who changes jobs so fast that he can still take partial credit for both UTEP and A&M’s success this year.
It’s no wonder Penders seemed so relaxed and mellow, both during the game and with the press. “DMW” indeed. He’s an increasingly endangered character in college sports, part East Coast gym rat, part stand-up comic. When Coleman, who got his usual 26 points but had a little trouble shooting free throws, finished answering a question with the statement, “I was just having fun,” Penders interrupted with, “except from the foul line.” Then they high-fived as the players left the pressroom.
The Houston fan presence was small but feisty. It probably goes without saying that the Cougar Brass out-funked the other seven pep bands, and there were signs wishing Guy Lewis—so much for omens—a happy birthday, as well as several making fun of Maryland star Grievis Vasquez. One fan kept on chanting, “Jon Scheyer! Jon Scheyer!,” implying that the Duke guard should have been named ACC Player of the Year instead of Vasquez.
The guy behind the signs and trash talk turned out to be a blonde and bearded high school senior, who told me that his name was “Noah ‘Guy Lewis’ Guiberson.” At first I thought that he was just a really hardcore fan, but no—he truly is the coach’s grandson, and the Cougars’ absence from this tournament happened to overlap exactly with the days he’s spent on earth. “They went a month and a half or so before I was born, and they are going a month a half or so before I go off to college,” Guiberson said. “But I’ve lived it vicariously through the banners, and everyone telling me (about the games). It feels like I was there.”
Both in Spokane and after stepping down, Penders said, “We’re always going to be remembered at the University of Houston” for getting to the tournament, a bit of self-congratulation that he’s taken flak for in the papers. But hanging up the banner for an NCAA appearance is by no means a small thing. March Madness might be the only sporting event where it really is an honor just to be nominated. Few teams have a chance to win it all, and 282 teams don’t get to be a part of it at all. Those Houston players won’t forget they got there, especially guard Adam Brown, who’s certain to be part of CBS’s “One Shining Moment” for his ragged, stumbling, buzzer-beating half-court heave, which sent him to the locker room with just about the biggest smile I have ever seen during a game.
Even a plainly distraught Noah Guiberson had something of a shining moment, whether he realized it or not. With 37.4 seconds left in the game, Greivis Vasquez drifted towards the sideline near the Houston section, put a hand over one ear (i.e., “I CAN’T HEAR YOU?”) and waved the Cougars fans goodbye. When one of the best players in the country gives your trash-talk the same treatment that he does to Duke’s outrageous Cameron Crazies, you can be sure that things are looking up after a literal lifetime in the NCAA wilderness.