Beyond the Boxscore
It wasn't that long ago that the University of Houston played a starring role in the Final Four preview luncheon at Reliant Stadium.
When you got off the long escalators to the West Club, beaming UH cheerleaders were there to great you. During the press conference, Shasta (the school's Cougar mascot) stood by the stage, along with more beaming UH cheerleaders. First-year Houston men's basketball coach James Dickey sat on the stage next to a clearly outmanned Rice coach Ben Braun.
It truly felt like the University of Houston was a huge part of the Final Four, Oh sure, anyone with half a college basketball brain knew there was plenty of illusion involved. This year's UH team making the Final Four would be equivalent to the Detroit Lions winning the Super Bowl or the Pittsburgh Pirates rolling to the World Series. It wasn't going to happen. But on this mid January day, the longshot of making the 68-team NCAA Tournament field still seemed to be in play.
Dickey's Cougars were 11-6 on Jan. 18, the day all the Final Four fanfare really barreled into Houston.
"When you see Houston attracting an event the magnitude of the Final Four, the players in our program can't help but be inspired," Dickey said then. "It makes anyone think about the possibilities."
Less than two months later, on a rather mundane Wednesday night in El Paso — the city that no one really wants to visit — the Cougars' season ended quieter than a church mouse. Houston fell to Marshall 97-87 in the first round of the Conference USA Tournament. It was UH's 12th loss in 13 games.
And now, the Cougars return to Houston — the mecca that everyone in college basketball and many outside of it — want to get to in April. Sure, UH's old, glorious college basketball moments, particularly coach Guy Lewis' legacy, will be honored in Jim Nantz's Wortham Theater NCAA Salute Thursday night of the big Final Four week. But Dickey and his players will in many ways be forgotten outsiders, watching the party go on all around them.
Final Fours don't change destinies. Bad teams are still bad teams, no matter how many fancy signs are put up in their eyesight.
Rice coach Ben Braun found himself answering Final Four questions that dreary January day too.
"At Rice, our cheerleaders have to go to school," Braun cracked, noting the early afternoon time. "Sammy the Owl's in class right now."
Braun gets to make jokes for at least one more day. His team held on by the Owl hair of their chinny chin chin to beat SMU 58-57 in its first round Conference USA Tournament game Wednesday night. Arsalan Kazemi — a 6-foot-7 forward who's considered a legitimate NBA prospect — put up 24 points and 13 rebounds.
Now, he only has to do it three more times, starting with Thursday night's game against No. 2 seed Tulsa, to steal Braun an NCAA Tournament berth. No, the Owls aren't expecting to go dancing either.
Even back on that January day, before the likelihood of a third straight losing season to open Braun's career behind the hedges set in, he couldn't help but acknowledge the uphill climb he faced.
He talked about embracing Rice's high academic standards, about it allowing him to attract a "special kind" of kid. Special kids at Rice tend to be special students, not the type of players which prompt Final Four dreams though. Braun's always looked younger than he is, but this is a basketball lifer with 34 years of head coaching experience.
He knows the score. He's never put up three straight losing seasons before in 30-plus years in stops like Siena Heights, Eastern Michigan and Cal. Braun hasn't gotten worse at coaching. He's gotten a tougher job.
Still, like Dickey, Braun would talk about how knowing the Final Four was coming to Houston excited his players.
"When you see it going on in your city, you can't help but get into it," Braun said. "We don't talk about it as a team, but the players notice it."
When you're a basketball player at UH or Rice and you see the Final Four coming, it's like a community theater actor noticing that a Jeff Bridges movie is in town though. No matter how many cheerleaders you bring out, you're stuck outside peering into the window — in this case, Reliant Stadium's glass suite-side facade.
At that preview luncheon, an NCAA official made reference to Butler playing in the Final Four in its home city last year, with the big stadium only six miles from the Bulldogs' campus. Dickey and Braun both chuckled a little at that one.
Houston's biggest Division I-A basketball programs aren't going to be in the big dance let alone the final curtain. Little Texas Southern actually has the best chance to give the city a representative in the field of 68 — though Wednesday night's near-upset loss in the first round of the SWAC Tournament isn't exactly a confidence inducer.
Will UH or Rice have a better shot to at least be assured of tourney participation when the Final Four returns to Houston in 2016?
Dickey comes across much better in person than he does on a resume or a sound bite. He carries an almost professorial calm with a confident undertone. Houston's program cannot help but be better for the discipline Dickey demands. But he needs program-changing players — and how many UH basketball coaches have failed at that?
Besides, with college basketball's climate today, you'd be a fool to suggest that either Dickey or Braun will still even be here in 2016.
This moment's passed them by. And it all looked so promising, or at least interesting, in January. A Final Four in your city guarantees nothing.
At least, Shasta will have no reason to skip school anytime soon.