The Shasta mascot showed up for Tuesday's Houston Cougar basketball game against the visiting USF Bulls. It roamed the sidelines, did a half-assed imitation of mascots for other schools, but really didn't do much of anything. And then there's one other minor detail: the mascot showed up for the basketball game wearing a football uniform.
That, if anything, is the epitome of all that is wrong with the University of Houston basketball experience. The mascot can't even be bothered to wear the right uniform to the game. But then again, at least the mascot is at most of the home games, which is more than you can say about the cheerleaders and drill team. And let's not even get started on the band, a group who think shouting "air ball" at shots that clink off the rim is the height of taunting.
The Cougars defeated the Bulls 78-69 on Tuesday night to push its record to 16-14 for the season and 8-9 in the conference. It closes out the regular season Friday tonight in Orlando against the UCF Knights. There'll be some people who think this season can be called a success, especially if UH wins because the team will have 17 wins and it'll finish at .500 in conference play. Those are the same people who see nothing wrong in the school mascot not dressing properly to entertain a crowd in an arena that's three-quarters empty.
Hofheinz Pavilion is nearly always three-quarters empty for men's basketball. It takes a special occasion for the fans to turn out, something like honoring Guy V. Lewis or playing Memphis. The fans definitely aren't turning out for the basketball team, and they haven't turned out for the team in years. But while the fans haven't turned out in the past, it seems as if the attendance drops more each year, giving the feeling more of playing basketball in a dank mausoleum than in a palace that once hosted perhaps the finest basketball team to ever lace up the sneakers and take to the court.
The Cougars played in a new conference this season. A conference that's a step up from where the team's been the last decade or so. But while the competition got better -- seriously, check out the AAC standings and note that half of the teams in the conference should be going to the NCAA Tournament -- the Cougars did not take the necessary steps towards improvement. The Cougars have been a team this season that has often had slow starts, that hasn't seemed ready to play when the game starts, and that's just not something a team can do to be successful against ACC competition.
"For whatever reason, we were not ready to play," head coach James Dickey said after Tuesday's win. I think our guys wanted to be ready to play. They wanted to win this game bad, for their teammates, for the seniors, to get another win and building the conference record, getting momentum going into the conference tournament."
The team says the right things about how it won 12 of 16 home games. About how it upset UConn and Memphis. About another winning record and about how if it wins a game or two in the conference tournament then maybe the team will once again play in the third-rate postseason tourneys that dot the NCAA landscape. And about how playing in one of these tournaments will provide a springboard for next season, when the players will have another year's experience and about how they'll have learned to play under postseason pressure.
"We talked in the locker room before the game, and we knew that we couldn't have a let down," guard L.J. Rose said after Tuesday's win. "We felt like this was the only thing that could stop us from reaching our goal. We took care of this one tonight. We just have to get ready for Central Florida and get some momentum going into the tournament."
But if you're a UH fan, you should be getting tired of this. This has been the talk heard around campus since Pat Foster left. It was one thing when Tom Penders took the Cougars to the NIT or CBI because the program he inherited had sunk to the absolute bottom and was nearly dead. But winning a total of 17 games, winning 12 games at home, and making the CBI isn't something to brag about when those wins comes against Texas State and Lehigh and Howard and Alcorn State. Not when you go on the road and get continuously blown out by the power teams of the conference (29 point loss to Louisville, 23 point loss to Memphis, 37 point loss to UConn).
The mascot in its football uniform pacing the baseline is all that's wrong with UH basketball because UH isn't about basketball. The football program has grown tremendously. The new stadium's looking great. But basketball is kind of like the unwanted stepchild. Sure work is finally going to begin on a new practice facility, but as long as the head coach makes less than some of the football assistants, it's going to be real hard for the basketball program to experience a rebirth.