A season that began with high hopes came quickly crashing down for the Cougars, and with Saturday's loss to the Tulane Green Wave, the Cougars finished the season at 15-15. The C-USA Tournament begins today, and the Cougars find themselves as the seventh seed preparing to face an East Carolina team they defeated badly earlier in the season.
But that's the problem for the Cougars. The Cougars have shown that they're capable of defeating any team in C-USA. They've also shown that they're capable of losing to every team in C-USA.
"I think the spirits and the attitudes are good right now even though the record isn't where we really want to be," senior Sean Coleman said last week. "But if we can...get whatever seed we got and just take it one game at a time after that, I like our chances. I think we'll just have to make sure everybody's on the same page, and by doing just hard practices and team meetings, we should be all right."
The team has been pointing to the C-USA Tournament seemingly for months. Which has probably been the root of the team's problems this year. Well, that and an inability to play consistently from game-to-game, half-to-half, and possession-to-possession.
While the players see this as a problem, they also see it as plus. They've proven to themselves, they say, that they can play with any team in the league. But not only play with any team in C-USA, they say they can defeat any team in C-USA.
"Every game that we played in, we've been right in those games, and we've made certain mistakes down in the last ten minutes that didn't help us win those games," senior guard Kelvin Lewis said last week. "And we strongly feel that we can play with any team in the conference, and that on any day we can beat any team in the conference, and we've just got to go down there and just play our style, and get up in them, play them full-court, play our run-and-gun style, and we can beat anybody."
Yet the team's best play this season hasn't been when they've been running-and-gunning it up the court. Their best play has come when freshman forward Kendrick Washington has been fully involved with the play down low, using his strong physical presence to command the low post and make the court more wide open for the likes of Aubrey Coleman and Lewis. But when the team pushes the play, they tend to get out of control and either take quick, stupid shots or find themselves take an impossible shot with the shot clock about to expire.
Tom Penders likens this team to the one from the 2006-07 season which suffered injury after injury and disturbing loss after disturbing loss. That team struggled throughout the season and finished 16-14 in regular season play. They got into the C-USA Tournament and somehow found themselves playing for the conference championship. A game which they lost, but allowed them to get out of the season with a shred of self-respect.
"This is exactly like the season we had a few years ago when we lost Lanny Smith with a broken foot and a couple of other kids to illness, and we ended up with 10 guys, and we went into conference [tournament] play 16-14 and endued up 18-15 and got to the finals of conference play," Penders said. "It was that type of year. We lost some games that were heartbreaking losses, but we never gave up."
Even if the Cougars should get past East Carolina again, the road forward isn't easy. The next round of the tourney features a match-up against Memphis, a team they've both beaten and lost to. And winning four straight games is unlikely for a team that has problems putting together two-game winning streaks.
"I'm just proud of who in the hell we played [this season]," Penders said. "Nobody seems to talk about that. Some of the teams in our league, you can't even find the teams they're playing in the blue book....So we decided, with Aubrey and Kelvin mainly, to go out and play as many tough teams [as we could]...you look at those teams we played and look what their records are now. Unfortunately, we gave some of those games away."
The Cougars season might end today. Or tomorrow. Or this weekend. And no matter what happens, they're going to look back at those games they gave away and think of what might have been. It might have been good. Instead, it's just a big disappointment.