Monday, March 15, 2010

For the first time in eighteen years...

...the University of Houston Cougars are headed to the NCAA Basketball Tournament (also known as March Madness, the Big Dance, Bracketville, etc...).

The Coogs, in spite of having a rather mediocre season - they entered the Conference USA Tournament with a 15-15 record - managed to pull off the improbable, notching four straight victories and upsetting heavily-favored and nationally-ranked UTEP, 81-73, to claim the Conference USA Championship and secure an automatic bid to the NCAA Tourney.

For me, it was literally half a lifetime ago when the Cougars last punched their ticket to the Big Dance: eighteen years ago today, on March 15, 1992, with a victory over Texas in the final of the Southwest Conference tournament. I was an eighteen-year-old freshman in college, George H. W. Bush was President of the United States, Johnny Carson was host of the Tonight Show, the #1 single in the country that week was "To Be With You" By Mr. Big ("I'm Too Sexy" by Right Said Fred was #2), and Wayne's World had edged out My Cousin Vinny as the weekend's top-grossing movie. There was no such thing as Google, flat screen television or iPods; while walking to and from class I listened to music via cassette tapes in my Walkman. Cell phones, laptop computers and digital cameras did exist, but they were bulky, expensive and rare. My computer didn't have a modem, I didn't even know what e-mail was, and my brother and I played video games on a 16-bit Sega Genesis.

It was, indeed, a long time ago. Which makes it both amazing and depressing that a college basketball program as historically notable as Houston's, with a total of 19 NCAA tournament appearances and five Final Fours under their belt, has suffered such a long drought on the national stage. The Brooks-Drexler-McCallum Era of Suckitude has been an absolutely dreadful period in Cougar sports history, and I'll admit that as recently as a week ago I was fed up with current head coach Tom Penders as well. But now that Penders has finally done what he was brought here to do - break the drought and get the Coogs back to the tournament - criticism of his coaching abilities is, for the time being, unwarranted.

The Cougars have not won a game in the Big Dance since the Phi Slama Jama era of the mid-80s; their last appearance in the tournament was brought to a quick, first-round end by Georgia Tech on March 19, 1992. The 13th-seeded Coogs will have their hands full again this time, as they face the 4th-seeded Maryland Terrapins in the first round this Friday. Expecting them to win their first tournament victory in 25 years might be a bit much. But hey, nobody expected this team to get to the tournament in the first place.

For the first time since I started filling out my annual bracket, "Houston" is one of the 65 names listed on the page. And that's good enough for me.

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