The men's loss to Ohio on Thursday was a reality check. The women's loss to Eastern Michigan on Saturday was a gag job. There's a difference, and therefore my tone will be different in assessing each team's tournament.
We'll start with the men. ...
If you would've told me UT would trail OU by two at halftime, I'd be encouraged by its chances to win the game. Now, if you would've told me UT would trail OU by two at halftime but that OU would shoot just 26 percent in the half, I'd say, uh-oh. Everyone wants to point to OU's 11-0 run to start the second half as being the difference. I'd argue UT's inability to build a 8-10 point halftime lead was the difference. In writing game stories under constraints of an unreasonable deadline (why are we tipping games off at 9:50 p.m.?) you knock out what you can at halftime. My synopsis of the first half wasn't about UT doing well by playing OU closely but UT missing a golden opportunity by not putting heat on the Bobcats. OU is too good to not snap out of its shooting funk and once it did that, UT was toast.
Upon coming on this beat in mid January, I looked at the roster and saw zero seniors and a scarcity of scholarship players. I didn't know how many games they'd win, nor did I care. I wanted answers to two questions before determining whether the program was headed in the right direction. 1) Will they play hard and with pride every night? 2) Will they improve throughout the year? The answer to my first question is yes, minus the Northern Illinois loss and the second half against Kent State. This was a team that prepared well, was focused, and played with good energy and defensive commitment. The answer to my second question is yes, and there's no hesitating. Both collectively and individually, the Rockets were leaps and bounds better in March than they were when I first saw them. The program is resurrected from the excruciating Gene Cross era. Going from bad to decent was a big step. Now they must take the next step.
If the Rockets coaching staff can add quality depth and develop their current players (particularly the big men) I expect them to contend for a MAC championship as early as next season. Pearson, Brown, Holliday, Smith, and juniors Buckley and Dennis, are a strong core to build around. Much more will be written on the evolution of this program. Also, don't be surprised if UT, despite an RPI ranking of 247 entering the tournament, receives an invitation to play in the CBI or CIT in the next couple of days. Stay tuned.
Now for the women ...
On one hand, winning 21 games with a MAC player of the year in street clothes is a wonderful accomplishment. I'm not sure any other team in the league is capable of pulling off such a feat. I don't want to lose sight of that, but as I sit here watching the MAC championship on TV, I can't help but wonder how UT choked away an opportunity to play for a league title. Actually, I know how. They turned the ball over 27 times — eight each by Dortch and Linn — and couldn't make free throws or get rebounds at critical times. EMU's marquee players performed big at the end, and UT's didn't. Losing a 10-point lead with seven minutes to play isn't easy, but UT managed to do it. Coming into the game I didn't think UT was capable of beating EMU. I was wrong. UT can beat EMU. But that means nothing, because the Rockets couldn't get it done.
I expect UT to get an invitation to the WNIT. Capturing last year's title, winning 21 games, and attracting one of the best crowds in mid-major basketball should do the trick. Who knows, maybe the Rockets will make another brilliant run and win the tournament. In some ways, that's more exciting than making the NCAA tournament and dropping a first-round matchup to a higher seed. But this is a team that, at the very least, should have been playing in today's championship game with a chance to capture that elusive MAC title. UT choked and there's no other way to put it.