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Archive for March, 2010

ElViento: It leaked through on Wednesday that James Dickey will be the next head basketball coach at the University of Houston.

You can read about what Dickey did at Texas Tech anywhere. One thing is clear: this is not the hire that the majority of the Houston fan base wanted or expected.

So the question is: will UH be able to get behind Dickey? Or will it be Penders, redux? I hate to go out on a cynical note, but I don’t see it going well. I see more of the same – good, but not great teams. And the Cougar fan base keeps its nose in the air, and its butts out of the Hofheinz Pavilion seats.

Along those lines, I have an announcement to make.

Practicality dictates that I have only one option moving forward.

Really, I have always wanted to turn my writing into something more than a hobby.

I have recently been presented that opportunity.

Longhorns Digest, an up-and-coming UT sports publicaton has offered me a paid position.

Frankly, I need the money, and I can’t afford to keep expending so much time and effort on this blog for free.

On one hand, I will miss covering the Cougars, and I am sad that I will not get to experience things like Case Keenum’s senior season.

On the other, I am anxious to begin what will hopefully be a long career as a paid journalist.

Lastly, a huge thank you to all of you who have read and commented on my blog.

So long, and God bless.

-Dustin
(4/1/2010)

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ElViento: Everybody and their mother seems pretty positive that Billy Gillispie will be the next head basketball coach at the University of Houston. Athletics Director Mack Rhoades is saying, “Not so fast.”

Is Rhoades keeping things under his hat until the move can be officially announced, or are the fresh-out-of-the-woodwork Cougar faithful jumping the gun, and seeing what they want to see?

I guess a more pertinent question (since it’s the title of this sucker) is: at this point, can Rhoades afford not to hire Gillispie?

Rhoades has a lot of good will built up with the decision makers at UH, as well as the general fan base. It’s not like an unpopular basketball hire will get him run out of town, especially if he gets the money raised for dramatic upgrades to the football and basketball facilities. And by all means, if Rhoades thinks that we’re better off with an individual not named Gillispie running the basketball program, he ought to hire that person.

But let’s be honest. The Houston basketball program is not a one-year fix. There’s certainly talent coming back next year, but the two most productive players (by far) from this year’s team graduate, in Aubrey Coleman and Kelvin Lewis. And this team played .500 basketball until the conference tournament. Regardless of who coaches this team next year, it’s unlikely that he will be able to immediately bring the program to where the fans/critics expect it to be.

Gillispie is the most proven winner at the college level of any of the candidates UH seems to be looking at. And since most of the basketball world thinks it’s a foregone conclusion that he will be the next head man on Cullen Boulevard, you can bet your bottom dollar that if he doesn’t end up getting the job, whoever does will be compared to Gillispie the Ghost Coach. “Gillispie would have done better in recruiting”. “Gillispie would at least have this team competitive with Memphis”, etc.

There are three ways Gillispie could end up not coaching at UH this off-season, and none of them will reflect well on Rhoades:

-Houston hires somebody else, and then Gillispie accepts a job elsewhere. Perception is: Rhoades chose not to offer the job to Gillispie, and what was he thinking???

-Gillispie accepts a job elsewhere first, and then Houston hires somebody else. Perception is: Rhoades didn’t act quickly or decisively enough to bring in Gillispie, or didn’t provide adequate assurances that facilities will be improved quickly. What kind of ship is Rhoades running???

-Gillispie doesn’t accept a head coaching job anywhere, and takes another year off. Perception is: Either Rhoades couldn’t even convince Gillispie that the UH was better than no job at all (see, What kind of ship…) or Rhoades didn’t want Gillispie (see, What was he thinking???)

I’m not saying that Gillispie is unquestionably the man for the job. I think he’d be very successful here for as long as the gig lasted*, but I also would feel very comfortable if we handed the job to Rodney Terry, Tim Floyd (providing the NCAA clears him first) or Chris Walker. Ultimately, I trust Rhoades’ judgment on the hire, and I’ll support whoever he picks. But in spite of its NCAA tournament berth this year, the Houston Cougar basketball program doesn’t exactly have a lot of equity built up in terms of support, and I’m afraid that anybody besides Gillispie at this point will be perceived by an already fickle fan base as nothing more than just that: not Billy Gillispie.

*I’ve seen some complaining that Gillispie would only coach at UH for a few years, and use it as a springboard to another job. It’s possible this is true. But look at UTEP’s or Texas A&M’s records before he got there, and after he left, and tell me we wouldn’t be better off hiring Gillispie, even if it’s a short-term hire.

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In other Cougar sports…

-The Houston Cougar baseball team lost its conference-opener to Central Florida on Friday by a score of 7-4, but stormed back over the next two days to earn a series victory. The Coogs grabbed a 7-3 win on Saturday before bringing out the big lumber on Sunday, in a game that was called after six and a half innings due to mercy rule. When the dust settled, the Cougars earned a 20-3 victory.

Houston’s 12-10 overall mark doesn’t jump off the page at you, but Boyd’s has them playing the #10 strength of schedule in the country heading into Sunday’s game, putting them at #52 in the RPI. The Cougars are positioned nicely where, as long as we can put up a respectable mark in Conference USA play, we shouldn’t need to depend on a conference championship to earn a berth into the NCAA post-season.

-The UH softball team followed the baseball team’s lead, dropping its opening game against UTEP this weekend before picking up wins in the next two games. On Sunday, the Coogs fell behind 5-1, before riding a seventh-run sixth inning to a comeback victory. The Cougar record now stands at 18-14 overall, with a 5-4 mark in Conference USA.

That’s all for me for now. Next home game for softball is a doubleheader with Prairie View A&M on April 6th, while baseball hosts UTSA on Tuesday, before playing a series at Rice, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Hope to see you there! Go Coogs!

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ElViento: On Friday, the Cougar basketball team showed that it’s difficult to win basketball games when you don’t rebound and don’t make free throws. Yep, it was disappointing and hard to watch. But at the end of the day, we made it. The monkey is off our back. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take 18 more years to get another shot at the dance.

On Sunday, it was leaked that Tom Penders is set to resign. Word is that it was the result of a positive meeting with athletics director Mack Rhoades.

My feelings on Penders remain the same. He wasn’t a perfect coach, but he was a pretty darn good one, especially given the crummy facilities, poor attendance numbers, etc. I said it before, and I will say it again: he was a better coach than this fan base deserved. Ultimately, when the message board chatter dies down, Penders’ legacy will be that he took over a program in disarray, made it immediately respectable, and broke Houston’s NCAA tournament drought. And future Houston Cougar fans will scarcely believe that the majority of the UH fan base refused to show up to games, and pined for his departure.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing that Penders is moving on. I’m genuinely excited to see what happens next. But I’m thankful for all of the work Penders put in, and for everything he accomplished.

So who will get tabbed as the new head man? I don’t have any insider information, but the internet speculation seems to be focused around former UTEP, Texas A&M and Kentucky coach Billy Gillespie; Texas-Austin assistant Rodney Terry; Sam Houston State head coach Bob Marlin; and former NBA coach Avery Johnson.

None of the candidates listed are perfect, but they each have their own positives. Gillespie did an amazing turnaround job at both UTEP and Texas A&M, but bombed at Kentucky, and has a personality that rubs many the wrong way. Terry is said to be a master recruiter, but has no Division 1 head coaching experience. Marlin has put together consistently good teams at SHSU, but weren’t we already “consistently good” under Penders? Johnson is a talented enough coach to win NBA coach of the year, but has no college experience.

Furthermore, it’s impossible to say at this juncture whether the men listed are interested in the opening, or whether they represent wishful thinking on the part of Cougar fans. With Penders’ job in doubt for a couple of years now, there has been rampant speculation on who would be interested in the job when it opens up. We’re about to find out. It should be fun.

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ElViento: I’ve been writing this blog for 14 years* now, and so far I have avoided writing an article centered around the site that is CoogFans.com. I’m finally caving.

*This number was not fact-checked, but it feels right.

Writing about CoogFans, or any fan forum really, is inherently pointless. It is filled with people who are content to post in anonymity, spewing vitriol they would never have the testicular fortitude to say to anybody in person. ‘Knee-jerk reaction’ is the name of the game. After every Cougar loss, it’s time to fire a coach. After every Cougar win, ESPN/the Houston Chronicle/the NCAA/the Pope/whoever doesn’t give enough credit to our unstoppable dynasty.

Don’t get me wrong, there are good aspects to CoogFans as well, or I wouldn’t hang around there. A lot of posters there are level-headed, a lot make good points, and a lot have inside information that you can’t find anywhere else.

Nevertheless, the basketball forum on CoogFans has been dang-near unreadable for 2-3 years. Virtually every thread turns into a knockdown dragout between the anti-Tom Penders crowd – which generally ignores the good things Penders has done and the problems with the program that aren’t Penders’ fault (poor attendance, lousy facilities, etc.), and the pro-Penders crowd, which generally disregards any of the flaws of Penders-coached teams, and would probably blame facilities for every loss if Penders coached the Cougars to an 0-30 season next year.

Ever since Houston’s improbable run in the Conference USA tournament, a funny thing has happened. The board has lightened up. Posters openly admitted their “bandwagon status” in one thread. When a handful of Maryland troublemakers came along talking trash, the citizens of CoogFans stuck up for their team, and forecasted Cougar victory.

Then there was this New York Times article.

It’s hard to know exactly what Penders said, because the meat of the article is written through non-direct quotation. The gist of the article, however, is Penders complaining about the facilities available to the basketball program. The article also mentions some of Penders’ previous jobs, talks about his contract situation, and features a glowing quote from Aubrey Coleman: “[Penders is] a great person. He just wants the best out of the kids. That’s all…He does everything the right way.”

But it was Penders’ comments on the facilities that drew the most attention on CoogFans. Largely ignored were Coleman’s input on the matter (“Everything’s just old around here. I would think for Division I it would look way better than this. When we go to Memphis or Central Florida, it’s like, ‘Oh.’”) and the article’s commentary on UH raising money under athletics director Mack Rhoades to fix the facilities.

Don’t get me wrong. I knew that the board would eventually return to its all-out Penders-bashing. That was predictable. It was the manner in which it happened, and the speed with which it happened (over 24 hours before tip-off of UH’s tournament game) that were so unbelievable.

A sampling:

“I hate it when he keeps bringing this **** up. Enough is enough man. The public and us alumni have heard and read about this.”

“Tom’s priorities seem to be stoking the legend of Tom Penders and justifying a contract extension…Is the AD going to want to extend a guy who goes that far out of his way to badmouth the institution?”

“I am starting to turn on Tom with all the crap he is talking.”

“I can’t imagine keeping a coach who would give an interview like this to the NYT. He made UH look like a failing inner-city high school — just the image our detractors try to promote. And he did it for the purpose of making himself look better”

And that’s just the first two pages. It mostly gets worse from there.

So, let’s get this straight. We are talking about a coach who took over a program in utter disarray. A coach who immediately made the program competitive. (In each of Penders’ first six seasons, the Cougars won 18+ games, the first such six-year stretch in school history.) A coach who all did this despite a fan base that has been eager to write his teams off and stop showing up to games at the first sign of something wrong every year – a fan base that has been calling for his firing (and yes, I include myself in that statement) all year long. We are talking about a coach who has done all of this despite facilities that are undeniably among the worst in a mediocre conference.

And we’re mad because…he answered questions about the facilities when asked by a reporter?

Now, in fairness to the whiny brats in question, many of said brats doubt the factual accuracy of some of the things Penders said in the article. On the other hand, a lot of other posters stuck up for some of the things he said.

But let me make this clear: I could not possibly give less of a crap whether or not he’s telling the truth. He has endured six years of being spit on by his own “fans” for doing a fantastic job. His players have whole-heartedly embraced the “mission: impossible”, “dead-man walking”, “us against the world” mantra. The results have been fantastic as of late. If what Penders says keeps his team in that mindset, great!

And frankly, he has kept a stiff upper lip about facilities that everybody knew were lousy up until now. Things have not been fixed. Why not try something different? Why not complain when the world is watching, and see if the school and its alumni are forced to make some changes? As one poster astutely put it, “Step one for recovering is admitting that you have a problem.”

My biggest error in writing Penders’ obituary earlier this year wasn’t claiming that the Coogs would never reach the NCAA tournament with him. It was calling him exactly the coach that the fans have deserved.

For all of his faults, Tom Penders is ten times the coach that the University of Houston fan base has deserved.

In following this team for a few years now, I have come to two inescapable conclusions:

-Penders would cut off his own finger if he thought it would help the program.

-CoogFans would complain it was only a pinky.

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ElViento: It has been a pretty dang good weekend to be a Cougar, folks.

First off, you may have noticed that the Houston men’s basketball program won the Conference USA tournament, and is consequently headed to Spokane, Washington to take on the Maryland Terrapins as a 13-seed in the NCAA tournament.

My first thought on this: SPOKANE, WASHINGTON?!? 2,200 MILES AWAY?!? AAARGH!! !@#$%@#$

Okay, got that out of my system.

My second thought: I think both teams are potentially more talented than their seeding. Don’t get me wrong – Houston got exactly the seed it deserved, based on the season it played. But if you don’t think that Houston on top of its game is much more dangerous than Murray State, Wofford or Siena…well, I don’t know what to tell you. You’re not very smart. Maryland’s overall record, RPI, and consequently seeding suffered at the hands of a 1-2 showing in Maui at the beginning of the year. The Terps went 13-3 in ACC play, although they lost their first-round game at the conference tournament, after ending the regular season with a less-than-impressive victory over a lousy Virginia team that was without its leading scorer.

The key to the game is slowing down Grievis Vasquez. The senior guard from Venezuela leads his team in scoring (19.5 ppg) and assists (6.3), and is the ACC’s player of the year. He’s got 2 inches and 5 pounds on Kelvin Lewis, but I still like #0’s chances of keeping Vasquez in check. Randy Culpepper was a little too small for Lewis, and nearly won the game for the Miners before Desmond Wade put him on his back, but Vasquez-Lewis should be a fascinating matchup to watch.

Also important will be Kendrick Washington and/or Maurice McNeil finding a way to stop the likes of Jordan Williams from killing us on the boards. The 6’10”, 260 lb freshman is averaging 8.3 rebounds per game.

Let’s check out the other probable matchups:

Eric Hayes vs. Zamal Nixon/Wade. Hayes is the smallest regular for Maryland at 6’4″, 180, and relies the most heavily on the outside game, which makes him the likely matchup for the Cougar point guard duo. Hayes only shoots 3.5 two-point field goals per contest, so I don’t think his size advantage over Nixon/Wade will be too noticeable. Neither team really runs the ball through its point guard in the traditional sense.

Sean Mosley vs. Aubrey Coleman. Virtually identical size-wise, they also play similar games offensively: ideally relying more on speed and strength to get to the basketbal rather than shooting from the perimeter. Both are good rebounders, as well. Obviously, the Cougars rely on Coleman a little more than the Terps do on Mosley. The Cougars will probably need this matchup to be a pronounced edge for them.

Landon Milbourne vs. Sean Coleman/Kirk Van Slyke/Adam Brown. This is the matchup that scares me the most. I’m not sure who can guard Milbourne for us. He’s probably too quick and athletic for Coleman and Van Slyke, and too big for Brown. The good news? Milbourne is in a bit of a slump, having scored single-digit points in six straight contests to end the regular season.

The thing that bothers me the most about Maryland: they are a very low-turnover, high-field goal percentage offense. The Cougars will have to force the Terps into some mistakes to be successful.

The Cougars have struggled with lousy teams, and given good teams fits all year. Fortunately, once you get to the NCAA tournament, there are no lousy teams.

I expect a close game. Too bad I won’t be able to attend said game because IT’S IN SPOKANE-FREAKING-WASHINGTON.

Okay, deep breaths. I’m okay.
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Congrats to the Cougar women’s team, which found out that its season is not over. The Lady Coogs received a berth to the Women’s NIT tournament. They’ll find out opponent and location details on Monday night.

Speaking of the NIT, in men’s hoops, in addition to getting two teams (Houston, UTEP) into the NCAAs, Conference USA put three into the NIT (UAB, Tulsa, Memphis).
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It was a great weekend for Cougar bat-and-ball sports, as both the baseball and softball teams scored weekend sweeps.

The baseball team swept Cal Poly on the road (13-8, 6-2, 5-3), exacting a measure of revenge on the Mustangs, who won two of three at Cougar Field a year ago. The Cougars stretched their winning streak to six games, and improved to 8-5 overall.

It would be hard to be more impressed with the way the Cougars played this weekend – the bats were lively, and the only game in which the pitching staff was not dominant (Friday), Cougar starting pitcher Chase Dempsay was scratched due to soreness. Sophomore Michael Goodnight and freshman Eric Brooks impressed in their respective starts the next two days.

Offensively, 24 runs in three days is always good, and four home runs in three games is a beautiful sight for those who watched the power-lacking Coogs a year ago. Freshman M.P. Cokinos went yard twice this weekend, and Chris Wallace and Blake Kelso also went deep.

Next up is a pair of mid-weekers with San Francisco and California on Tuesday and Wednesday, respectively, before heading to Tempe to take on one of the top teams in the country in Arizona State.

On the softball diamond, the Cougar opened their C-USA season with a three-game sweep over Southern Miss, running their winning streak to six games and improving to 13-9 overall. Jennifer Klinkert homered twice on the weekend, and Amanda Crabtree threw a two-hit shutout on Sunday to wrap up the series.

Next up, the Cougars host North Dakota State for a double-header on Tuesday, before flying out to Orlando to continue C-USA play at UCF.

That’s all for me for now. Hope to see you at the dance!

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ElViento: Good news: the year 1992 no longer has any meaning to the Houston Cougar basketball program.

It was often-repeated that 1992 was the last time the University of Houston made the NCAA tournament. Well, it’s 1992 no more. It’s 2010, Cougar fans. It’s 2010.

First off, some crow-eating is definitely in order. I wrote the obituary of Tom Penders‘ Cougar career in this space a little over a month ago. I said the program would never get off the ground with Penders at the helm. In my defense, I also wrote that Penders “cares deeply about this university and this basketball program, and he’s done some very impressive things here”, and I wrote about the higher standars facing basketball coaches as opposed to football coaches. But when my friend asked me a couple of weeks ago what Houston’s chances of winning the Conference USA tournament were, I responded, “One half of one percent.”

Yea, I was a little off on that one.

My only saving grace was that I can honestly state that I never stopped being a fan. I continued to show up to the games and cheer on the team. After the Memphis win in the tournament, with the next two days off of work, I did what half-crazed, college-aged super-fans are supposed to do. I jumped in the car with one of my best friends, (as well as the mascot Sasha, who had been unable to travel with the band earlier in the week) and drove up to Tulsa to cheer on my team. Here’s how that went down:

I set my alarm for 4:00 Friday morning, after going to bed at midnight. I woke up at 3:30, far too excited to get any more sleep. I finished getting ready, met up with Roo and Megan/Sasha. We got on the road by 5:30.

We made excellent time, hitting basically zero traffic, and arrived at the BOK Center in downtown Tulsa (which consists of like three buildings) just before 2:00. We dropped off Sasha, went to find parking, and found some seats for the UTEP-Tulsa game.

Roo and I discussed who we’d rather face, should we beat Southern Miss. UTEP is the better team, but Tulsa would have a bigger fan base, and is more troubling for us, matchup-wise, I reasoned. So I didn’t have a strong preference either way. From about two minutes into the game, however, it was clear who would be the winner. Tulsa looked all kinds of uptight, and the Miners were running circles around them. When the Golden Hurricane made a late comeback to get within eight points, we started rooting for the miracle, but it didn’t happen. UTEP awaited the winner of the Houston-Southern Miss game. During the game, I both found time to go say hi to Coach Penders (who was his usual, friendly self) and take a much-needed nap.

Then came the UH game. It was remarkably unremarkable. Aubrey Coleman carried the majority of the scoring load, and the team played well enough to win. Adam Brown was impressive off the bench, and the Cougars led basically the whole way, although they never really put it entirely out of reach. Nevertheless, when the dust settled, the Cougars had a 74-66 victory, and they were headed for a showdown with the Miners.

The most enjoyable part of the game for me was realizing just before tip-off that I had inadvertantly ended up sitting directly behind Susie Penders, the coach’s wife. She couldn’t possibly have been nicer, and the same goes for the other alumni and fans who were seated near Roo and myself. Were they upset that the student attendance had gone up from zero the previous two games to a measley two? Heck no, they repeatedly thanked us for coming, and even handed us some cash after the game, saying that dinner was on them.

That night, we grabbed burgers and ice cream from Braum’s with Sasha, and one of our Cougar dolls, courtesy of Mrs. Penders and “the outlaw” Mrs. Smith. We crashed at the hotel of the Cougar band/dolls.

In the morning, we greeted the seven other Coog Crew members who had driven up through the night after watching the USM game on TV. We grabbed some breakfast, and headed back to the BOK center. At the behest of all of our alumni friends, the University of Houston was kind enough to supply the nine of us with tickets for the game. We grabbed our seats right behind Mrs. Penders, et al. again, and started cheering.

The championship game reminded me of the Cougars’ game the previous day, except flipped around, and with a different result. The Miners took the lead early, and led most of the game, but were never quite able to put the Coogs away. But instead of cruising through the end of the game with a narrow lead, UTEP was passed up at the end by the red-hot Cougars. Houston grabbed an 81-73 victory, and was headed to the NCAA tournament.

Brief kudos from the game:

-To Kelvin Lewis for picking up the scoring load where Coleman left off. Aubrey had one of his worst offensive games of the year, and Kelvin covered for him with a 6-10 performance from 3-point range, and 28 points.

-To Aubrey, for finding other ways to contribute when the offensive game wasn’t there. He ended up with 9 rebounds, 6 assists and 4 steals.

-To Penders for having the moxie to bench his star player for some key stretches when the offense was running better without him.

-To Zamal Nixon, for a huge performance off the bench, including draining key free throws down the stretch.

-To Desmond Wade, for knocking UTEP’s Randy Culpepper on his butt. The entire first half, I was complaining that somebody needed to do it. The diminuitive Culpepper was driving the lane a little too freely, and looking a little too cocky, and I was telling anybody who would listen that we needed to make him think twice about it. Ironically, it was the smallest player on the court who heeded the call. Even though it was (erroneously, I believe) ruled an intentional foul on Wade, it was worth it. After making both ensuing free throws, Culpepper’s line for the last 13 minutes of the game was 0-6 shooting from the floor, 2 turnovers, and a key missed free throw down the stretch. Prior to that, he had been shooting 8-14 on field goals.

After the game, we partied in the stands. I saw Aubrey crying on the court, and I started crying. Mrs. Penders came over and thanked us yet again for showing up, several players (including Lewis and Coleman) came over and exchanged high fives and hugs, and freshman Kirk Van Slyke walked over with the championship trophy, and let us touch it.

The ride back was the shortest nine-hour drive of my life. I still haven’t been able to wipe the goofy smile off of my face.

I’d love to put up some pictures from the trip, and get to recaps of the weekend for softball and baseball, but I’m already late for work, so that will have to wait for later. I’ll post tonight with that, plus analysis of where the Cougars end up in the NCAA tournament.

Hope to see you on Thursday or Friday, cheering on UH! ‘Cuz you better believe I’m gonna be there.

GO COOGS!!

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ElViento: In this space, I have written the obituary of Tom Penders’ Cougar career. I have repeatedly warned readers against holding out any hope for this team.

So what’s left to do but completely ignore my own advice?

I’ve been catching games all year, cheering for the players who represent my school without really believing for a second that it was going anywhere.

But after a ho-hum victory over East Carolina in the opening round, the Cougars topped 2-seed Memphis in thrilling, last-second fashion. And the bracket set up nicely for the Coogs, too. The two most dangerous remaining teams – ranked UTEP and host Tulsa, face each other, while Houston will face Southern Miss, who upset UAB on Thursday.

And oh, it just so happens I have the next two days off of work.

So what’s a guy to do but get excited about the team he repeatedly promised himself he wouldn’t get excited about? What’s left but to wake up at the crack of dawn, cram a couple friends in the car and head up to Tulsa?

So I’ll be outta commission for the next few days, but I’ll bring y’all a running diary of the trip once it’s all said and done.

Hope to see some red shirts up in Tulsa at the BOK Center.

GO COOGS!!!

“Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things. And no good thing ever dies.”

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