Only 18 months ago the Texas basketball program was imploding.
The Longhorns had just endured a tumultuous 14-17 season, coach
Tom Penders had bailed out, and three starters had transferred.
At that point sophomore 7-footer Chris Mihm had a talk with his
father, Gary, who told Chris it might be best for him to leave
as well. Chris, who grew up in Austin just 10 miles from the
Texas campus and was a devoted Longhorns fan, thought back to
why he had chosen Texas in the first place: He had imagined
developing into a top-notch center--the Longhorns' first since
LaSalle Thompson in the early 1980s--and transforming Texas into
a national power. That challenge was still unmet, so Mihm
decided to stay. "Chris made a very courageous decision to brave
the storm," All-Big 12 forward Gabe Muoneke says. "If he'd gone,
there's no telling how far this program might have fallen."
If Mihm had left, Muoneke says he would have followed, and Rick
Barnes might never have accepted the Longhorns coaching job.
Mihm's loyalty was rewarded last Saturday night when he had 19
points and 11 rebounds as No. 20 Texas upset No. 3 Michigan
State 81-74 to win the Puerto Rico Shootout. "This is a huge
statement for our program and a huge statement for Chris Mihm,"
Barnes said after the game. "They've both had their share of
Despite a sophomore season in which Mihm ranked fourth in the
nation in rebounding and turned down a likely chance to be the
first true center chosen in the '99 NBA draft, his critics still
hinted that he played too soft. The whispers started after an
early-season home loss to South Florida in which Mihm had no
rebounds in 26 minutes, and they got louder after another
homecourt defeat, against Georgia eight days later, when he was
carried off the court with leg cramps, an incident he calls "the
most embarrassing moment of my career." When he got the fewest
minutes of any player on the gold-medal-winning U.S. team at the
World University Games in Spain last July, he took his scant
playing time as confirmation of his less-than-stellar reputation.
Mihm decided the best way to combat his critics was to get
stronger. He spent much of the summer in the weight room, adding
17 pounds, to 263; reducing his body fat from 15% to 9%; and
boosting his jump almost five inches. "I'm ready to be a
dominant force this season," he says. "I've told my coach I want
to be the national player of the year."
During the preseason Barnes showed Mihm a newspaper article
handicapping the top MVP candidates in the NBA. The story
highlighted the consistency of Karl Malone, the intensity of
Alonzo Mourning and the versatility of Tim Duncan, the kind of
elite company that Barnes is pushing Mihm to join someday. "Every
coach in the country dreams of having one player like Chris in
his career," Barnes says. "I believe he's just scratching the
surface of his talent. I know this may sound premature, but I'll
go on record saying I think he can be one of the greatest ever to
play this game."
To thwart rampant double-teaming in the post, Barnes has been
shifting Mihm away from the basket more this year. That has
allowed Mihm to take advantage of the agility he developed as a
competitive swimmer and top age-group tennis player when he was
growing up. "Competing in other sports has done wonders for
Chris's coordination in basketball," says Gary, who played
tennis for Marquette in the early 1970s. "Tennis also helped
teach him how not to crater when the going gets tough."
After going for 42 points and 23 rebounds in wins over Arizona
State and 18th-ranked DePaul in Puerto Rico, Mihm rallied the
Longhorns from a 15-point deficit in the final by displaying all
of his wares. He blocked five shots and scored inside and
out--including on a pair of three-pointers--against the staunch
Spartans to win the tournament MVP award, nudge Texas up to No.
9 in the AP poll and dazzle the 22 NBA scouts in attendance.
"Trying to find a true college center like Mihm is like trying
to find a tyrannosaurus rex," said one scout. "He throws the
best outlet pass since Wes Unseld, and he can dribble between
his legs and hit the three. He's a great mix of old school
fundamentals and '90s flair."
The scouts generally slot Mihm among the first five picks in the
2000 draft, which means that at the end of his junior season he
will have to decide for the fourth time in the last four years
if he wishes to remain in Austin. Mihm laughs at the notion that
he is a would-be prodigal son who never actually leaves home,
and he insists he's only concentrating on strengthening a
program whose talent pool has dwindled so much in this decade
that Texas doesn't boast a single alum in the NBA.
As the final buzzer sounded last Saturday evening, Mihm sought
out Muoneke for a celebratory hug and whispered in his ear, "We
did it--finally." After the most significant win of his college
career, Mihm proudly raised his right hand, with his index
finger and pinkie extended in the Longhorn salute, and told
reporters that he hoped this tournament triumph would serve as a
precursor to Texas's return to the Final Four after a 53-year
absence. "This championship is like a reward for all the
negatives our program has endured lately," Mihm said. "It's the
kind of stepping-stone victory I've dreamed about for a long
time that puts Texas basketball back on the national map."