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 doubters."
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 canned 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."