On Wednesday night, in a converted hotel ballroom in a Bahamanian resort hotel, the Texas Longhorns will meet the Texas A&M Aggies in a collegiate men's basketball contest.
This is not a big deal. This is also a very big deal.
To 98 percent of college basketball fans, Texas vs. Texas A&M at the Battle 4 Atlantis is just one more holiday-adjacent game on an already diffuse calendar. Totally watchable, but hardly must-see TV. To fans of the Longhorns and Aggies, though, Wednesday night's game is a haunting whisper of what Thanksgiving is supposed to be.
As you may be aware, in 2011-12, at the height of the modern conference realignment fiasco, Texas A&M left the Big 12 for the SEC. That move took Texas off A&M's schedule, and vice versa. This was almost unthinkable. The two teams had met on the football field every year from 1915 to 2011. Each program's identity was in some way forged from its opposition to the other. "Texas Fight" has "and it's goodbye to A&M" in the second line; the "Aggie War Hymn" spends approximately 60 percent of its lyrics making fun of "Texas Fight." The annual manifestation of this hate -- the UT-A&M Thanksgiving Day game -- had for decades been one of the sport's most reliable, and cherished, traditions.
Needless to say, the Aggies' vanishing act did not go down well. In 2011, when former UT athletic director DeLoss Dodds was asked about the continuation of the rivalry, his answers were less spoken than spit. (A sampling: "We get to decide when we play them," and "What we have right now is a full schedule.") That ill will is still shared on both sides, as much among administrators as fans, and the psychodrama -- Texas' haughty dismissiveness, A&M's look-at-us-now overcompensation -- continues unabated.
In April, Texas coach Charlie Strong and A&M coach Kevin Sumlin told ESPN.com they wanted to see the rivalry reborn. That brief moment of encouraging consensus was followed by A&M chancellor John Sharp telling the Texas Tribune that A&M alumni weren't as enthusiastic about Texas anymore, that they preferred the Aggies' "new friends," that he hoped to meet in a bowl game if "Texas gets there," before punctuating his shade-bomb with this:
"But the great thing about playing us is that you can get on real TV if you play us."
In September, as the Longhorns limped to a 1-3 start, Texas A&M regent Tony Buzbee wrote in a Facebook post that he was going to encourage the school to put Texas back on its schedule because "the Aggies need some cupcake games to rest and heal," and "Texas is just as weak if not weaker than the non-conference games we play, so we may as well play them." Dang.
By now you may be noticing that the college basketball piece you are reading just spent four paragraphs detailing a college football rivalry's gruesome breakup. That's precisely the point. As the Longhorns and Aggies prepared to meet Wednesday, the major local storylines were not about A&M's impressive freshman core or Shaka Smart's first season at UT, or about a fairly interesting early-season matchup for both teams. They covered whether or not the halcyon age of Thanksgiving Day football in Texas could one day be born anew.
For the rest of us, Wednesday is a basketball game in November. For fans, it's a microwave turkey dinner. It sounds like Thanksgiving. It's not Thanksgiving.
What else we're thinking about today:
Speaking of derelict rivalries! The Battle 4 Atlantis doesn't stop with Texas and Texas A&M trying to hug each other's ghost. It also features Gonzaga vs. Washington, which played a mildly spiteful in-state series until its discontinuation in 2006. Meanwhile, wins by both UConn (who has a fascinating test, and vice versa, against Michigan) and Syracuse (who plays Charlotte) would revive an old Big East fued on Thursday.
John Gasaway's latest Tuesday Truths (now available at ESPN Insider) ponders a valuable question: "Do the winners of holiday tournaments do better than we would otherwise expect in the ensuing NCAA tournament?"
Perhaps the best indication we've yet seen of how awesome UNLV's Derrick Jones Jr. is at dunking the basketball is Bill Walton's eminently casual call of the madness Jones unleashed on Chaminade at the end of the Rebels' win Tuesday. Here was Jones, leaping from, like, just inside the elbow, and Walton had already accepted what was about to happen next. "Throw it down," Walton said, in the declarative tone of a kung fu master casually expecting the impossible. Spoiler: Jones threw it down.
What? A shattered backboard, you say? My good sir, you must be mistaken. Modern basketball goals are scientifically engineered to be basically unbreakab-- ... Oh. Ahem. Nevermind.