There's a question we few reporters who cover college basketball in Houston ask ourselves: Does anybody out there really care?
The arenas are generally three-quarters empty. The teams are generally mediocre and compete against equally mediocre opponents. There is no buzz. There is no excitement.
Toyota Center will play host to an NCAA Regional in 2020. And as when NRG Stadium holds a regional or the Final Four, there will be excitement and energy in Houston and college basketball will be a prime topic. But what about the time between now and March 2020? Will anybody care about college basketball in Houston until the NCAA regionals return?
It's easy to blame Houstonians and to call them fickle fans with narrow attention spans who seem to care only about the Texans and whichever other pro team in Houston seems to be winning games. And maybe there is some truth to that — the Phi Slama Jama-era Cougars could not consistently sell out Hofheinz Pavilion.
This is Houston. There are many things to do in this city. There are professional sports, there are the arts. Large parts of the population are not from Houston. So it's not enough to just put up a few billboards and play some games. The schools should be doing things that demand attention and force fans to pay more attention to a mid-December non-conference game.
There is one good idea that's been thrown around by some of the media types: a Thanksgiving weekend tournament featuring UH, Rice, Texas Southern and Houston Baptist. The thinking is that throwing these teams together over a weekend would be a good way to stoke some rivalries and possibly generate some excitement between the fanbases that would better entice them to attend a game than another matchup against some Division III school — and it would give TSU fans a chance to see the team play some games in Houston before January.
These games could rotate home arenas, or, better yet, find a way to get Toyota Center involved and make it an event that might be capable of generating bigger interest beyond just some college fanbases — and since Les Alexander ran off the Aeros, there seem to be lots more open nights on the arena schedule.
But frankly, this might not be enough. It's hard for fans to care about basketball teams that are consistently mediocre and that seem to never schedule quality opponents or big-name schools. Yet this is consistently what UH and Rice fans are subjected to (TSU wins games, makes the NCAA tourney and schedules difficult non-conference opponents, but it plays all of those difficult games on the road because it gets paid lots of money to play those games).
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The Cougars tout the out-of-conference opponents they have played in recent years, like Arkansas and LSU — but only LSU has played a game in Houston, and neither LSU nor Arkansas has been a nationally relevant team in a while. And UH hasn't played a slate of attention-grabbing, quality non-conference opponents since the 2007-08 season when Tom Penders pitted his squad against the likes of Arizona, Kentucky, UNLV, Creighton and VCU.
Last season the Cougars hosted schools like Morgan State, Cornell, Prairie View, Rhode Island and Harvard. What in this lineup of games is there that excites fans and gets them to want to come to games? Sure, UH played Cincinnati, SMU and UConn during conference play, but by the time these games roll around, most average fans have tuned out and are watching the big-boy teams play on ESPN.
Rice's problems are worse. This program is in constant turmoil, with coaches and players fleeing just as the team is about to get good. Then the team is very bad for a few years, then it starts to improve, then everyone leaves and it starts all over again. That makes it nearly impossible to build a fan base and to sustain interest. And that is made worse by slates of games featuring the likes of St. Edward's, St. Thomas, Delaware State, Incarnate Word and so on. Rice has played UT on the road several times, but there has been nothing to persuade folks to come out to Tudor Fieldhouse.
So maybe there is nothing that can be done. Maybe the interest of college basketball fans in Houston will always only spike come NCAA tournament time or on those few occasions when Toyota Center hosts some major college programs for December non-conference games. A Thanksgiving weekend tournament featuring all local teams is a good place to start, but until big-name schools start coming to Houston to play games on a consistent basis, the arenas at UH and Rice will always be three-quarters empty.