It's just a little after 6 p.m. on a Thursday night inside Hofheinz Pavilion. The building's perhaps seven-eighths empty, but that doesn't prevent UH (9-13) and Tulsa (17-5) from tipping off and playing a game of basketball in front of almost no one. Hell, ESPN, which was broadcasting the game, didn't even bother to send any announcers, instead choosing to have them broadcast the game, won 57-44 by Tulsa, from some studio in another state
The Houston Cougars' matchup with Tulsa harks back to those darkest days of Conference USA that UH is trying desperately to forget. But Tulsa's now an American Athletic Conference foe, and the Cougars under new head coach Kelvin Sampson have recently begun showing improvement, pointing to a promise of what the future can be for Houston Cougars basketball. But can there really be a future if there's no one there in person to witness it?
It's not like the Cougars want to play midweek games at 6. It doesn't want the fans battling the height of the Gulf Freeway rush hour just to compete for parking with the day students leaving the campus and the night students showing up for classes. This is done at the command of ESPN, which has a broadcasting window to fill on one of its 8,000 channels at 6 p.m., and it wants that window filled by American Athletic Conference basketball.
But it doesn't matter that there are no fans in the stands because this is just a way for ESPN to fill a broadcast window until the better programming comes along later that night -- better programming that ESPN will bother to send an announcing crew to report from live instead of over a TV monitor. As long as there's something for the people on the East Coast to watch, ESPN couldn't care less about fans trying to get to a game.
Tulsa burst out to a quick 9-3 lead to start yesterday's game, and it looked as if the Cougars were going to be blown out. But UH calmed down, got into its offense, started working on defense and quickly took the lead from Tulsa. UH was up 34-29 and playing its best basketball of the season, but the second half was about as most a complete disaster as the Cougars have played in years. The Cougars scored only 10 second half points while making just three of 24 shots as Tulsa pulled away for the win. It wasn't all a negative for UH. Sampson is intent on building a foundation for the future and changing the culture around UH basketball. And while most of the stands were empty, the student sections were full.
"You can tell our students are behind us," Sampson said after the game. "You can tell it. When I walk around campus with the feedback that I get, I know the kids that we have coming back. I know the kids we have coming in. I know the kids we're recruiting. This is going to be fun, man. I don't go overboard on days like Sunday when we beat Connecticut, and I certainly don't get too low on nights when we can't make a basket and lose to Tulsa. You can see the foundation being built, and these students see it."
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This was the third straight game that there has been a strong student turnout. Student turnout has been nearly nonexistent in years past, and the almost sudden growth of student spirit and attendance for the program is a much-needed boost for a program that's been stagnant and suffering the past half-decade.
The students bring much-needed life to the proceedings. They're loud and into the game, and suddenly Hofheinz is no longer a lifeless hulk of a building. Three-fourths of the arena is still empty, but seeing the student turnout gives some hope that if the program continues to improve and starts winning more and more games, maybe, just maybe UH basketball can again thrive. Who knows, maybe ESPN might find that an excuse to actually start sending its announcers to Hofheinz to call the games in person.
"The positive is our student section being full," Sampson said. "There's a lot of empty seats in there, sure there are. But you can tell what kind of home court advantage we'll have when we get this thing rocking-and-rolling."
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. Let's take first things first. Maybe in its corporate heart somewhere, ESPN will let the Houston Cougars start their home games at 7 pm. Then maybe the non-student fans won't have to battle rush-hour traffic to see the Cougars play a conference game against a nondescript conference opponent.