Tuesday night's Phi Slama Jama 30-for-30 was something long overdue for UH fans. It celebrated one of the great basketball teams of all time, highlighted the importance of Guy V. Lewis to college basketball, and recounted the story of how Hakeem Olajuwon wound up in Houston. More important, it answered the question asked by just about every Cougars fan: What happened to Benny Anders?
Viewers in the Houston area might have also noticed something else, however. During several of the commercial breaks, there were ads encouraging Houston Cougars fans to buy season tickets for UH basketball. This was a good move by UH since marketing for the team has been scant for many years. So what better time to draw attention to the team than during a high-profile documentary on the greatest basketball team in school history?
It's no secret that basketball attendance at UH has been pathetic for many years. But there has been a marked decline since the departure of head coach Tom Penders in 2010. This can be traced back to many issues, including bad basketball teams, an arena being left to rot and the above-mentioned lack of marketing.
But if there's any one issue that has destroyed basketball attendance, it's an out-of-conference schedule that has gotten softer and softer as years have gone on. While Penders scheduled lots of cupcakes, he did find a way to get schools like Arizona and Kentucky to make the occasional visit to Hofheinz. He also brought in Texas schools like Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, which while not big-name programs, were decent teams that could offer up legitimate opposition, something that not only helped to keep fans interested but also helped with the Cougars' strength of schedule.
Then there's this season's out-of-conference home schedule of nine games consisting of mostly schools you never knew existed (UT Rio Grande Valley, UNC Pembroke, Liberty), schools best known for things other than sports (Cornell, Harvard) and then schools like Rhode Island, Morgan State, Angelo State and Prairie View. There are no NCAA Tourney teams here. There are no great players fans will want to see. There are just a bunch of teams with warm bodies that should be easily defeated by the Kelvin Sampson-coached Cougars.
There's an awful lot to like about what Sampson has done to the Cougars. There's a sense of accountability coming from him that demands the players give a full effort in practice, during the game and in class. Playing time is earned and not just given out on the basis of talent. There was a cohesiveness to last season's team that hadn't been seen in years. The offense featured ball movement and speed, and there was intensity on defense. The team was far from perfect — see the first round exits in the AAC tournament and from the NIT.
Sampson seems to get UH, and the fan base and playing in Houston, where college takes a backseat to the pros. And Sampson has also seemed to embrace the challenges of UH. He's easy for fans to like, and his players seemed as devoted to him last season as he was to them.
Sampson was right to call out the university last year for its lack of marketing support for his team. But at some point, the marketing department needs something to market. And that something is not games against UT Rio Grande Valley and UNC Pembroke. That something involves games against teams that the casual fan wants to pay to see.
The schedule could also hurt Houston when it comes to NCAA Tournament time. The Cougars' out-of-conference strength of schedule last season was the 308th-toughest in the country. And the strength of schedule of the team’s games against Division I schools was ranked at 137. That left UH in a bad spot after the Cougars were knocked out in their first game in the conference tournament because teams with such pathetic strengths of schedule that aren't at the top of their conference are not teams that advance to the NCAA Tournament, which UH didn’t. This year’s schedule is not really any better, so the Cougars could once again be on the outside looking into the tournament if UH can’t win the AAC.
Maybe things will improve once the Fertitta Center is a reality. Maybe then UH will begin scheduling big-name college basketball powers, and maybe then UH will start playing more in-state teams like Stephen F. Austin, or maybe schools like UT and Texas A&M. And when that happens, then maybe the fans will begin flooding the arena to see a much-improved UH team return to the national limelight. But until then, it's okay not to come out because, really, it's just not that much fun watching the Cougars play Morgan State and Prairie View.
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