Texas Southern didn't play a non-conference home game this season. They didn't play a non-conference home game last year either, or the year before. The Tigers have not played a non-conference home game since Nov. 28, 2014.
It's not that sixth-year head coach Mike Davis doesn't want to play in front of a home crowd at the 8,100-seat Health and Physical Education Arena. It's that he's so focused on winning a national championship — yes, seriously — therefore is making financially motivated decisions to make that happen.
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Texas Southern opened the season 0-13. They didn't win a single game on their non-conference schedule, one that included trips to Gonzaga, Kansas and TCU, yet remained the favorite to earn the SWAC's auto-bid into the NCAA Tournament. They entered conference play with the best strength of schedule in the country, and even after three league games — all wins — they still have the best strength of schedule.
It's an unconventional and aggressive approach that has led to three tourney appearances in four seasons, and Davis, who's creating a more difficult schedule than during any of his six years at Indiana, isn't afraid to offer full transparency on why his program does it.
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“To have a home game you’ve gotta pay the officials $4,000-$5,000,” Davis said in November 2016 during Texas Southern's trip to Arizona. “The people (working the scorers’) table are another $2,500. So in order to have a home game, we’ve gotta clear $10,000. We’re not gonna clear $10,000. And I don’t want to waste my time playing NAIA teams. If we play a lower team, nobody’s gonna come in and see that. The math is simple."
Because the team returns less than half the money they gross from non-conference guarantee games to the athletic department ($350,000 of $900,000 returned last year), they have incentive to search for big paydays.
“What’s different about us than other programs is the money gets funneled right back into the men’s basketball budget," says Timothy Waller, director of operations for basketball. "You could walk in our locker room and Kentucky or North Carolina or Kansas wouldn’t blink. We’ve really upgraded the experience for our guys. The money allows us to do that.”
Trips to Arizona, Kansas and elsewhere not only fetch a high five-figure check, they also attract recruits, bolster their strength of schedule and, as Waller, said, deliver unique life experiences to the student-athletes.
“I’m giving my team the opportunity to face those challenges to prepare them for life, and also face these challenges so it prepares us for our conference," he said in November. "We’re never going to face teams in the SWAC that are as good as these teams. The only way you can get better is through struggle. You have to embrace the struggle, understand it, and always look to the solution.”
This year, the struggle was an 0-13 start that included a 28-point loss to Gonzaga, 43-point loss to Kansas and 31-point loss to Baylor. It also, however, included an overtime loss to Washington State, near upset of Oregon and impressive first-half showings vs. Clemson, Syracuse and TCU.
Going nearly two months without a win isn't easy on any team, especially one playing 13 non-conference road games in 10 different states across four time zones. It's the result of Davis accepting the reality of leading a low-budget SWAC program and trying to get creative to deliver on- and off-the-court success to his student-athletes.