Texas Hall the quirkiest gym
UT-Arlington athleticsTexas Hall, aka The Stage, is a "unique" building, according to the Southland coaches.
Texas Hall, in the Dallas suburb of Arlington, became the area's premier theater when it was built in 1965. The proud old barn has seen had its share of command performances: Louis Armstrong, Willie Nelson, Jerry Seinfeld and Desmond Tutu have all walked its floorboards during the hall's four-plus decades of existence.
Multipurpose construction was all the rage in the '60s, and Texas Hall was no exception. In a state where everything tends to be bigger, the theater's stage was built as the largest as west of the Mississippi River -- enormous enough to fit a regulation basketball court. Arlington State College (later renamed the University of Texas at Arlington) had a new place to play.
"It's a unique place, that's for sure," said second-year head coach Scott Cross, who also served as a UTA player and assistant. "It does get loud and rowdy in there. It's a great atmosphere. It's definitely a great home-court advantage for us."
"The Stage," as it's become known around the Southland Conference, provides what is easily the most bizarre college basketball viewing experience in America. Fans enter the building through an old-fashioned lobby. Seating choices include the floor section, a bird's-eye balcony, or a short set of bleachers behind the court on the stage itself. A large blue scoreboard hangs from the proscenium arch, not unlike a supertitle screen at an opera. The two baskets might as well be nicknamed "stage left" and "stage right."
"All four sides of the court are pretty unique," explained Sam Houston State head coach Bob Marlin. "You've got drapes and ropes and weights on one baseline, the other baseline has a short wall. Then there's that orchestra pit. I used to tell people, until they covered it up, you chase a loose ball and you'll end up with the trombones."
As with any elevated stage, though, there are still certain hazards.
"Yeah, the drop off really affects some teams," Cross said. "About once or twice a year, somebody will dive for a ball and fall off the stage. That always gets the fans really fired up."
High-flying hijnks aside, most of the Mavericks' history at Texas Hall has been a series of mediocre productions. The school has never appeared in the NCAA Tournament, averaging just 13.5 wins over the past decade. Last season's version went 13-17, including an 8-8 record in the conference.
But after a wretched 5-13 start in Cross' first campaign as head coach, the run-and-gun Mavericks won eight of their final 11 regular-season games and finished with an 8-3 mark at The Stage. The turnaround was keyed by a balanced scoring attack and increased defensive intensity. After being ranked among the nation's most porous defenses, UTA held six opponents to 65 points or less down the stretch. It all started with a convincing 78-65 home victory on Jan. 25, over Sam Houston, the eventual No. 2 seed in the conference tourney.
"Something definitely clicked during that Sam game," Cross recalled. "I could feel it. We were a different team after that. We finally figured out what it takes to be successful."
The new and improved Texas-Arlington team lost its tourney quarterfinal in a 77-76 squeaker against McNeese State, but the young Mavericks return complete and intact for the 2007-08 season. Three double-figure scorers come back from a squad that finished second in the Southland in field-goal percentage (46.3 percent), behind only league champion Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
With the recent release of the coaches' and sports information directors' polls, however, the rest of the league has made it clear that UTA hasn't earned any respect yet.
"We were sixth in overall votes," Cross lamented. "So we got T-shirts in the other day that say 'Picked Sixth' on the back. We're using that as a little motivation. We finished third in our division last year with no seniors, and we have three this year. So if we don't do a lot better than the polls say we'll do, I'll be really, really upset."
Despite the Mavericks' lack of historical March experience, they'll have plenty of practice playing under hot lights if they outperform expectations and break through to the Big Dance. The long-suffering fan base might not know whether to throw roses or scream for an encore if UTA emerges as Southland champs, but that would be a pleasant problem for the team from college basketball's craziest, quirkiest gym.
"I don't know a lot about other places because this is where I've been for 12 years," Cross said. "It's very unique and different. I guess that's a nice way to put it."
See you in Katy
Last season's conference tourney was the Southland's first central-site event since 2001. The conference played its previous five brackets at the homes of higher-seeded teams. For a bus league whose footprint stretches from New Orleans to San Antonio, it's a shift away from a system that makes lower seeds travel long distances for playoff games.
"It does reward you to play at home," said Bob Marlin, now entering his 10th season as Sam Houston State head coach. "On the other hand, it's more of a tournament atmosphere when you have everyone in one place. But the best team is going to win, regardless of where you play."
Last season, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was the best team in both the regular season and the playoffs. The Islanders cut down the nets at the Campbell Center in suburban Houston, a 5,000-seat hall operated by a local school district.
For March 2008, the tournament is on the move. The eight top teams from the regular season will converge on the Merrell Center in Katy, a half-hour's drive west of downtown Houston.
Storming the Southland
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi took the Southland by storm in its first year in the league. In only their eighth season of playing basketball, after seven years of independent servitude, the Islanders won 14 of their 16 conference games, and their only road defeat was by (at Lamar) by a single point. After wrapping up an NCAA bid with a three-game tourney sweep, No. 15 seeded Corpus roared to a 25-7 lead against No. 2 Wisconsin in the first round, as a stunned Hoops Nation looked on.
The Badgers clamped down defensively and ended up solving the Islanders in a 76-63 win, but, even in defeat, Corpus Christi put itself on the basketball map. The public at large got a nice glimpse of a squad that had finished second nationally in floor shooting (52.2 percent) and ranked among the nation's best when it came to converting possessions into points.
Ronnie Arrow, who had guided the program since its inception, parlayed the Islanders' success into a second shot at coaching South Alabama, a school he led to the NCAAs a decade ago. The new Corpus commander is Perry Clark, who returns to coaching three years after a stint as head Hurricane at Miami (Fla.). Clark won 250 games in 18 seasons as a head coach at Miami and Tulane.
Defending champion Northwestern State went 10-6 in the Southland after a bitter and rough nonconference start. But the Demons, who ended up with a 17-15 overall record, narrowly missed a repeat NCAA trip when they lost by three to Corpus Christi in the title game.
But according to wire stories in late March, the school might have lost a lot more than that. The Associated Press reported that longtime head coach Mike McConathy, who engineered the 14-seed-over-3-seed NCAA first round shocker against Iowa the previous season, had submitted an application for the Hawkeye head job just days after Steve Alford left for New Mexico.
Was this a case of "if you can beat 'em, join 'em?"
"A guy who's a friend of mine actually did that," McConathy said of the job application. "He was trying to help me, he said. It was the only job that I had any name recognition with, if you know what I'm saying. It was all kind of comical, but I don't think Steve Alford thought it was very funny."
* NCAA Tournament
Many newbie Division I programs spend years in the independent wilderness before finding a conference home, but UCA was able to enjoy its first season at the top flight with all the assurances that Southland membership offers. The comfort level served the Bears well. There was a 50-48 nonconference upset of Bucknell at the Marist Classic, a season sweep of Nicholls State and a six-point home win over defending champs Northwestern State to end the season. With a pair of 12 ppg scorers returning in senior Durrell Nevels and sophomore Marcus Pillow, Central Arkansas' next goal is to break out of the East Division's basement.
Cardinals fans were red in the face last season, what with all the frustration their team caused. The Cardinals were one of the most athletic squads in the league, leading the Southland in rebounds and assists. But the Cards also featured a leaden shooting touch -- ranking as one of the nation's worst free-throw shooting teams -- and were plagued by off-court distractions. Now comes word that 7-1 center James Davis, the team's leader in scoring (15.3), rebounding (7.9) and suspensions (2) last season, ended his collegiate career one year early to play overseas.
Dave Simmons was brought to Lake Charles in mid-August after the late firing of Tic Price, then performed one of the more outstanding coaching feats in the conference. Using Price's players, he piloted the Cowboys to a 9-7 league record and a tourney No. 4 seed on the strength of a conference-leading rebounding and field-goal defense. Leading scorer and rebounder Jarvis Bradley (15.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg) returns as a senior, and Simmons brings in his first true recruiting class: four young forwards and local point guard Stephan Martin.
The Colonels started 2006-07 with 10 eligible players, spent most of the season with eight, and from Feb. 8 on only dressed seven. Somehow, J.P. Piper's squad went 4-3 in that latter period, culminating in a one-point loss to McNeese that would have clinched the eighth and final tourney seed. Now, NSU will have to do without the league's leading scorer in '06-07 Stefan Blaszczynski (19.2 ppg), but the Australian pipeline that brought him to Thibodeaux also produced two of last year's missing redshirted players, 6-7 Dominic Friend and 6-2 Michael Czepil.
The five-in, five-out substitution-crazy Demons have to replace leading scorer Luke Rogers (13.5) and three key seniors, all of whom were on the court for school's historic NCAA Tournament upset of Iowa in 2006. Long and lean 6-9 Trey Gilder, last season's most athletic player, returns for a final year after scoring 12.2 ppg in 17 minutes a game as a junior (that's 27.6 per 40 minutes). But NSU's head coach is still looking for the right chemistry to fill out a couple of five-man units after a Labor Day weekend trip to the Bahamas. "I've got to find the right combinations," McConathy said. "I'm nowhere close right now."
Sam Houston State
Last season's Bearkats had the opportunity to wrap up the regular season SLC title on their home court. But they were declawed by Corpus in a 85-68 loss, and after losing to No. 7-seeded Lamar in the conference tourney by a single point, SHSU was excluded from the national postseason altogether. Three of the top four scorers from that squad have moved on, but leading scorer Ryan Bright is back for a senior season. The 6-6 redhead has grown into one of the Southland's best all-around scoring threats, going from 8 ppg as a freshman to 14.8 ppg last season. He'll be expected to hoist the team on his shoulders in 2007-08.
Only one of the Lions' four senior starters last season was present on the 2005 conference championship squad, and the lack of cohesion and experience on a transfer-heavy Southeastern squad showed down the stretch. Despite some league-leading individual statistics, the team dropped five of its last six and finished with an 8-8 league record. Senior swingman and former Nevada prospect Kevyn Green, the fifth-leading scorer from last season's team at 8.5 ppg, will be the player to watch this season.
Stephen F. Austin
In mid-January, the Lumberjacks lineup was one of the most effective 3-point shooting units in Division I. The team ranked in the top 25 in long-distance percentage while enjoying a perfect 4-0 conference record. But a videotape of a 55-52 Jan. 18 loss to Sam Houston started circulating, it showed the Bearkats pressing SFA hard and camping out on the perimeter defensively. After that, the Jacks went 4-8 to finish at .500 in the league. Danny Kaspar responded by engineering a massive roster overhaul; the 2007-08 team will feature a total of 10 new players.
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi
Seven-footer Chris Daniels, the reigning league POY and tourney MVP, was a senior in 2006-07. But not so fast. The bad news for the other 11 Southland schools is that Daniels has one year of eligibility left (he was a nonqualifier four seasons ago). He did test the NBA waters this spring, but didn't hire an agent and will return to the Island. He'll help defend Corpus' conference championship and attempt to improve on his 15.3 ppg and 6.7 rpg totals from last season.
If the Mavericks break through and contend for the Southland title, you're likely to hear a lot of talk about Jermaine Griffin. The 6-9, 240-pound senior led the Mavs in scoring (13.3) and rebounding (6.9 ppg) last season. He tallied five double-doubles along the way. It wasn't just against conference competition, either. Griffin hung close with eventual No. 2 overall pick Kevin Durant in UTA's visit to Texas on Jan. 2, putting up a 16-and-12 double-double against Durant's 21-and-15 performance.
After losing three players last summer to new coach Brooks Thompson's boot, as well as promising 6-7 juco transfer Travis Gabbidon to a foot injury, the once-proud UTSA program bottomed out with a 7-22 season lowlighted by a pair of seven-game losing streaks. The Roadrunners were left by the side of the road in the run-and-gun Southland and averaged only 57 points per contest. With redshirt junior Gabbidon returning, along with five scholarship seniors and an incoming class featuring 6-10 California prep product Matt DeWaal, don't expect the Roadrunners to continue to struggle to score.
In a state as large as Texas, it's odd to measure anything in small steps. But in Doug Davalos' first year as Bobcat bench boss, Texas State won nine games to triple its win total over the 3-24 embarrassment of a season before. Only a single senior is gone, and a potential star is emerging in Brandon Bush, a versatile 6-6 junior who led the team last season with 14.4 ppg. But the Bobcats, one of the most ridiculously up-tempo teams in the country, allowed 85.4 ppg. If they can find the energy to play a little defense, they're sure to evolve into something more than a burr in the Southland's collective saddle.
Last March, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi threw a scare into Wisconsin in the NCAA first round. Can the Southland break through this season?
Early 2007-08 Bracketology
-- Joe Lunardi
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Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.