Texas Southern Basketball: Impact of brutal non-conference schedule in 2017-18

The 2017-18 Texas Southern Basketball Tigers went winless an all-road nonconference schedule. But it paid off – in more ways than one.

College sports are expensive. Most sports lose money, so schools rely on the profits of one or two “revenue” sports – usually football – to make up the difference. Even then, there might still be a deficit. For schools that don’t benefit from the TV contracts and big attendance numbers of Power 5 conferences, they must follow the money – even if the money is 3,000 miles away.

Low and mid-major basketball programs stay afloat by playing at bigger schools in exchange for a healthy paycheck. Sometimes, the little guys leave with the money and a victory. For example: In 2019, Duke paid $85,000 to lose to Stephen F. Austin. Most of the time, however, these games go as expected: Get to the arena, get blown out, get paid.

It’s not uncommon for a smaller program to play an all-road nonconference schedule. They have no choice but to follow the money. That said, you don’t have to take it to the extreme as Texas Southern did in the 2017-2018 season.

The Tigers of Texas Southern, the pride of the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference), played 13 nonconference games, all on the road. This gauntlet spanned six weeks and 14,000 miles. Four of their opponents were ranked. They played just two games in Texas. They lost all 13 games.

So, let’s do a recap of their schedule:

Game 1: #18 Gonzaga (Nov. 10)

How’s this for a season opener? Gonzaga pulled down 57 rebounds in a blowout win. The Bulldogs finished the season with a 32-5 record.

Game 2: Washington State (Nov. 12)

Washington State’s basketball tradition isn’t exactly deep. How many people can even name an NBA player from WSU other than Klay Thompson? Today I learned Craig Ehlo is a WSU Cougar (1984-87). Nonetheless, Washington State is still a Power 5 school and they need quality talent to compete in the PAC-12. Texas Southern almost left Pullman with an upset, but they lost 86-84 in OT.

Game 3: Ohio State (Nov. 16)

Fun fact: did you know Ohio State has the 5th most Final Four appearances? Well, OSU didn’t make it to San Antonio this season, but the Buckeyes got to host a Texas Southern team playing their third road game in a week. The Buckeyes won convincingly, 82-64.

Game 4: Syracuse (Nov. 18)

“Dear diary, it’s been 10 days since I slept in my own bed. I can identify 25 different Hampton Inn breakfast foods – based only on smell. Today, we are in upstate New York as the weather begins to turn. We’ll be playing in a football stadium. I miss Texas.” Syracuse wins, 80-67.

Game 5: #3 Kansas (Nov. 21)

As the old saying goes, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” 114-71, Jayhawks.

Game 6: Clemson (Nov. 24)

This game is a lot harder than it looks – Clemson always starts the season strong. Every year, they come out of non-conference play looking like the ’87 Lakers. For this game, TSU was more competitive than in their trip to Lawrence, but they still fell short. 84-77, other Tigers.

Game 7: Oakland (Nov. 30)

Oakland hadn’t fallen off much since Kay Felder graduated (2016). The Golden Grizzlies were still lighting up scoreboards. TSU caught Oakland at their best: four Oakland players scored 20+ points in a 97-87 win over the Tigers.

Game 8: Toledo (Dec. 2)

The Rockets had already faced some common opponents with Texas Southern (Syracuse, Kansas, Oakland), but at least they had won a few games early on. Toledo overcame a 12-point halftime deficit to escape with a 71-69 win. Toledo went on to win their conference.

Game 9: Oregon (Dec. 11)

You can’t fault Texas Southern’s effort here, especially after a 2300-mile trip from Toledo. It was a one-possession game with less than a minute to play, but the reigning National Semifinalist held on to their lead. 74-68, Ducks.

Game 10: #21 Baylor (Dec. 14)

Finally, 10 games in and we’re FINALLY playing in our own state. 99-68, Baylor.

Game 11: Wyoming (Dec. 16)

Wyoming is a quality basketball school; they’d be competitive in just about any conference. With a halftime lead, Texas Southern was 20 minutes from their first win of the season. Wyoming owned the second half and pulled away with a 72-66 win. The Cowboys went on to win 20 games.

Game 12: #15 TCU (Dec. 18)

Can we just get to conference play already? TCU blew the game open midway through the second half. 91-72, Frogs.

Game 13: BYU (Dec. 23)

What are we even doing? Christmas is two days away, yet we’re in Utah, playing against Jimmer Fredette’s old team. Cougars win, 73-52, to cap Texas Southern’s winless non-conference schedule.

Aftermath

While it’s happening, there’s no way that losing for six straight weeks is good for your psyche, let alone just spending that much time on the road. In the long run, however, the experience from this hellish stretch prepared Texas Southern for a late-season push.

The Tigers went 12-6 in conference play and blew through the conference tournament (win margins of 14, 14, and 15). The SWAC Tournament championship gave TSU an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Entering with a 15-19 record, they wrecked North Carolina Central in the opening-round game. Two days later, the Tigers finally bowed out with a loss to Xavier.

Not only did Texas Southern’s preparation help them into the big dance; they were also ready for tough road games the following season. In November 2018, the Tigers knocked off Baylor. Then they got revenge against Oregon, going back to Eugene and beating the #18 Ducks. The Tigers finished their 2018-19 non-conference schedule with a win at Texas A&M.

For all you fans of traditional basketball powers, home games are luxuries you shouldn’t take for granted. Schools like Texas Southern go through remarkable lengths to keep their basketball teams running. Your team can roll out of bed late, stroll to the arena, and start warming up. The other team may have driven a thousand miles in a bus to get there. While they may not intimidate you in November, these are the teams that will be ready to attack in March.