Texas Southern, Mississippi Valley State played ‘money’ games to fund budgets, expose players to the big time
SWAC teams are battle-tested and make hundreds of thousands of dollars for schools
You would understand if Mike Davis and his Texas Southern University basketball team click their heels on Saturday before taking the court against Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) foe Alabama State University and recite a phrase made famous by The Wizard of Oz.
“There’s no place like home!”
“There’s no place like home!”
“There’s no place like home!”
Davis and the Tigers (10-10, 6-1 SWAC) played on their home court in Houston for the first time this season on Jan. 14, after opening with 16-straight road games.
Saturday’s game, which starts a three-game home stand, will be just the Tigers’ third home game all season. Davis started his team’s season with a road-warrior persona to get ready for hostile conference competition, particularly on the road.
The strategy was working to perfection until Monday night, when Texas Southern was upset in a 103-89 overtime decision on the road at Mississippi Valley State (3-17, 3-4 SWAC) in a game broadcast on ESPNU.
The Delta Devils, the other SWAC team hardened by constant road competition to start the season, played their season’s first home game on Jan. 7, after 14-straight games away from Itta Bena, Mississippi.
Monday night’s win was just the fourth home game of the season for Mississippi Valley State, which has won two and lost two of those contests.
The road contests — several of which were so-called “guarantee games” — also brought valuable revenues to Texas Southern and Mississippi Valley State.
This allows Davis, 56, a former head coach at Indiana University and the University of Alabama-Birmingham, to treat his players to a high Division I lifestyle on the road while playing at big-name programs such as the University of Arizona, the University of Louisville, the University of Cincinnati and Louisiana State University.
“We use the money to support our program and to help the guys have lifetime experiences,” Davis said. “We stay in good hotels and eat in hotels, where some schools just grab pizzas.
“We eat a big pregame meal, then after the game, we have a big meal waiting for us. And it gives our kids a chance to play in other arenas, something they will remember for the rest of their lives.”
Mississippi Valley State coach Andre Payne affords his players the similar luxuries on the road.
“We eat much better on the road than we do in the cafeteria on campus,” Payne said. “The hotels we stay in are all first-class hotels. We typically fly wherever we go, then take the bus when we get there.”
Davis said he is allowed to spend about $500,000 of the guaranteed money (about $850,000) on the basketball program. The other $350,000 helps fund Texas Southern’s other athletic programs.
Payne gets to keep about one-third of a similar amount, with about two-thirds funding other Delta Devils athletic programs.
A tale of two campuses
Unlike some historically black college programs, Texas Southern, which has gone to the NCAA tournament two out of the past three seasons under Davis, has often proved to be a worthy foe to its competition.
The team this season earned wins over Rice, LaSalle and James Madison universities in November, was competitive for a half with Louisville of the ACC and lost by just eight points to LSU of the SEC.
But the Texas Southern program’s signature win came in December 2014, when the Tigers shocked Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan. That same Spartans team eventually lost to Duke University in the 2015 NCAA Final Four.
“We might be the first HBCU team in history to ever beat a team that eventually played in the Final Four,” said Davis, a former Alabama Mr. Basketball, who played at the University of Alabama.
“We had LSU up to the last couple of possessions,” David said of the 88-80 loss on Dec. 17. “We led nearly all of the first half. We are definitely getting better as a program.”
Davis said his goal is to bring Texas Southern to a level of respectability of a high mid-major program.
“When people talk about a program like Gonzaga, we want them to talk about Texas Southern in the same way,” Davis said.
Notable among its six NCAA tournament appearances, the Tigers lost by 12 to Duke in 1994 and by one to the University of Arkansas in 1995. In its most recent appearance in the Big Dance, Texas Southern lost 93-72 to Arizona in 2015. Last season, the Tigers lost 84-73 in the first round of the NIT to Valparaiso University.
The feisty nature of the team has not gone unnoticed, particularly to players transferring from Division I programs seeking more playing time, but not necessary wanting to shun the big-time basketball spotlight.
For instance, even with the loss of 6-foot-7 two-sport star forward Derrick Griffin – who has opted to prepare for the NFL draft – the Tigers field a team that can match the height (five players at 6-foot-6, including two 7-footers) and skill level found in many Division I programs.
The Tigers’ leading scorer is University of Minnesota transfer Zach Lofton, who averages 17.4 points per game. (Lofton was hampered by foul trouble in Monday night’s loss to Mississippi Valley State and eventually fouled out in regulation.)
The University of the Pacific transfer Dulani Robinson averages 11.3 points and 4.4 assists per game. Nearly half of the Texas Southern roster is Division I transfers, with another half-dozen transfers from junior colleges.
“I haven’t been recruiting much because we get so many phone calls,” Davis said. “Guys have heard about us; we pick from that block.”
Texas Southern and Davis have won the SWAC regular-season title for the past four seasons. They also won the SWAC tournament in 2014 and 2015, earning NCAA tournament bids.
Silver lining in every cloud
The Delta Devils don’t have the tradition or recent success of Texas Southern. Mississippi Valley State has made five NCAA tournament appearances, the first time in 1986 when it lost a memorable 85-78 matchup with No. 1 seed Duke.
In their most recent appearance in 2012, the Delta Devils lost 59-58 in a First Four game to Western Kentucky University.
Payne, 41, who has won six and eight games in his first two seasons in Itta Bena, previously spent eight years as head coach and associate athletic director at Wiley College, a National Association of Intercollegiate Association school in Marshall, Texas. At Wiley, Payne won two Red River Athletic Conference tournament titles. A native of Auburn, Alabama, Payne is a SWAC alum, having played college basketball at Alabama A&M University.
With his university renovating its arena at a school with an athletic budget of $4 million, Payne said his background in administration helped him to understand the mission of a program asked to open the season with 13 to 14 games on the road in each of his three seasons.
“These games financially assist and help offset some of the cost of athletics,” Payne said. “They help provide some things that we could not get out of the budget otherwise.”
The Delta Devils guarantee games will bring in about $850,000 this year, said Payne, who has never played a nonconference game at home. He estimated that $300,000 to $400,000 of that is spent on men’s basketball, with the rest distributed among other athletic programs.
The heavyweights on the schedule included losses at Northwestern University (94-63), the University of West Virginia (107-66), Michigan State University (100-53), Indiana University (85-52), Gonzaga University (97-63) and Iowa State University (88-60).
“We probably had the toughest nonconference schedule of any team that plays Division I basketball,” Payne said.
Payne said the Delta Devils just don’t have the size and talent to be truly competitive in many of the guaranteed games. The Delta Devils roster lists only two players taller than 6-foot-6, both freshmen.
“We say, ‘Hey, guys, it’s a guarantee game. We’re looking to go in here and put up our best fight, hope to steal a win or two and get out of there better prepared for conference,’ ” Payne said.
The coach said that playing early in the season can be “very tough from a physical and mental aspect.”
“Physically, you are in and out of planes, buses and hotels and traveling to different time zones and weather,” he said. “Plus, you’re going out every night with your backs up against the wall. Honestly, you’re probably 15 or 20 points down when you walk through the door.”
Payne said that he and his coaching staff are “straightforward” with their players.
“When you go into the locker room after the game, you always pull out the bright spots … the things that you accomplished in the game,” he said. “We just always try to put a good spin on it.
“I’ve learned how to manage it and how to help my ball players manage it.”
Plus, the players get to visit places such as Spokane and Seattle, Washington; Phoenix; and even historic Kent State University, where members of the Ohio National Guard shot unarmed students on May 4, 1970.
“It allows the guys to experience some things that the majority of them would never experience in their teenage or young manhood lives,” Payne said. “You give the guys the opportunity to go some places and see some places and even to eat some places they might not have had the opportunity to go.”
Or as Dorothy might say, “Toto, we’re not in Itta Bena anymore!”
Payne said that Mississippi Valley State athletic director Dianthia Ford-Kee has told the basketball program to “live well and eat good” while on the road.
“My philosophy is this is something we’ve got to do, so why cry over something that you can’t control,” Payne said. “I have a choice: I can play these games and keep my job and do what I got to do to help the budget. Or I can whine and cry and they’ll find somebody else to do it.”
But Payne cited two other benefits. One is that his players have been recruited for graduate programs at campuses such as Kent State.
Another benefit occurs when he is making his pitch to prospective players.
“When, I go out and recruit, I say, ‘Hey, man, Indiana didn’t recruit you, but you going to get a chance to play against Indiana.’
“Or, ‘A top 25 school didn’t recruit you, but you’re going to have an opportunity to play against five or six of them. Those NBA scouts are going to be there.’ ”
Then there are the occasional celebrity interactions.
“After we played Michigan State, [Hall of Famer] Magic Johnson came down and talked to my assistant coaches. He talked about how hard our guys played.
“He said, ‘Man, if you guys had some size and depth … ’ ”
Still, fortunes are looking up for Payne and Mississippi Valley State. With the opening of a $20 million renovated facility, the Delta Devils will get at least four nonconference home games next season.
Answers to critics
The extended road trips have not gone unnoticed by some critics, who wonder whether the teams are spending too much time away from the classrooms — or too much time away from their campus arenas.
However, classroom absences are minimized because most of the road games are played in December, when school is not in session.
Davis said his team missed only five days of classes during the road trip and would miss eight more during the SWAC season, when games are played on Saturdays and Mondays.
“That’s just 13 days of class for the year,” Davis said. “That’s nothing. Baseball and softball teams might miss 30 days of class in a year.”
Payne said at Mississippi Valley State his players missed 12 days of classes during the team’s 14-game odyssey.
Both coaches said the classroom issue is alleviated because many of their student-athletes — like the general student population — have opted to take online classes.
Davis said 12 of 14 seniors under his watch have graduated. The other two are just a few credits short.
Payne said his team carries a 2.8 grade-point average and that he now has only players set to graduate under his watch.
SWAC commissioner Duer Sharp, in an email to The Undefeated, said the guarantee games “certainly has benefits.”
“It prepares our teams not only for the grind of the conference schedule but also for the environments and types of opponents they’ll face during the tournaments,” Sharp said.
“Having the chance to play at these larger venues is also a part of ensuring that our student-athletes have a chance for the same sort of overall experience as those would at a larger school.”
Sharp also said that guaranteed games provide more opportunity in college basketball than in college football because “given that 32 teams are assured tournament bids by winning their respective conferences, having those kinds of games may be better off for basketball.”
“With football — particularly the Division I FBS teams — strength of schedule comes into play when it comes to the playoff positioning. There’s just more opportunity [with basketball]. At best, you have two, maybe three football games of that nature. In basketball, you have 10 to 15 such games … eventually, that adds up for the schools.”
Dennis Thomas, commissioner of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, said he does “not want to pass judgment on an institution or any coaching philosophy,” regarding extended road trips, “because I don’t know their specific situation, in terms of playing guarantee games or away games.
“I don’t want to commend or condemn,” Thomas said. “Each institution, each coaching staff, each athletic department has to make individual decisions.
“Everyone has different philosophies and thought processes when it comes to away games. What might be good for one institution, might be different for another.”
Thomas did acknowledge that improved technology for online classes has helped make such extended road trips more workable from an academic standpoint.
“That’s been on the landscape for several years now. … Technology has enabled not only student-athletes – but just students in general — to not be in a brick-and-mortar classroom and still be able to take classes and still get that degree.”
Thomas also said that while “most student-athletes enjoy playing at home, if you ask some student-athletes, they enjoy playing in the big arenas and in front of fans.”
“From my speaking with student-athletes, it’s kind of a mixed bag of experiences.”
Both coaches said their teams play before bigger crowds during the guarantee games, with SWAC crowds coming out mainly for league games.
Davis said a nonconference game at H&PE Arena might draw 150 people.
Mississippi Valley State will draw more spectators for nonconference home games, being one of the few avenues for entertainment in its rural Mississippi surroundings.
No doubt the home faithful were energized by Monday night’s nationally televised triumph over a league heavyweight. Mississippi Valley State got career-highs of 30 points and 20 rebounds from Ta’Jay Henry and a career-high 29 points from Isaac Williams in a game the Delta Devils did not let slip away, despite blowing a 15-point second-half lead.
But while Texas Southern now gets a stretch to enjoy some home cooking for three games, the Delta Devils have four-straight games on the road, traveling to Jackson State University, Grambling State University, Alabama A&M and Alabama State.
Tigers and Bulldogs and Hornets, oh, my!