Mike Davis coached Indiana to the NCAA title game in 2002, and he’s dead set on getting back there again.
With Texas Southern, that is. A school in the low-major Southwestern Athletic Conference that’s based in a saturated Houston sports market where attention can be scarce.
He’s trying to get there by playing all-road nonconference schedules that appear more suicidal than any in Division I — including a game Wednesday against Arizona at McKale Center — then trying to parlay those results into a better NCAA tournament seed, better NCAA tournament results and, eventually, better recruiting leverage that can build increasingly better teams.
It’s crazy, right? Davis has been called that.
At least, he says, by people who don’t listen.
“I just want to win a national championship,” Davis said Monday by telephone from Houston. “People are saying there’s no way you can do that at Texas Southern. It’s like when Phil Knight started Nike, when there were Converse and Adidas. People said ‘Why would you do that?’ But look at what Nike does now.”
Two NCAA appearances in the past three seasons — plus a team that is picked to win the SWAC again this season — suggest Davis is at least on the right track.
So let’s hear him out:
• If Texas Southern held a home game against a comparable or lesser opponent on Wednesday, instead of traveling to Tucson, 200 people might show up.
Davis isn’t into that, even if it does mean a likely win instead of a likely loss.
“To have a home game you’ve gotta pay the officials $4,000-$5,000,” Davis says. “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.
“And on Wednesday, our guys get a chance to play an Arizona program that has history and is going to be great. They can always say they had a chance to play at Arizona.”
• While many low- and mid-major teams are required to hand over big cash guarantees they earn from road games in order to pump up their athletic department budget, the Tigers are asked to return only $350,000 of the $900,000 Davis says they will gross this season. (Arizona is paying the Tigers $90,000 for Wednesday’s game). That means the program can afford to live a high-major lifestyle.
“We’re not eating pizza,” Davis says. “We’re eating the way we ate when I was at Indiana. We go to Arizona, stay in a nice hotel and eat three good meals a day. We’re not just going to Arizona. We’re going to Arizona like Oregon would.”
• The Tigers’ road gauntlet this season also includes games at Louisville, Cincinnati, LSU, TCU and Baylor, while they opened the season playing at Texas-Arlington on Nov. 12 — then showed up the next day at Delaware State and won. They haven’t played a single nonconference home game since Nov. 28, 2014.
ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” even had Davis on earlier this month to discuss the schedule and its potential toll on players. But Davis says the Tigers will only miss five total days of class in nonconference play, and that the schedule actually helps attract players who like the big stage.
“Our guys are getting a great campus experience, plus they’re getting a great life experience by traveling,” Davis said. The schedule is “appealing to them from a name standpoint, but there’s a commitment and a work ethic you have to have so you’re not embarrassed.”
• The Tigers have managed to win four games already despite not quite having that commitment Davis is looking for.
Instead, it’s an upgraded roster full of transfers (juco, four-year and grad transfers) that have made the difference, including Illinois State transfer Zach Lofton and Pacific transfer Dulani Robinson.
Mining the transfer market heavily, Davis said, is the only way to go for now.
“Nobody out of high school is going to turn Arizona down to come to Texas Southern,” Davis said. “Nobody is going to turn San Jose State down to go to Texas Southern.
“You can’t get (high-caliber high school players) until you go deep in the NCAA Tournament. Most kids and their parents want them to feel good about their decision. We’ve gotta win big to get them to come, and I’ve gotta show you I can make you as successful as anyone else. It’s hard to believe that. But every guy who ever played for me has always gotten better here.”
• Davis says his coaching track record helps recruiting, too. Davis resigned under pressure at Indiana and was fired at UAB, but reached five NCAA tournaments between the two stops.
“Most people call me based on my reputation,” Davis said. “I get calls because they know they can handle the situation, and Houston being a nice city helps. It’s a chance where I come to coach their talent. A lot of guys don’t function at bigger schools because the coach chooses talent to fit the system. I coach their talent. It’s a big difference.”
• The Tigers were given the worst assignment possible in the 2014 NCAA Tournament — a No. 16 seed that had to play an extra “First Four” game – and lost to Cal Poly in their opener. But they returned to the 2015 Tournament as a No. 15 seed, likely because they beat Kansas State and Michigan State during the regular season.
That’s a trend Davis hopes to build on.
“In 2015, if we win two more games, we were a 14,” Davis said. “We have to win at least 7-8 games (in nonconference) and at least three or four from power five conferences. You can do that, but you have to prepare for the toughness. … Arizona, Louisville, Cincinnati, Baylor, TCU — now if we can get three or four of those, wow. But if we lose to Arizona by 50, that doesn’t bother me if we play with great effort.”
• In the 2015 NCAA Tournament matchup, the Wildcats took an early 15-2 lead over Texas Southern and won by 21. But Davis found the game a valuable learning experience.
“In any walk of life, you always take things, you steal from greatness, and what I stole from that game is the organization, the system they had. They played together defensively. They stuck to their principles 99 percent of the time. That’s the effort and focus you want your teams to give.
“I think coach (Sean) Miller is a great coach. He doesn’t overlook any technique from the game. I watched that game over the summer just to see that. … I don’t look at him as just getting outstanding players, but him getting players to play the way they play. As a coach, you always focus on those things with your basketball team.”