Men's Basketball

After embarrassing losses, Power 5 teams are avoiding UT Arlington

Texas coach Shaka Smart, left, and UT Arlington’s Scott Cross visit before the Mavericks’ victory in Austin last season.
Texas coach Shaka Smart, left, and UT Arlington’s Scott Cross visit before the Mavericks’ victory in Austin last season. AP

UT Arlington’s Scott Cross will play anybody anywhere. But for the last two years, he’s had a hard time filling out the Mavericks’ non-conference schedule.

Who can blame coaches for hitting “ignore” when Cross’ phone number comes up during scheduling season? After all, the Mavericks have embarrassed Power 5 programs on their home courts the past two seasons.

UT Arlington stunned Ohio State and Memphis in back-to-back games two years ago. Then last season the Mavericks visited Austin and beat Texas for the first time in school history before handing No. 12 Saint Mary’s its first loss of the season.

After the Mavericks took Texas to overtime in 2015, the Longhorns informed UTA that their contract to play each year in Austin, in place since 2011, would not be renewed after the 2016-17 season. Texas A&M also recently said “thanks, but no thanks,” UTA athletic director Jim Baker said.

When UTA releases its non-conference schedule Monday, the few who pay close attention to college basketball this time of year might scoff at the inclusion of Division III UT Dallas.

But with increasing frequency, Baker’s counterparts have been telling him, “No. You’re too good.”

TCU coach Jamie Dixon, whose team will play just one true road game in non-conference play next season, knows what UTA is going through. He was an assistant coach for Ben Howland’s 1997-98 Northern Arizona team when it made the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.

“We had gotten so good it was getting hard for us to schedule,” Dixon said. “We had so many guys coming back. We all like to say that nobody wants to play us, but there are some games.”

The perfect opportunity for Cross & Co. would be a home-and-home against a team that can raise UTA’s profile to help the Mavericks break into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2008. But Power 5 schools typically do not schedule home-and-home series in the non-conference, because home dates are too lucrative to give up.

Instead, they book “guarantee games,” where they pay smaller programs hefty sums — sometimes $100,000 or more — to visit them on their home court. The idea is that the Power 5 team gets a victory before its home crowd, and the visitors leave with much-needed money to help pay the bills.

So the $200,000 the Mavericks earned from their trips in 2015 to Columbus, Ohio, and Memphis went a long way toward the $600,000 the athletic department counts on from the basketball program each year.

UTA spent $1.5 million on basketball last season, below the Sun Belt average of $1.7 million. In comparison, TCU spent $11.3 million.

Because of that money gap, Power 5 and Big East teams played 88.6 percent of their non-conference games at home or on neutral courts last season, according to data compiled by college basketball analyst Mark Adams. Just 11.4 percent of their non-conference games were true road games. Meanwhile, Sun Belt teams played 32 percent of their non-conference games at home.

Adams said that it’s no coincidence the Big 12 then put six teams into last year’s NCAA Tournament, while the Sun Belt sent only its conference tournament champion, Troy.

UTA won the league’s regular season title but injuries led to a loss in the semifinals of the conference tournament. That put the Mavericks in the NIT, along with TCU.

With fewer and fewer Power 5 opponents making themselves available to mid-major programs on the rise like UTA, the Mavericks have begun to schedule home-and home series with other programs in the same boat. The 2017-18 season will see UTA host the second game of its home-and-home with Florida Gulf Coast, which has made the NCAA Tournament in three of the last five years, and begin another at Northern Iowa.

The Mavericks will host six of its 13 non-conference games a year after hosting just four non-conference games and turning it into the winningest season in program history (27-9).

UTA beat Akron 85-69 at College Park Center in the second round of the NIT. Video by Matthew Martinez.

Matthew Martinez: 817-390-7667, @MCTinez817

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