College basketball teams in Texas just finished the best season, collectively, in the state’s history. Consider these finishes by Texas college teams during the 2018-2019 season:
Baylor won the NCAA women’s basketball championship.
Texas Tech was the NCAA men’s basketball national runner-up and beat Michigan, Gonzaga and Michigan State in successive postseason games.
Houston advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men’s tournament, its best finish since the Phi Slama Jama Cougars of 1982-84.
Texas won the NIT, and Texas Christian made the semifinals.
Lubbock Christian won the NCAA Division II women’s national championship.
West Texas A&M advanced to the Elite Eight of the NCAA II men’s national tournament.
In the NJCAA Division I (national junior college) men’s tournament, Ranger College finished as the national runner-up and South Plains College of Levelland advanced to the Final Four.
In the NJCAA D-I women’s national tournament, South Plains College and Odessa College advanced to the Elite Eight.
Richland College of Dallas advanced to the NJCAA D-III men’s Final Four.
Some of these teams have won big before this season. Baylor won its third women’s national championship in the last 15 years, and the Lubbock Christian women won their second in the last four years. The junior colleges all have enjoyed past moments of national glory as well.
But all the accomplishments listed here occurred this season. The 12 teams listed here combined for an average of 29 wins and seven losses. Led by Baylor’s 37 victories, seven of the 12 teams won more than 30 games this season.
Is it just a bunch of coincidences? Did the stars align perfectly for Texas college teams this season? Or is there a deeper meaning to the success of Texas colleges this season?
“To be honest, it’s no coincidence,” said Yannick Denson, who recently finished his first season as the Howard Payne women’s basketball coach. “The success of this season is a reflection of the work the coaches have put into their programs — some of them like (Baylor’s) Kim Mulkey for a long time.”
Denson has coached at the high school and collegiate levels in Texas, plus he was a coach/coordinator for Golden Triangle Elite AAU Basketball in Beaumont. He had a firsthand view of the growth of basketball in Texas as a result of year-round play in AAU and summer tournaments.
The Great American Shootout (GASO) is a series of spring and summer basketball tournaments across Texas — from the Dallas-Fort Worth area to Houston to San Antonio to Austin/Round Rock to Bryan/College Station. College basketball coaches from Division I to Division III gather to scout and recruit the talent, which has a national flavor but is mostly from Texas.
“If you want to see the growth of basketball in Texas, it’s right there at the Great American Shootout,” said eight-year HPU men’s coach Troy Drummond. “There are thousands of kids from elementary to high school from all over the country. There are college coaches there from every level, and they’re all in Texas to recruit basketball players.
“Since I’ve been at Howard Payne and going to the Great American Shootout, we’re not just out recruiting against Hardin-Simmons, Mary Hardin-Baylor and UT Dallas. You’re recruiting against everybody in the country. College coaches from the East Coast to the West Coast are there recruiting.
“The success you’re seeing now is a product of all that talent,” Drummond said.
Heather Hohertz, the 10-year Brownwood High girls’ coach, said, “I think the growth of AAU basketball has helped kids love the game more and made them want to play beyond high school and on into college. That and the exposure of college basketball on TV has provided motivation for kids to play beyond high school.”
The growth of summer play, AAU and the Great American Shootout speak to the rising competition level of basketball in Texas.
“Competition in Texas is huge in any sport. Texas is such a big state, and there are a lot of people moving here from other states,” said Nadir Dalleh, a basketball coach for 15 years, including the last three as the Brownwood High boys’ coach.
“The players on college rosters today have probably had a basketball in their hands since they were 3 years old.”
Most observers agree that Texas colleges are benefitting from good coaching, citing the established Kim Mulkey, who has won three national championships at Baylor since 2005, and rising star Chris Beard at Texas Tech.
“Those coaches are in different situations,” said Hohertz, who played on a state champion basketball team at Priddy High School and on college playoff teams at HPU. “Mulkey has built that Baylor program from the ground up and has been successful for a long time.
“Beard learned under Bob Knight, and had some success at Angelo State. He’s just getting started at Tech. But he’s proven that he can get his players to believe in his program and perform — whether they’re freshmen, seniors or transfers.”
Beard, the newly crowned D-I national coach of the year, was coaching at Division II Angelo State five years ago and D-III McMurry seven years ago. He has developed a knack for accepting transfers and putting together competitive rosters year to year. Tech lost six of its top eight scorers from an Elite Eight team in 2017-2018, but Beard rebuilt the roster into a national runner-up with the help of three transfers.
“I don’t know of another coach that has done what Beard has done in his first four years in Division I,” Drummond said.
Someone noted that a lot of the winning Texas college teams have rosters dotted with out-of-state players. It’s a fair point, but for years the best high school talent in Texas left the state to play because Texas college basketball wasn’t considered big time. Now, top players from other states are choosing to come to Texas to play.
Basketball in Texas has been on the rise for more than 30 years — from the high school level through the colleges to the NBA. Since momentum for a sport starts at the highest levels and trickles down, consider the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks have combined to win eight NBA championships in the last 25 seasons.
In women’s college basketball, Baylor, Texas, Texas Tech and Texas A&M all have won national championships in the last 27 seasons. In Division II, Lubbock Christian now has won two championships in the last four years. In Division III, Trinity and Howard Payne each have won a national title since 2003.
On the women’s side, there’s no denying the coaching impact and legacies of Mulkey, Texas’s Jody Conradt, Texas Tech’s Marsha Sharp and Texas A&M’s Gary Blair.
In men’s college basketball, Texas still has only one national champion — Texas Western (now Texas-El Paso) in 1966. But Texas teams are making deeper NCAA tournament runs. Texas Tech has an Elite Eight and Final Four appearance in the last two seasons. Baylor has two Elite Eight and two Sweet Sixteen appearances under current coach Scott Drew.
The University of Texas has 10 former players on current NBA rosters, led by Kevin Durant, a two-time world champion and league MVP.
Basketball in Texas has been developing and achieving here and there for 30-plus years. Perhaps it was just time this season for it to all come together at the collegiate level.
“You have to win first, but if you win, then you can get a fan base excited and create a real home-court advantage,” Dalleh said. “If you look at Chris Beard and Texas Tech this year, the campus and the city (of Lubbock) rallied around that team. People were going crazy over Tech basketball.
“If you get everybody on board like that, you can be successful and the sport will keep growing.”