Photo: Travis Heying, MBR
Wichita State’s Landry Shamet takes a shot and is fouled against Houston during the second half at Koch Arena on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. The host Shockers won, 81-63. (Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/TNS)
Wichita State’s Landry Shamet takes a shot and is fouled against…
Before Saturday’s game against Wichita State, the University of Houston men’s basketball team will load up two vans and make the 1½-mile drive from the Guy V. Lewis Development Facility to the Texas Southern campus.
The roughly five-minute trip, through the Third Ward neighborhood that borders both campuses, is part of a season-long arrangement to play home games at H&PE Arena while construction continues on the Fertitta Center.
“You’ll hear no excuses on this end,” UH coach Kelvin Sampson said. “It’s not ideal. I also know, if this is what we have to do to get a brand-new arena, I’d go play on an outdoor court in the rain for that arena.”
The Cougars have made the most of the temporary arrangement, going 8-0 at H&PE Arena entering Saturday’s 11 a.m. showdown with seventh-ranked Wichita State (15-3, 5-1 American Athletic Conference). It’s the highest-ranked opponent UH has hosted since No. 5 Memphis in 2009 at Hofheinz Pavilion.
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A few times each week, depending on the schedule, UH (14-4, 4-2) shuttles between its practice facility and H&PE Arena. On game days, the Cougars hold a shootaround at the arena and then drive back to campus, where they dress and have a pregame meal before returning to the arena.
“Logistically it’s tough,” Sampson said. “The flip side is we’re going to have a beautiful, beautiful arena. If that’s the price we have to pay, we’ll pay it.”
At the beginning of the season, UH left open the possibility of playing two games (Wichita State and March 4 against Connecticut) of its 15-game home schedule at Toyota Center, home of the NBA’s Rockets. Sampson said those plans were scrapped when a crowd of 4,186 watched the Cougars’ 91-65 win over Arkansas on Dec. 2.
“The Arkansas game sold me,” Sampson said. “That’s pretty good for us right now, especially at a neutral site. But we had a home-court advantage that night. Maybe not like the home-court advantage SMU and Cincinnati has, but it was good for us. Our fans that night were a big part of that victory. It’s better to play in one gym and that’s our home.”
Proximity is a plus
Close proximity to the UH campus was also a major selling point, Sampson said. The $60 million Fertitta Center is scheduled to open in November.
“It’s a blessing that it’s only 2 miles away,” he added. “Can you imagine us having to go wherever? We might as well just play every game on the road. That’s why I fought to play all of our games at Texas Southern instead of any games at Toyota Center.”
Before the school turned out the lights on Hofheinz Pavilion last March, UH officials began to explore options for a temporary home for the men’s and women’s basketball programs.
Former UH athletic director Hunter Yurachek and Charles McClelland, TSU’s vice president of intercollegiate athletics, forged a friendship while serving on the local organization committee for the 2016 Final Four. Sampson also has been longtime friends with TSU coach Mike Davis.
Last spring, UH officials took a tour of 8,100-seat H&PE Arena, which has undergone improvements to the gym and locker rooms in recent years. To avoid any schedule conflicts, UH and TSU were able to submit dates early enough to their respective conferences, the American Athletic Conference and Southwestern Athletic Conference, to avoid any conflicts. In addition, the TSU men’s program continued the practice of playing its entire 13-game non-conference schedule on the road.
“(All of that was done) with the caveat we are neighbors, we’ve always been neighbors, we will always be neighbors, and we need to work together,” McClelland said.
McClelland said the cost UH is paying to rent H&PE Arena “is nowhere near what they would have paid at Toyota Center or anywhere else.”
As part of the agreement, UH is paying a rental fee of $3,375 per game, which comes out to $50,625 for the season. The deal also includes a $350,000 payout to TSU, a FCS school, to play a non-conference football game Sept. 29 at TDECU Stadium.
“We got the (rental fee) down to the bare bones as we possibly could because of the relationship,” McClelland said. “We reduced a lot of the costs.”
‘Really good to us’
The schools regularly play in baseball, softball and soccer, and TSU’s track program uses UH’s facilities for throwing events. But the schools have met only once in football (2007) and last played in men’s basketball in 2012.
McClelland hopes the relationship continues, including for a possible Third Ward Football Classic.
Sampson, whose team is in the discussion to snap an eight-year NCAA Tournament drought, said he is beholden to TSU.
“I really applaud Texas Southern’s administration and Mike and (women’s coach) Johnetta Hayes-Perry,” Sampson said. “Everybody has been so accommodating and really good to us.”