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Texas fighting hard to change its reputation as just a 'football state'

Pete Thamel

INDIANAPOLIS — The Lone Star State has a lone representative in the annals of men’s basketball national champions. Just one school from Texas has won the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, and that was the trailblazing Texas Western team back in 1966.

Don Haskins’ team blazed the path known as Glory Road, becoming the first team in college basketball history to win a title starting five African American players. In the more than a half-century that’s followed, no team from Texas has managed to win the title.

With No. 1 Baylor and No. 2 Houston playing in one of the national semifinals at the Final Four on Saturday in Indianapolis, there’s assured to be a team from Texas playing for the national title.

The matchup highlights one of the most vexing mysteries in the collegiate sporting landscape. How can mighty Texas have just one national title winner?

“Honestly,” Baylor coach Scott Drew told Yahoo Sports. “That is a great question.”

Texas is a 'football state'

Texas won’t be mistaken for Washington D.C. or the New York City area as a basketball incubator. But there’s still plenty of A-list talent – Chris Bosh, Grant Hill and Larry Johnson are among the boldfaced names from Texas over the years. There’s plenty of other names, both big (Kendrick Perkins), small (Spud Webb) and sublime (Trae Young).

The city of Houston alone has given us Jimmy Butler, Emeka Okafor and DeAndre Jordan.

With all that local talent, why hasn’t anyone been able to channel it into a winner at the highest level in hoops?

Houston coach Kelvin Sampson, who recruited the state heavily while at Oklahoma from 1994-2006 and again at Houston since 2014, pointed out that too much of the state’s top talent fled the borders.

“The best players went out of state for so long,” Sampson told Yahoo Sports. “Until recently. I think that’s about to change. Blue blood schools used football against Texas schools. In the past, the best players gravitated to Duke, UNC, etc. ...”

Chris Dyer, the longtime former coach at DeSoto High School outside Dallas/Fort Worth, said he’s worked at the Jordan Games, a national showcase event, three different times. Every time there was a player from Texas there, he said they bolted.

“Most of the talent just goes out of state,” he said. “If you just recruited Houston and Dallas, you would have a bouquet of talent. … We are still seen as a ‘football state.’ ”

David Lattin (42) and a Texas Western teammate compete for control of a rebound as Kentucky's Tommy Kron, left, and Pat Riley , right, look on during the 1966 NCAA Photos via Getty Images Championship.  Texas Western defeated Kentucky 72-65 for the championship title and was the first team to have an.. all-.black starting five compete in the NCAA Photos via Getty Images final. Rich Clarkson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images
In 1966, Texas Western won the men's national championship, the state's only men's title. (Rich Clarkson/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

Becoming serious about basketball

Could we be seeing a tipping point to where players start gravitating back to staying in Texas? Baylor has averaged more than 24 wins a season for a decade, finally breaking through to its first Final Four since 1950. Texas Tech reached the national title game during the most recent NCAA tournament (2019) and coach Chris Beard left Thursday for Texas, which could jumpstart that program. (Salary investment appears real, as both Drew and Sampson make more than $3 million, Beard almost assuredly got a bump up from $5 million and Texas A&M’s Buzz Williams makes nearly $4 million.)

There are better equipped college programs amid a facility boom with rapidly improving feeder programs. “What I have witnessed over the last 18 years is the high school coaches and programs have really gotten better, AAU etc.,” said Drew, referring to his time at Baylor. “In the state, programs have spent more money on basketball programs. So with the high school and colleges getting better, I would think the state will be seeing more national champions in the future.”

Both programs in the national semifinal on Saturday can point to precipitous facility upgrades as a reason they’ve become destinations.

Few know this space better than Mack Rhoades, the Baylor athletic director who also worked as the athletic director at Houston and UTEP. Rhoades hired Sampson at Houston and was on the ground floor of that school’s recent basketball facility boom — more than $85 million to build a new practice facility and renovate the arena — that’s put Houston in the highest end of both the AAC and much of college basketball for its men’s and women’s teams.

Looking forward at Baylor, Rhoades said the school is about 12 to 15 months away from starting two major basketball facility projects that will include a new arena and practice facility for men’s and women’s basketball. He said that entire project will run north of $100 million.

Baylor has been ahead in the facility movement, and Rhoades hopes to help continue that trend. “I think for us, we want to stay relevant nationally in both programs,” he said. “This is a way we can stand out and hopefully stay ahead of it.”

Texas in on the cusp of a new arena that’s about 15 years overdue, as the Erwin Center has all the charms of playing basketball in a Timbuktu airplane hangar. Texas Tech, SMU and TCU have put forth significant basketball facility projects in recent seasons that Rhoades calls “intentional moves to invest in infrastructure.” He added: “The Texas schools have become serious about basketball.”

AUSTIN, TX - JANUARY 15:   A general view during a game between the Texas Longhorns and the Baylor Bears at the Frank Erwin Center on January 15, 2012 in Austin, Texas.  (Photo by Sarah Glenn/Getty Images)
The University of Texas is getting a much-needed upgrade from the Erwin Center. (Sarah Glenn/Getty Images)

But one of the biggest upticks that could help put some of the Texas schools in the mix for basketball titles is the potential impact of Name, Image and Likeness legislation. (This is expected to be passed and detailed soon by the NCAA, but that organization has been reliably unreliable when it comes to delivering on actual important decisions.)

Could being affiliated with boldfaced names and big markets in Texas help amplify the brands of players and their opportunities to make money off the court? “I think that’s a fair theory,” Rhoades said. “I think it certainly helps rise all ships. I think that’s a fair assessment.”

It’s also fair to predict that there'll be some folks in El Paso rooting this weekend for the winner between No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 11 UCLA. The lone title being held at Texas Western, now known as UTEP, is a definitive point of pride in El Paso. They’d like to keep that unique niche. “That was very much part of the sense of pride in the El Paso community,” Rhoades said. “And rightfully so.”

We’ll know by midnight on Monday if the Miners’ shining moment will have some local company. With teams from Texas on the cusp of playing in consecutive title games, it feels as if a breakthrough is imminent.

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