The McNeese Cowboys will never be playing basketball in late March or early April in reconfigured football stadiums in Phoenix, Indianapolis, Houston or New Orleans.
Participation in the Final Four and NCAA basketball championship will never come to pass for McNeese.
And that’s OK. It’s perfectly understood in the world of big-time, big-boy college basketball. There are probably well over 300 other Division One schools that understand and know good and well the pinnacle of March Madness will never happen for their programs.
There are only a handful of smaller programs outside of the Power 5 conferences and the next five leagues that can and do make a legitimate run at the Final Four or the national championship.
Villanova, Gonzaga, Butler, Georgetown, UNLV, Houston, Memphis and Virginia Commonwealth are among a small list of basketball powerhouse schools that have made their marks in the NCAA Tournament that are not members of the mighty SEC, ACC, Big 10, Big 12 or PAC 12.
A few of those teams have won NCAA championships, of course, and advanced deep into the Elite 8 or Final 4, or even to title games, as Butler did in back-to-back years in 2010 and 2011.
They are no longer considered Cinderella teams.
That label now falls on the lucky few of those 300 or so teams whose only realistic dream is just making the NCAA Tournament.
Count McNeese among those outside looking in. The Cowboys’ goal should be to win the Southland Conference Tournament and gain entry into the tournament field of 68 teams. Winning the regular season conference championship by virtue of wins and losses should count more than just earning valuable byes and an automatic spot in the SLC Tournament semi-finals. But at this point, the NCAA will only take the league’s tournament champion, like it or not.
So McNeese’s hoops mission is simple: be good enough to finish among the Top 8 in the SLC, advance to the conference post-season tournament, win the tournament title and secure an NCAA bid.
Beyond that, everything is gravy, as they say.
McNeese has garnered just two NCAA bids in the program’s history. Its last dance in the big tournament came in 2002 under then head coach Tic Price, who guided the Cowboys to a 21-9 record and an SLC title. The Cowboys competed well, but were low seeds and lost both times in the opening round to Illinois and Mississippi State.
So, the objective of McNeese basketball is manageable and realistic. Achieving it has been anything but easy.
Head coach Dave Simmons, a knowledgeable, capable and likeable basketball veteran, recently endured a horrific 7-22 season that kept his team out of the conference tournament. It was the fifth straight season in which the Cowboys finished under .500 for the year, and the second straight in which the Pokes registered single digits in wins.
Around the McNeese athletic field house, it usually takes a blow torch to put any measurable heat under anyone’s seat. So Simmons’ fanny and his job were relatively safe once the season came to a merciful end as the Pokes lost eight straight.
McNeese Athletic Director Bruce Hemphill let the hoops season sink in for a few weeks, then finally sat down with Simmons to discuss the year that was and plans going forward. Hemphill weighed the pros and cons, and the pros won.
“Dave has one more year on his contract (a three-year deal). He is to be commended for helping our APR — the academic progress rate. He has lifted that, so now we have not only met that goal but exceed each year our APR. He and I have conversed (the week of March 21), and I told him to continue monitoring [the] academics of our players and keeping them in good academic shape and [pursuing the] continuation of our conditioning and workouts through the spring and summer,” said Hemphill.
When pressed about whether that meant Simmons would remain as head basketball coach, Hemphill added “he is our head basketball coach.”
After 11 seasons, Simmons’ overall record of 142 and 195 is not a strong arguing point on his behalf. But over the last 6 to 7 years, the early part of the schedule has been weighted down with a slew of guaranteed money games — all on the road against Power 5 teams and nearly impossible to win. In his defense, it’s difficult to get anywhere .above 500 when you endure six to seven sure losses to open any season.
The Cowboys have been somewhat competitive in league play if you remove the last two seasons, when they won only 10 of 36 SLC games. In the five years between 2010 and 2014, McNeese went 45-41 in Southland games, with 2010 being the high point, as the team went 21-12 overall and 11-5 in the league — earning an NIT tournament invite.
No doubt, at a hardcore basketball school playing in a hoops-centric conference, these numbers would get most coaches fired. But McNeese can be a bit more patient. The basketball program isn’t counted on for significant contributions to the athletic department’s bottom line, and there’s little to no pressure from a dormant fan base.
That benevolent patience paid off in the case of former Cowgirls head basketball coach Brooks Donald Williams, who got off to a rocky start, but then hit her stride and registered the most wins, SLC titles and post-season bids in the program’s history. That success led to Williams’ departure for an assistant coach’s position at Alabama.
It’s not a good sign for the men’s program if you have to go back 7 years to find a high point. But Simmons contends that same patience will soon pay off again. “I want to be the head coach at McNeese. I love this school and love the kids we have coming back,” Simmons said after the season-ending loss to Lamar.
“I think it’s a good nucleus and a good group coming back. I think the people didn’t see the true team so much, as we had to change our line-up so much to find the right flow and chemistry. We started playing better consistently because our young players got better.”
That improvement was hard to see at times, as McNeese went 2 and 14 in the conference from Jan. 5 to the season’s end. There were six games in that dismal stretch that the Pokes lost by six points or less. But they were losses all the same.
Weaknesses and downfalls were plentiful. If it wasn’t a plethora of turnovers, then lousy rebounding did them in. Well-played first halves turned into a disappearing act in the second half. Poor shot selection led to porous defense. Then came free throws that were anything but free.
Before the season, Simmons boasted that this could be his best perimeter shooting team in recent memory. He painted a picture of a team that would and could light it up from the outside.
Unfortunately, the gris gris was set.
Poor shooting and an inconsistent 42 field goal percentage were McNeese’s biggest flaws among many.
Freshman guard Kalob Ledoux’s scoring and energy, along with junior Stephen Ugochukwu’s occasional double double, were the bright spots in a season clouded in low-lights.
“We had a rough year, no doubt,” Simmons deadpanned. “It had to do with our being young and inexperienced, with only two seniors. We had injuries to the wrong people at the wrong time. We didn’t get the help we expected from the other guys we brought in (junior college transfers Howard Thomas and LaBarrius Hill). No question, it started at point guard. As Jamaya Burr struggled, we struggled,” Simmons explained.
So, with the question over Simmons’ future as head coach settled for another year, the 61-year-old veteran head coach knows exactly what he needs to turn the program around and return the favor for the school’s patience.
He says it begins with improved play at the point guard. He believes junior Jarren Greenwood will be the answer. Simmons added that two additional “big guys” are needed to help Ugochukwu in the front court. Sophomore twins Kalob and Jacob Ledoux will need to understand the level of commitment it takes to transition from the high school game to college basketball and overcome the physical and mental grind of a long season.
No matter how much patience and confidence McNeese has in Simmons and his staff, this may have been more of a financial decision. With one year remaining on his contract, the university would have been forced to pay Simmons around $90,000 in base salary if a change occurred. That $90,000 would have been very hard to muster up in an athletic budget that’s working to turn nickels and dimes into quarters.
As the new on-campus basketball arena begins to take shape and the excitement grows for its planned unveiling in 2018, more eyes and attention will be on Simmons and the shape of McNeese basketball next season, which will be the last played in Burton Coliseum.
“Whoever our basketball coach is, I think it will make a huge splash a year and half from now when we open that building,” Hemphill stated.
Patience is a virtue, but it comes with a price.