Tuesday, April 20, 2010
The one label Tulsa cannot shed yet
By ERIC BAILEY
Athletic director Bubba Cunningham was asked to label the feeling surrounding Tulsa's basketball program.
"Frustration," Cunningham said.
Does Golden Hurricane coach Doug Wojcik agree?
"Absolutely," said Wojcik, who just completed his fifth year at TU -- one filled with lofty expectations deteriorated in the final weeks, leaving the Hurricane absent from the NCAA Tournament for the seventh consecutive year.
It's the longest stretch the program has gone without an NCAA Tournament appearance since 1981. That's a fact that weighs heavily on a TU fan base starving for a return to college basketball's biggest event. It has been a topic of conversation on Internet message boards and sports talk shows.
Wojcik and Cunningham know that.
Making the NCAA Tournament "is a goal we set every year," Wojcik said. "So is winning the conference championship."
"When you watch the NCAA basketball tournament and see that excitement and to not be a part of it is frustrating," Cunningham said. "We've had some good wins, we won the CBI and been to the NIT twice, but that's the next step."
"We've made a lot of progress," Cunningham added. "In Doug's five years, he turned a program that was struggling to (a program with) four years in a row of winning 20 games ... We have to continue to have faith and confidence that we have the right people and that we'll get there. It's slower than we thought, but sometimes that does happen. We'll get there."
The margin for error is slim to gather an at-large bid to the tournament for schools like Tulsa. UTEP won the Conference USA regular season with a 15-1 mark, lost in the league tournament championship game and still barely squeaked into the field.
Is TU's final grade of success-failure based on the NCAA Tournament?
"It's not the singular point that you can say everything hinges on," Cunningham said. "You can't say you'll either succeed or fail based on that one aspect of a larger job.
"That is a part of it. It's a significant part of it. I think we're showing progress that we're going to be there, but that's just one measurement."
Positives under Wojcik
Wojcik's five-year era has had plenty of positives. After inheriting a program in worse shape than any other Tulsa coach has faced in the past 30 years, he's won 20-plus games for four consecutive seasons, taken TU to three postseason tournaments (including an inaugural CBI championship run) and guided the program to two Conference USA championship games. The Hurricane was 0-4 against BCS-level schools in the Reynolds Center before Wojcik. His record is 3-1 against BCS schools at home.
With Ben Uzoh and Jerome Jordan scheduled to earn degrees this spring, he will remain perfect on graduation rates (12-of-12) for players who exhausted their eligibility at TU. There has been zero off-the-court problems. Wojcik has won despite having resources that aren't as impressive when Tulsa is compared to other "mid-major" programs like Xavier and Dayton. TU doesn't have half the budget of C-USA power Memphis.
In two years, Wojcik likely will become the program's all-time winningest coach. Schools like Iowa and Stanford have taken interest and reportedly considered him strongly for openings the past few seasons.
There are also some not-so-flattering numbers during the past five years.
Tulsa is just 4-24 against teams that finished the season in the RPI's top 50 (collegerpi.com) under Wojcik. Of the 24 losses, 10 came to Memphis. The Golden Hurricane's only triumphs came in a 2009- 10 home win over Oklahoma State and 2008-09 victories over Texas A&M and UAB (which happened twice).
Attendance has sagged in recent years.
Season ticket sales were at 6,659 in 2002-03. This past season -- despite heavy promotion including a message "this is the year we have been waiting for" -- sales hovered around the 4,300 mark. In Wojcik's first season (2005-06), season ticket sales were at 4,949.
The number "zero" next to NCAA Tournament appearances weighs heaviest to detractors. Cunningham has heard them in person and via e-mail.
Wojcik is very open with fans, even at times when he comments "on e-mails that make me feel like we went 12-23 instead of 23-12."
'A terrific job'
Cunningham says Wojcik has "done a terrific job."
All of Tulsa's coaches are given five goals -- enhance the student-athlete experience, have win-loss success, stay within budget, improve and maintain a high grade point average and stay compliant to NCAA rules and regulations.
"The way we practice, schedule practice and travel has been a great improvement," Cunningham said. "Our win-loss record has steadily improved since he's been here. He's probably the most meticulous person we have in terms of his budget, we've improved our GPA and our APR is outstanding. He's always the first in with his phone logs and practice logs. From an AD's perspective, he's done a great job in those five areas."
Cunningham also understands making the NCAA Tournament will silence plenty of critics.
"Are we where we want to be competitively? No, we want to be in the NCAA Tournament," Cunningham said. "We want to have success in the tournament. But the body of work has been outstanding. Are there areas where we're going to get better? Absolutely."
Attendance dipped this season to 5,491 fans per game, the second- lowest figure since the Reynolds Center opened in the 1998-99 season.
TU fans grabbed hold of this program during the CBI championship run, hinting of what life can be like inside a raucous arena.
"I appreciate the fans that are coming," Cunningham said. "The atmosphere of the arena for the OSU game, the Memphis game and the UTEP game were terrific.
"We do have a tendency to ebb and flow more than some of the larger schools. The challenge is how do you bring fans to the other games? I don't know. I don't have a magic answer to that other than continue to win and win at alarmingly good rates and keep the fans engaged."
TU does have a 72-15 home mark the past five years. It had the nation's third-longest home winning streak at one point this past season, and set a school mark for 28 consecutive nonconference home victories two years ago.
Cunningham said the Hurricane is in the "top third of our league in terms of budget and we're comfortable there."
The U.S. Department of Education's most recent figures show Tulsa basketball had operating expenses at $578,461 ($36,154 per player). Xavier's expenses were at $1.5 million ($102,919) and Dayton was at $847,749 ($52,984). Conference USA power Memphis is at $1.2 million ($80,643 per player).
"If there are more resources that you could apply to basketball, there's certainly ways that you can spend the money," Cunningham said. "When you look at the schools that spend more, they are typically generating more. We have invested a lot in the last five years, not only financial resources but personnel and time.
"There's a commitment to be one of the best teams in the league. Are we there? No, but we're not there in a lot of areas. We'll push and try to get better."
Next season brings an unknown. Justin Hurtt is the only TU returnee who has averaged double-digit points in a game. Seven different faces -- including injured guard Glenn Andrews -- will bring a new look.
Cunningham likes the progress of the program and showed optimism for the future.
"You evaluate the whole body of work and look at those five dimensions and we're doing exceedingly well," he said.
"We've fallen short in a very visible area -- making the NCAA Tournament. But I feel like we're knocking on the door."
Tulsa's basketball attendance fell to an average of 5,491 fans per home game this past season, the second-lowest total since the Reynolds Center opening in 1998. It is also the second-lowest figure since the 1979-80 season, when TU played at the Convention Center. A look at recent Reynolds Center attendance:
Season __ Avg.
1998-99 __ 8,282__ 7
1999-00 __ 8,184 __ 11
2000-01 __ 7,846__ 3
2001-02 __ 8,098 __ 7
2002-03__ 7,747 __ 7
2003-04 __ 7,384 __ 2
2004-05 __ 5,942__ 0
2005-06 __ 5,862 __ 1
2006-07 __ 5,425 __ 0
2007-08 __ 5,751 __ 2
2008-09 __ 5,783 __ 0
2009-10 __ 5,491__ 1
Eric Bailey 581-8391
Originally published by ERIC BAILEY World Sports Writer.
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