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ANDY COMER: UTPA must join March Madness (and Add Football)
As a student at the University of Dayton, I went to exactly zero games in my four years there.
College basketball has never interested me much, and still doesn’t — unless my alma mater happens to be a part of March Madness.
Such was the case this year as the Flyers qualified for the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and actually made it to the second round by beating the University of West Virginia. In the next round of the tournament, UD was spanked by the University of Kansas — the defending national champions — but for once, I actually paid attention to March Madness. And it was kind of fun.
Even though the Flyers have been sent home while our arch-rival, Xavier University, faces the University of Pittsburgh today, I still find myself caring about college basketball. It makes me wonder: Could the University of Texas-Pan American, which has a men’s basketball program, ever get a chance to be a part of the NCAA tournament?
As an independent not affiliated with a conference, the Broncs aren’t exactly as visible as Atlantic Coast Conference powerhouse teams like Duke University or the University of North Carolina. If the Broncs want some attention from the folks that determine NCAA brackets, they would first need to join a recognized conference. If UTPA were to win the tournament of a recognized conference, they would automatically be involved in March Madness.
The most likely choice for UTPA would be the 13-member Southland Conference. Eight of Southland’s teams are from Texas, so the Broncs would be a natural fit. I think the only thing stopping Southland from inviting UTPA to join the conference is the lack of a football team. Were UTPA to establish a Division I Football Championship Football program (formerly I-AA), I think Southland would take notice.
Another problem the standing in the way of the Broncs punching a ticket to March Madness could be its facilities. The aging UTPA Fieldhouse, built in 1969, can only seat 4,000 fans. The UD Arena, for example has a capacity of about 13,000, and Xavier’s Cintas Center in Cincinnati (try saying that five times fast) can hold just over 10,000 fans. A big-time basketball school like UNC has an arena that can hold 21,000. If the Broncs want to make their basketball program more visible, UTPA might need a bigger, more modern venue. Could Dodge Arena, with its 6,800-seat capacity, be the answer?
One of the most obvious problems the Broncs face isn’t even their fault: Location. UTPA just happens to be in deep South Texas, a region seemingly overlooked or forgotten altogether by the rest of the state, not to mention the entire country. Few people I’ve ever come across even know where McAllen is. If the Rio Grande Valley were to attract more big businesses to the area — which might, in turn, make building a new arena easier — and heighten its profile within the state, other colleges and universities would be more likely to make the long trip down here to play the Broncs.
UTPA does have several factors in its favor when it comes to attracting more national attention. For one, UTPA has nearly 20,000 students, which is more than the combined student population of UD and Xavier. The Valley does have a NBA D-League team, the Vipers, which proves that people in the area have at least some interest in basketball. And don’t forget, the Broncs are in fact a Division I basketball team, just like the mighty Duke or UNC.
The reality of UTPA being one of the 64 teams invited to play for the NCAA championship isn’t really all that far-fetched. If you don’t believe me, look no further than feisty North Dakota State University. NDSU won the Summit League championship in the Bisons’ first year of membership in the conference. They were invited to the NCAA tournament and nearly beat big, bad Kansas. Before becoming a part of the Summit League, NDSU competed against — you guessed it — UTPA. If the Bison can do it, why can’t the Broncs?
I’m looking forward to a future NCAA championship game that will feature the University of Texas-Pan American vs. the University of Dayton.