Tuesday, January 19, 1999


Conference teams far from hot ticket

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The whole Clyde thing may be wearing as thin at Houston as the crowd that attended the Cougars' victory against Memphis.

        The hiring of Clyde Drexler as Houston coach was supposed to prevent scenes such as the one Sunday afternoon at Hofheinz Pavilion, where the thousands of empty seats far outnumbered those occupied. Drexler helped Houston sell season tickets, but he can't get people to use them.

        That gives Drexler something in common with his peers in Conference USA. The league has become a box-office bust in its fourth season of operation.

        In fact, Houston is one of just three schools whose average attendance (7,518) even approaches its homecourt capacity. The others are Cincinnati (11,266) and Louisville (18,695).

        Developing programs such as UAB (5,859), South Florida (4,158) and UNC Charlotte (5,477) are playing to roughly half-houses. Aside from the big non-league wins achieved by UC and Louisville's win over Louisville, C-USA members failed in many instances to establish legitimacy outside the league. Fans appear to be less interested in the C-USA's abundance of young talent than in whether their teams are nationally competitive.

        It seemed as though Houston, Marquette, DePaul and UNCC might benefit from the lockout that removed competition from NBA teams, but it's possible that just got people thinking less about basketball.

        “I think as the season pro gresses, there's going to be more and more fans rally around Conference USA teams,” said Marquette coach Mike Deane. “I was surprised at UAB to see empty seats. That team deserves better. At DePaul, it wasn't the surroundings that beat us, it was the three freshmen.

        UC nearly doubled Southern Mississippi's average crowd and packed the house at UNCC, but most league members are not facing the sort of hostile road environment — or, conversely, enjoying the homecourt advantage — as exists in some other major conferences.

        “Playing on the road in our league is not as difficult as people are saying, I think,” Deane said. “I'm not sure that playing on the road here is anything like going on the road in the Big Ten or ACC.”

        A ROOM WITH A VIEW: Charles Hayward did not spend last Thursday evening as planned. He was supposed to be a part of the celebration at Halton Arena when UNC Charlotte ended UC's unbeaten season. He was supposed to be part of the reason for the celebration.

        Instead of playing forward for the 49ers, Hayward watched from his hospital bed as they escaped UC with a 62-60 victory. Hayward is battling a recurrence of the leukemia that kept him out of the 1997-98 season.

        He was feeling fine and playing well when he went for a routine checkup before Christmas, just before the 49ers' departure for Hawaii and the Rainbow Classic. Now, he's dealing with the treatment of the disease, feeling tired — but not too tired to stay up nearly to midnight to enjoy the 49ers' win over UC.

        “It felt good. I think they played good. They hung in there and played together,” Hayward said. It was the first time he'd seen them play since entering the hospital. He expects to be in for a couple more weeks.


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