Jim Gazzolo column: Cowboys might miss own party

Published 1:00 pm Thursday, February 2, 2023

It is time to address the elephant in the Legacy Center.

What happens to the McNeese State men’s basketball program if the Cowboys don’t make the Southland Conference Tournament the first year hosting it.

Fifteen months ago, when McNeese was being courted by the Western Athletic Conference, Athletic Director Heath Schroyer cut what appeared to be the ultimate deal.

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In order to stay in the collapsing Southland, Schroyer got the league’s officials to hand McNeese the keys to the postseason in basketball, softball and baseball.

Given the honor of hosting the league’s postseason tournaments for the foreseeable future, the Cowboys figured to be in great position to rebuild their basketball teams.

Softball and baseball were fine, but the hoops programs needed a lift and the tournaments were believed to be just the tonic for what ailed them.

With the league’s best arena, and now the tournaments coming to town, McNeese seemed prime to be one of the best basketball programs in the Southland. Or at least much more interesting.

There were a few who joked with Schroyer, the ultimate basketball guy who was first brought to town in 2018 to fix the Cowboys, that it would be funny if the tourney came to Lake Charles but they weren’t in it.

Nobody is laughing now.

After basically holding a gun to the league to get the games here, McNeese is shooting itself in the foot. The embarrassing scenario is no longer just a possibility but is becoming a likelihood.

McNeese is closing in on throwing the Southland’s biggest party and not inviting itself.

As of right today’s standings, with half the season to go, the Cowboys are on the bottom looking up, out of the tournament picture, pressing their faces against the Legacy Center’s glass doors hoping they open.

Head coach John Aiken has said there is still “a lot of basketball left to play.”

True, but as Yogi Berra would say, “It gets late early out here.”

It is clearly getting late for the Cowboys, who have lost seven straight.

And Schroyer, who became the league’s evil AD in the eyes of opposing fans who were green with envy, he will have at least a little egg if not an entire omelet on his face.

Schroyer has said if McNeese doesn’t earn a spot in the tourney, it would be “embarrassing” and “unacceptable.”

Well …

Tonight McNeese faces the first of what is likely many must-win games if it is to reach the postseason when it hosts Lamar. Having already beaten the Cardinals twice, and tied with them for last place, this is a game McNeese can’t lose.

Too much has been invested in the program, which somehow leads the Southland in attendance despite the record. That shows potential, but if you listen to the crowd you hear more than rumblings of frustration.

The Cowboys haven’t won in a month since naming their home floor after Joe Dumars. No word yet if Dumars wants his name removed from the court.

McNeese is 16-39 over the last two years under Aiken, including 5-17 this season, and though it did win a postseason game last spring, that seems like a lifetime ago.

To his credit Aiken seems to understand the situation.

“Every game is a must win for us, a playoff game now,” Aiken said.

There is still time for the Cowboys to turn things around and make a run, but it is hard to see that from here. And Schroyer can’t keep selling hope of a bright future when the present is circling the drain.

This is not about embarrassing or disappointing, it’s about economics.

You can only cash in on a new arena for so long. It may not be fair to all parties, but this is the world of college sports we live in.

Unless the Cowboys can get themselves in the tournament, the only ones happy will be the fans of the eight teams who come to Lake Charles in early March. Something has to change.

McNeese can’t let those folks get the last laugh.

Jim Gazzolo is a freelance writer who covers McNeese State athletics for the American Press. Email him at jimgazzolo@yahoo.com