The Evolution of The WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational
Back in the 1980s when UTEP made regular appearances in the NCAA Tournament, one of the highlights to every season was the Sun Bowl Basketball Tournament. Teams like Alabama, Arizona, Auburn, Clemson, Michigan, Ohio State, Purdue, and Texas would book their flights to El Paso and compete in the prestigious holiday tournament against The Bear.
Things began to change in the 1990s with the growth of exempt basketball tournaments, allowing teams to play all over the country without the contests counting against their annual game limit. What made these tournaments even more appealing was the host venues were located in popular tourist destinations like Alaska, Maui, and The Bahamas. When the NCAA eliminated the "two in four" rule in 2006, college basketball teams could suddenly play in exempt tournaments every year, as well as host their own.
The ripple effect was felt by many of the traditional non-exempt holiday tournaments around the country, including the Sun Bowl Tournament. Power 5 schools no longer felt inclined to travel to El Paso and play the Miners, especially with Don Haskins retired as UTEP's head coach. The biggest selling point for the Sun Bowl Tourney was the hospitality. Each team (including UTEP) would receive a host committee that made the three days very enjoyable for players, coaches, and their families. The Sun Bowl host committee has such a strong reputation for hospitality that some coaches have been to El Paso three or more times over the years.
Yesterday, the Sun Bowl Association announced the field for the 2017 WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational. The big name is North Carolina Wilmington, who has won the Colonial Conference Tournament each of the last three years and played in the NCAA Tournament. In March, the Seahawks blew a 15-point lead and lost to Virginia in the first round of the NCAA Tourney. The previous year they lost to Duke and finished the 2016--17 season with an RPI of 27. Their new head coach, C.B. McGrath played for Roy Williams at Kansas and was on the bench with him at Kansas and North Carolina for the last 18 years, including last year's National Championship. UNC Wilmington is making their first appearance in El Paso.
North Dakota State has been to the NCAA Tournament three of the last eight seasons, including 2014 and 2015. The Bison defeated Oklahoma in the NCAA Tourney in 2014. They finished 2016-17 with a 19-11 overall record and an RPI of 110. They played in the WestStar Bank Sun Bowl Invitational in 2014 and lost to Kent State 53-52 in the first round. That team went on to play in the NCAA Tournament.
The third team to join UTEP will be the Howard Bison, a team that only won 10 games last season. They had the nation's leading scorer, but he was injured and missed all but two games last season. Teams like Howard are the toughest for the Sun Bowl Basketball Committee to attract, since they are coming to El Paso with the prospect of losing two non conference games.
The last time UTEP won the WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational was 2014. The Miners finished third and fourth in the holiday tournament over the last two seasons. Some fans do not recognize the names of the mid-majors that play here every season. However, the goal of the Sun Bowl Tournament committee is to attract the best college basketball teams with Top 100 RPIs. If fans want to watch the basketball powerhouses they saw at the Don Haskins Center in the 1980s, they should tune in to all of the exempt holiday tournaments in November and December. Why would Power 5 schools give up two guaranteed home games to come to El Paso and play in a field possibly against UTEP? Especially when they make an easy six figures for those home games.
If you are criticizing North Carolina Wilmington, you are not a fan of quality college basketball. They have been one of the best teams in the country the last three years and will be the favorites to win the WestStar Bank Don Haskins Sun Bowl Invitational in December. Fans just have to stop thinking about the 1980s and instead, look at this tournament as a quality RPI test for UTEP. The Miners do not have to pay for these two tournament games and they don't have to return a game with a future road trip. That's music to the ears of Tim Floyd and his coaching staff. Instead of bashing the field, enjoy what will be two solid days of good college basketball at the Don, with teams you may be picking with your brackets in March.