Evansville missed out on every big thing that hit the Missouri Valley Conference since 2000.
Other schools built shiny new arenas. Evansville stayed in 55-year-old Roberts Stadium. Other teams took advantage of the MVC's rising power and swept into the NCAA Tournament. The Aces haven't been close since 1999. Fans at other schools bought into the MVC's underdog success, packed home arenas and flocked to St. Louis for the conference tournament. Attendance at Roberts Stadium, once averaging more than 10,000, declined by half.
If Evansville is going to become more relevant, this is the season it starts.
"It is — I guess I'm putting pressure on myself saying that — but it really is," coach Marty Simmons said. "We've got to step up."
Evansville owns an impressive amount of basketball tradition ,and it's not far removed from consistent success under former coach Jim Crews. But since winning the MVC in 1999, Evansville hasn't finished higher than fifth.
The school hopes to turn that around, starting with a new arena in downtown — the 10,000-seat Ford Center. The Aces, coming off a sixth-place finish, are picked fifth in the MVC. Expectations are modest, yet rising for a team that returns three starters.
Momentum starts with the Ford Center, built for $127 million. Athletic director John Roberts said season-ticket sales are up about 10 percent and the arena is helping attract new fans and younger customers. Evansville's women's team will also play there, and both teams have their own locker rooms.
"It's served to regenerate the buzz and the interest in Aces basketball," Roberts said. "We haven't won, and relevance is an issue."
Roberts watched how the CenturyLink Center (formerly the Qwest Center) in Omaha boosted Creighton basketball. Both Evansville and Creighton fight for attention with state universities. Creighton won big, and moving games from the old Civic Arena to the new arena helped make Bluejays basketball an event.
"For Evansville, being a small, private school, it can be a big thing for us," Simmons said. "When you walk into it, whether you're a basketball player or not, the first thing is 'Wow, this is a really, really nice place.' Players, through TV, ESPN or whatever, they see the different facilities throughout the country and they want to play in nice arenas."
It hasn't been that long since Evansville basketball was the big event in town. It averaged more than 8,000 fans from 1988-2000, seasons in which it made four NCAA appearances and two in the NIT.
That is the program MVC officials thought it landed in 1994. Adding Evansville, which left the Midwestern Collegiate Conference, looked like a common-sense move to help both parties. Evansville offered a winning tradition and a geographic match for the MVC in replacing Tulsa. However, the move to the MVC took a toll on the Aces. They managed two finishes above fifth in 17 seasons and are 4-17 in the MVC Tournament.
Simmons' job is to fill the new arena with winners.
The Aces, under Simmons, grew into the team nobody wants to play. They play hard, they play good defense and nothing comes easy. It's no fun playing the Aces. In 2010, they knocked off MVC champion Northern Iowa and runnerup Wichita State for two of their three MVC wins. Last season, they went 13-3 at home, swept MVC Tournament champion Indiana State and beat MVC champion Missouri State by 12 points. Early in the season, the Aces won at Butler.
"We know we're not the biggest team in the Valley," junior guard Colt Ryan said. "We need to be real feisty, never give up."
Simmons, entering his fifth season, produced non-losing seasons in 2009 (17-14) and 2011 (16-16). The Aces played in one of the minor postseason tournaments both times.
With Ryan, a preseason All-MVC pick, and two other starters back, there is reason to hope the Aces could move into the MVC's top half. Ryan averaged 15.7 points as a sophomore and made 40.6 percent of his three-pointers. Senior guard Denver Holmes averaged 7.8 points and senior forward Kenneth Harris averaged 8.3 points and a team-leading 5.9 rebounds. Key reserves Ned Cox, Troy Taylor and Jordan Jahr strengthen the backcourt.
Simmons' concern is the frontcourt, where center Pieter van Tongeren and forward Clint Hopf are gone. The Aces are short on size and scorers.
Simmons counts on 6-foot-8 senior Matt Peeler, who played in only seven MVC games last season, to improve.
"He's got a great attitude, and he's had a great off-season," Simmons said. "We think we have some versatility where we can throw some lineups out there. When you're not overpowering with size, you've got to be a little creative."