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C-USA, Cowboys officials vow to make conference hoops tourney at The Star a destination event

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Brett Vito, Staff Writer

FRISCO — Conference USA commissioner Judy MacLeod acknowledged Tuesday the league is taking a bit of a risk by moving its postseason basketball tournament.

The destination makes that leap of faith worth it.

C-USA will set up shop in 2018 and 2019 at the Ford Center at The Star in Frisco. The Cowboys' indoor venue has been a hit when it comes to hosting high school football games and even the Texas Tech spring game.

C-USA is betting the league's teams and fans will love it just as much as a basketball venue.

C-USA, the Cowboys, Visit Frisco and North Texas will serve as partners for the conference tournament and try to pull off a plan that is a dramatic departure from what the league has done in the past. C-USA traditionally has played its basketball tournaments at on-campus sites with courts already in place and a home fan base that is sure to turn out.

C-USA won't have any of those luxuries at The Star, but it will have a partnership with the Cowboys and what league officials believe is a destination site that will attract a crowd.

"When we first started on this journey, a few people thought I was crazy," MacLeod said. "The main focus was to make sure our student-athletes have a memorable, unique and a first-class experience. I am not sure where you are going to find a better first-class experience than here."

The last three C-USA tournaments were in Birmingham, Alabama. The 2014 tournament was in El Paso.

UNT officials will help run the event when it makes the move to The Star early next year. 

C-USA officials studied the setup at the Ford Center extensively and consulted with sound and television experts to ensure the venue will be fit for the tournament.

"There is a lot at stake here," MacLeod said. "We had to make sure that it is a good playing experience for the student-athletes. We have been assured we can do that."

The Cowboys are just as anxious to show The Star can handle the tournament, which would open up even more possibilities for the venue that already has become a draw for sporting events in the area.

"Conference USA wants to be very innovative and on the cutting edge," said Jerry Jones Jr., the Cowboys chief sales and marketing officer. "What we are doing for this tournament at The Star will be cutting edge. Nothing excites us more than showing the flexibility and the innovation of what The Star represents. We have some great partners who can help us execute it."

UNT is only 30 miles from The Star. Rice, Texas-San Antonio and Louisiana Tech all are within driving distance.  Old Dominion, UTEP and Middle Tennessee — the schools that ranked first through third, respectively,  in attendance for men's home basketball games among C-USA schools last season — will all be much further away.

Maher Maso, Frisco's outgoing mayor, is confident the city can attract C-USA fans for the tournament and make it a success. Maso has been pleased with Frisco's ability to draw fans to the Football Championship Subdivision title game, an event the city hosts at Toyota Stadium.

"We will make the same commitment we made to the NCAA for their Division I football championship and that is to make it a very special event for student-athletes," Maso said. "The components are in place to make this a No. 1-type event that is special, that is unique and that everyone enjoys."

McLeod said C-USA's coaches were in favor of moving to a neutral site.

UNT stands to benefit from the league's decision. The school already has a partnership with the Cowboys.

Now, the C-USA tournament will be played in the Mean Green's backyard. The move could provide a boost for both the school's men's and women's basketball teams.

Grant McCasland will make his debut as UNT's men's coach this fall, while women's coach Jalie Mitchell is entering her third season.

"It is really awesome," UNT athletic director Wren Baker said. "When you have a brand like the Dallas Cowboys — the most prominent in the world — a city like Frisco and the ability to take two young coaches with a lot of momentum to the event, it puts us in position to make a monumental leap. And it gives our fans to have easy travel to come and see the tournament."

UNT will have a role in making sure the tournament comes off without a hitch.

 Baker is confident C-USA and its partners can do just that.

"The conference athletic directors are taking a leap of faith in the conference office and North Texas to make sure this is done the right way," Baker said. "I think everyone will be really pleased when we get here and kick this off."

BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 and via Twitter at @brettvito.

Feature photo: Cowboys Chief Sales and Marketing Officer Jerry Jones, Jr. speaks during a press conference Tuesday at The Star in Frisco. Conference USA announced during the press conference that it is moving its men's and women's basketball tournaments to the Ford Center, a 12,000-seat venue at The Star, for two years beginning in 2018.