“We basically had to overturn every rock and look behind every cactus in Vegas,” said Brooks Downing, whose Kentucky-based business, bdG Sports, creates and hatches college basketball events in normal times and nowadays helps the Big West manage a conference tournament it had to move from Anaheim, Calif., to Las Vegas. After all, teams can’t practice at high school or other local courts. Those sit shut.
From last week stretching to March 14, there will have been 62 conference tournaments from 31 conferences and two genders with all manner of sites, site changes, fan allowances (from zero to some), hopes, dreams and thuds. Holy Cross of the Patriot League announced Tuesday the curtailing of its men’s season with a sighing record of 5-11 because of a positive test in the Tier 1 group, which includes players, coaches, trainers, medical staff, officials — anyone amid the action. Loyola (Md.), which would have played Holy Cross, advances to play at top-seeded Navy on Saturday.
The West Coast Conference, which both boasts and suffers No. 1 Gonzaga (24-0) on the men’s side, enlisted stats guru Ken Pomeroy to help seed its teams because of the wide discrepancy among the number of conference games members played, from the 15 of Gonzaga to the nine of Santa Clara and San Diego. In the America East Conference, Commissioner Amy Huchthausen expressed relief at the good fortune of lacking such discrepancies, saying, “The delta from lowest to most [games] on the men’s side was only two games, average,” discounting Maine, which ended its season Feb. 13.
The ACC moved from Washington to Greensboro, N.C., the Big Ten from Chicago to Indianapolis, the Atlantic 10 from Brooklyn to Richmond and Dayton, Ohio, the Colonial Athletic Association from Washington to Harrisonburg, Va. The SEC remains set for Nashville but with a smattering of fans (3,400), it announced Tuesday. The Big West moved from Anaheim to Las Vegas back in December, soon after Commissioner Dan Butterly — in his first year! — called the Honda Center of Anaheim. “They said, ‘Dan, we’re probably 90 percent sure we won’t have any events in this facility, except maybe the [NHL] Ducks, until June,’ ” Butterly said Tuesday.
That means Las Vegas alone will hold 10 men’s and women’s tournaments for five conferences with 95 teams at four sites: Thomas & Mack Center, T-Mobile Arena, Orleans Arena and Mandalay Bay Events Center. While the surrounding county (Clark) allows for 20 percent of capacity, three conferences — the Big West, West Coast and Mountain West — will permit zero fans, and two — the Pac-12 and WAC — will allow only players’ family members. For the Big West and its various teams on different floors and its men’s and women’s teams in their separate towers of Mandalay Bay, moving to that resort meant a search for basketball floors, one for the event and two for practice courts to go voilà in hotel ballrooms.
They found one in storage in Las Vegas, an unpainted court from the 2020 NCAA tournament that never got used because that event never happened.
They found one through the kindness of the Las Vegas Aces of the WNBA.
Mandalay Bay had one lying around, as should we all.
They’re ready to go, even as the morning coronavirus tests for the participants will require ample “swabbers,” which Downing called “a new word in my vocabulary.” His firm learned a lot of things it never imagined learning through its creation and management of multi-team events in December in Las Vegas and Fort Myers, Fla. They know it’s not just testing players, coaches and staff. Said Butterly, “It’s testing our scoreboard operator, our instant-replay coordinator …” and then some.
Of course, there’s a sense of elation that it got this far. As the America East began its men’s tournament last week, its commissioner took to Twitter to exult a little. A 10-year commissioner who used to play second base for Wisconsin La Crosse softball and then went to MIT for an MBA, Huchthausen notes she’s a kid of the 1990s, so she went with a “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” meme, with Will Smith and Alfonso Ribeiro dancing.
“We were fortunate to get the majority of our games in in the regular season, more than we thought in November, if you had asked me,” she said Tuesday. “We’re down the path now where we’re going to be handing out a trophy in a couple of weeks. That’s pretty darned exciting since we were not able to do that last year in basketball.”
She told of “the muscle-building that we’ve all done over the last 10 or 11 months with respect to being more prepared to accept change and pivot.” For one thing, after Valentine’s Day weekend, they went ahead and shut down the regular season. “In what universe,” she said, “would we contemplate saying, ‘Now, this weekend is going to be the end of the regular season, not next weekend’? ” But: “It wasn’t a struggle. It was a thoughtful adaptation and then move on.”
By this past weekend, when she attended the game between Massachusetts Lowell and Stony Brook at the University of New Hampshire, she sensed enhanced energy from everyone after a slog that had taxed everyone. Now a conference that habitually plays its tournament at campus sites of higher seeds, with the final often at Vermont, awaits its semifinals this weekend and final next weekend, test results ever pending. It has “conditions if one team is unavailable,” she said. “It becomes more complicated if there’s two or three teams unavailable. This is one of the things I fear most.”
Like titans such as the Big Ten and Big 12, the Big West holds a one-site tournament, which has its pros (bubble setting) and cons (more unknowns). In anticipating the event, Butterly said Downing told him what Downing’s organization has learned through practice: “If you can get to Las Vegas healthy, we’re going to keep you healthy.”
That might matter more poignantly in the smaller-budget leagues because the Big West, the America East and others get the one NCAA tournament bid and will yearn to see its two tournament champions stay intact to reach San Antonio (women’s March Madness) and Indianapolis (men’s).
The pandemic has brought crossed fingers but also fresh alliances. The five conferences headed for Las Vegas have had group meetings on recent Fridays, Butterly said, weighing matters such as testing, transportation, officiating and whether to allow NBA scouts.
“I never anticipated I would become a [first-time] commissioner [July 1] and deal with the daily challenges we’ve had during this pandemic,” said Butterly, formerly of the Mountain West. He reported having heard some commissioners tell of “looking forward to the days when we can be bored again,” even if it robs them of the thrill of hunting basketball floors.