Why I Chose The Mountain West Tourney Over The Pac-12 Tourney…Posted by AMurawa on March 10th, 2012
Way back at the end of January or so, I started wrestling with a decision of great importance in the life of a basketball junkie: where to go in March. As the correspondent for both the Pac-12 and the Mountain West for Rush The Court, the two main options seemed pretty clear. And, under normal circumstances, the fact that I live in Los Angeles, maybe 20 minutes away (depending on traffic) from the Staples Center, where the Pac-12 Tournament was to be held, would seem to make that the obvious choice. I could take in all the hoops I wanted and still sleep in my own bed at night and walk my dog in the morning. The Mountain West Tourney would involve a four-hour or so drive, sleeping in a crappy hotel bed, eating junk, and, well, missing my dog (oh, and my wife – yeah, missing my wife too). Well, I’m writing this from courtside at the Thomas & Mack Center on Friday evening, about an hour in advance of watching what should be two great semifinals at the Mountain West Tournament in Las Vegas, so you know the decision I made. The question is, why?
The easy answer to that question is: “the Pac-12 sucks,” a sentiment you have probably read a couple hundred times so far this year. And, while there is certainly something to that (certainly the tournament resumes of those teams do, indeed, “suck”), I could be plenty happy watching the top eight or nine teams in the Pac-12. Teams like Oregon State, Washington, Arizona, Oregon – those are quality teams, and fun to watch. Stanford, California, Washington State even – I have nothing against those teams. But one thing that did factor into my decision was the bottom of that conference. Having to spend any time in the presence of teams like USC, Utah, and to a slightly lesser extent, Arizona State, just seemed like a terrible idea. Meanwhile, at the bottom of the Mountain West, teams like Boise State and Air Force, while certainly not great teams, are probably in the conversation for the best last place teams in the country. And better yet, both the Broncos and the Falcons are largely young teams, in the bottom half of Division I in terms of experience, with players who have some upside. Even in those opening round games between top and bottom seeds, Boise State and Air Force provided bigger challenges than the toothless teams at the bottom of the Pac-12, as the Broncos, for one, proved in a big way on Thursday. Further, the prospects of the semifinal games we’re counting down to right now – some combination of Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, and UNLV – had me intrigued months ago.
But really, the deciding factor for me was all about atmosphere. It’s no secret that the Pac-12 has had serious problems drawing fans to their tournament in any significant numbers. The cavernous Staples Center rarely approached even 50% capacity, even in the best of matchups, and the antiseptic ambiance in the arena belied the excitement of March. By comparison, the Mountain West Tournament has proven itself over the last couple years to be one of the best environments in the country in early March. With UNLV turning out plenty of fans to its homecourt, New Mexico routinely traveling huge packs of fans, San Diego State displaying the power of its emerging fanbase, and several other schools bringing along chunks of supporters, the Thomas & Mack always teems with energy, especially on the semifinal Friday night. Even minus the hordes of BYU fans that the conference lost, the Mountain West just generates more buzz among its fans than even the larger Pac-12 institutions have been able to bring to Los Angeles.
But, it’s all but official now that, beginning next year, the Pac-12 will be holding its conference tournament in Las Vegas at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Not only is that venue expected to be more intimate (it will hold for basketball somewhere in the neighborhood of 4,000 less fans than the 19,000 that Staples fit), but it will be more of a destination location for fans from around the West Coast. Hopefully, along with the typically supportive fan base from Arizona and the new schools Colorado and Utah who have a reputation for traveling to support their teams, fans from the other nine conference schools will be more inclined to make the trip to tourist-friendly Las Vegas, instead of Los Angeles. That, combined with the eventual swing back up in talent (it’s got to happen, right?) should breathe new life into a Pac-12 Tournament that has always been better in theory than in practice.