Big Sky hosts tournament in Montana, not Las Vegas

State Hornet Staff

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Usually, college basketball teams pack their bags and head to an unfamiliar arena in their final attempts to make the NCAA Tournament, but Sacramento State is playing in known territory.

This week, the nation’s Division I conference tournaments are being held all over the country in cities like Chicago, New York City, Nashville and Las Vegas, but the Hornets’ women’s basketball team will be playing tonight in the home of the Big Sky regular season champion, Montana.

Out of the 33 conferences, only four will play away from a neutral location.

“We’ve had this format for more than 20 years,” said Big Sky assistant commissioner Jon Kasper. “It’s important to get your best team forward, and one way to do that is give the No. 1 seed an advantage.”

Kasper said the Big Sky is only allowed to have one team in the NCAA Tournament, so not only does the conference award the regular season champion to host the tournament, but it also brings in more crowds because that team is playing well.

During the last two tournaments hosted by Northern Colorado and Montana, attendance has not been a problem. In 2011, Northern Colorado’s Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion was sold out and last year, Montana sold 96 percent of the seats in Dalberg Arena.

“We have schools in our conference that struggle to put a thousand people in their own basketball arenas,” Kasper said. “There are schools that can’t get people to drive five miles to watch their teams play. They aren’t going to travel in droves just because the tournament is in Las Vegas.”

But while fans struggle to get to the Big Sky Tournament, the conference helps out its teams with travel costs.

Kasper said the conference has a financial setup that reimburses a portion of travel costs depending on what each school makes.

The Big Sky is the only conference on the West Coast that uses this model. Tournaments for the Western Athletic Conference and Pac-12 women’s basketball used to play on the campus of one of its members, but both have moved to neutral locations.

Sac State women’s basketball coach Jamie Craighead played in the first Pac-12 women’s basketball tournament that was held in Eugene, Ore., on her home floor of the University of Oregon.

“I think from a cost effectiveness standpoint it should be a neutral site that we already know is predesigned, but beyond that, it’s great to have a college environment,” Craighead said. “It is what it is.”

Three years ago, the WAC moved from playing at conference-affiliated arenas like the University of Nevada and New Mexico State University to the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, which is located 508 miles from its closest member.

“Our basketball coaches were very supportive of going to neutral sites,” said conference commissioner Jeff Hurd. “They didn’t like the idea of playing at someone else’s home court for something as important as an NCAA Tournament bid.”

Hurd said the conference has played on different university sites since 1984, but with advantages also come disadvantages.

“Economically, we have not have been successful in Las Vegas,” Hurd said. “The geography is also a challenge, because most fans in the WAC who go to Vegas have to fly to get there. It makes it much more difficult to draw the crowds you want.”

During the first two years, the WAC Tournament in Vegas filled 58 percent of the Orleans Arena in 2011 and last year only 1,405 people attended, which is roughly 18 percent.

While Denver University and New Mexico State have been successful this season with both winning more than 75 percent of their conference games, neither school provides any sort of transportation aide to their fans, though they do provide discounted tickets.

The Orleans Hotel and Casino declined to disclose how much the arena earns from ticket prices, but ticket packages for every game of this year’s tournament run from $300 court side tickets to $135 upper level tickets.

But while Sac State might not have many fans in attendance to watch the women’s basketball’s run for an NCAA Tournament bid, sophomore point guard Fantasia Hilliard said she prefers the way it is set up.

“I think it is a good idea for the first place team to host it,” Hilliard said. “They deserve it.”

With the addition of University of Idaho joining the conference next season, the direction of the tournament is undecided, but Kasper said he is happy where it is.

“If our No. 1 seed plays at home and gets to the championship game, our game looks really good on TV,” Kasper said. “We have a full arena and there is a lot of excitement rather than playing in Las Vegas and not knowing (if fans) are going to be there.”

Ryan can be reached on Twitter at @rskuhn