Viva this neutral site in the desert
LAS VEGAS – Wrong city, we know, but there is something about the West Coast Conference basketball tournament being here that gives off a strong “Sister Act” vibe.
You just keep expecting Sister Mary Clarence and a murmuration of nuns to come sweeping through the casino at the Orleans and into the adjacent basketball arena, possibly to throw a little soul into the national anthem.
We have had a whole year to get used to the idea of the WCC convening its bingo game just off the Strip, and while there is an undeniable inspiration to it all it still feels a little like the College of Cardinals meeting in Monte Carlo to fill a vacancy in the Holy See.
Yes, yes, it’s basketball and not High Mass. Nonetheless, there is no other Division I basketball collective in all of the NCAA of an all-religious stripe, and here it is playing its tournament just down the hall from the slots and roulette wheel – never mind in a neighborhood of prospering adult entertainment emporia.
What’s next? The Nike swoosh on a clerical collar?
We kid. Gestures both bold and bizarre are to be applauded in the heretofore plodding history of the WCC, though you wouldn’t think the notion of a neutral site for the tournament would qualify as either.
Welcome to the midmajor club, finally.
Leagues comparable to the WCC have managed to accomplish this modest feat long ago. The Colonial plays on a neutral floor in Richmond, the Metro Atlantic in Albany, the Mid-American in Cleveland. The Sun Belt gathers in Hot Springs, Ark. The A-10 has settled into Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, so sinners on both coasts are being indulged.
In some of these leagues, the audience will not come close to filling the building and that was always the WCC’s major fret – winding up with 4,000 souls scattered in a 15,000-seat cavern in San Jose. And so it always chickened out and ordered the members to Santa Clara or San Diego and the fiscal safety of a campus joint.
During the 10-year lifespan of Gonzaga’s chokehold on the league, there may be no more remarkable nugget than this: In tournament play, the Bulldogs – never worse than a No. 2 seed – had to play a team on its home floor no fewer than six times. Perhaps the fact that the Zags still won most of the time was interpreted as a sign that it was no big deal, except that fairness always is.
So they’ve found fair – and maybe better than that.
In its new partner, the WCC has found a slick six-year-old arena of medium size (7,845) and the West’s premier destination, at least in catering to adult vices between tournament sessions.
If there is an argument in rebuttal, it will not be uttered this weekend. Somehow in times that are to economic health what Loyola Marymount is to watchable basketball, the WCC has helped fill more than 2,500 hotel rooms and sold out its all-session tickets without a hometown attraction. Indeed, there is nearly no thread between Vegas and the league at all beyond the fact that UNLV was a member for six years back in the 1970s, which had to qualify as one of the stranger relationships the conference fathers entered into.
Not only wasn’t UNLV a Catholic school, but it’s possible some of the Runnin’ Rebels of that era thought a crucifix was a kind of switchblade.
Now, there’s a decent chance that more than half of all those tickets were peddled to Gonzaga’s traveling circus, but spirited knots of even the WCC’s bottom feeders have been spotted here – and that hasn’t always been the case.
In any event, this isn’t just another convention of Shriners or farm implement dealers, and what was signed as a one-year deal is certain to be extended.
If there is any danger in the WCC stepping so far outside its geographic footprint it doesn’t seem to speak to the league’s greatest need – the rest of the membership to hoist itself up closer to Gonzaga’s level.
With the arguable exception of the Zags’ most recent challenger, Saint Mary’s, the seven dwarfs of the WCC are pretty much afterthoughts in their own communities – mostly because they’re not communities but major urban markets. Taking the league’s showcase event to this desert Gomorrah does not do much for programs desperate for higher profiles at home – but then, the WCC tried that and it never really worked. Somehow the USFs and Santa Claras and San Diegos will have to carve out bigger audiences on their own – and campus commitment, more aggressive scheduling and steady success seem like the best places to start.
The best marketing strategy the WCC can concoct is getting more than one team into the NCAA tournament, on a regular basis. That lesson was delivered last year when USD and Saint Mary’s joined Gonzaga in the bracket and became a national story. The Zags had been one before, and LMU as a supernova in Hank Gathers’ era, but never the league as such.
This honeymoon in Vegas holds no particular promise of making that happen every year, but it’s still the best – and most bizarre – bit of inspiration in the league’s basketball history. Bar nun.