The Pac-12 postseason tournament this year should be one of the most unpredictable in recent years. Five conference teams have at least 10 victories entering the penultimate weekend of the regular season, and contenders Washington, California and Arizona are playing some of their best basketball of the season. Washington, especially.
It also should be the last conference tournament in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles is not the issue. The Staples Center venue is outstanding, the City of Angels is an easy plane flight from just about anywhere in the conference, and even after a four-overtime fourth game of the day you can always find a good meal a few blocks away at The Original Pantry, on Ninth and Figueroa, open continuously since 1924.
Despite recently renewed marketing efforts, however, the Pac-12 tournament has not drawn particularly well, even with two member schools in the L.A. area. Although it is worth noting the Pac-12 is certainly not unique in that regard.
It might be any league’s hardest sell, convincing out-of-town fans to travel for what could be a 24-hour stay. The conference faced similar issues at the earlier tournament sites. Arizona, Arizona State, UCLA and the Los Angeles Forum hosted the event until it was moved to Staples in 2002.
It is time to try something new.
A destination venue.
“It’s been proposed,” said UCLA coach Ben Howland, who seems willing to trade a home-town edge for the greater good of the conference. “Las Vegas is a major draw. People are excited to go to Las Vegas.”
Other conferences have noticed. The Mountain West, Western Athletic and West Coast conferences hold both their men’s and women’s tournament in Las Vegas, and all seem pleased.
UNLV has a built-in advantage because the Mountain West plays at the Thomas & Mack Center, but the Rebels have not seemed to greatly benefit, having won three of the 12 tourneys it has hosted. The WAC and WCC tournaments are held at the cozier Orleans Arena, which fits their profile.
The most difficult part of a potential Pac-12 move might be settling on dates. The Mountain West and Pac-12 tournaments are played the weekend before the first round of the NCAA tournament.
The gain could be huge. There is nothing like a vibrant conference tournament, both for the league exposure and the fan experience. The ACC tournament is a five-day basketball love-in, whether it is played on Tobacco Road or in Atlanta. The Big East thrives on the big stage of the Big Apple, as Howland can attest from his days coaching at Pitt.
“It was always great to go to New York,” said Howland, whose last Pitt team won the tournament in 2003.
“Madison Square Garden was a big deal.”
The Pac-12 also has discussed San Francisco and Phoenix as possible permanent sites, and it seems likely that a decision on a new location will be made soon, perhaps as early as April or May. As of now, all roads seem to lead to Vegas.
“I think it’s worked for the other conferences that have gone there,” said California coach Mike Montgomery, who was at Stanford when the event was held at Arizona’s McKale Center in 1988, when “it seemed like it was the Arizona Invitational. It was so skewed.
“If you go to a place like (Las Vegas), you can have people drive down, get show tickets, maybe play some golf and then watch some basketball. I’m sure some people don’t like the thought of that . . . there has to be a healthy discussion about a change. The best thing is to have it at a spot that people can get used to going to.”
“They need to find somewhere to keep it, to have continuity for the people who put it on and for the fans,” Howland said.
IMPACT GAMES OF THE WEEK
UCLA at Arizona (Saturday) — This will be UCLA’s last best chance to get a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament. The Wildcats, routinely strong at home, have shown some vulnerability because of their youth this season, losing to both Oregon and Washington at McKale Center. UCLA exploited a matchup advantage on the front line with the 6-foot-10 Wear twins in a 65-58 victory in Los Angeles on Jan. 5, and even bigger man Josh Smith missed that game as a precaution after hitting his head in practice two days earlier.
California at Colorado (Sunday) — The Buffaloes are looking for a split of the season series after losing, 57-50, in their first conference road game on Jan. 12. Colorado, which prides itself on defense, held Allen Crabbe without a field goal for almost 27 minutes and limited Jorge Gutierrez to five points (2 of 17 shooting) in the first meeting. Cal has won five straight and appears to be in the NCAA tournament either way; Colorado could take a big step forward with a victory.
Oregon at Oregon State (Sunday) — Oregon State’s 76-71 comeback victory at Matt Court on Jan. 29 is the conference upset of the season to this point. The Ducks missed easy scoring opportunities early but still led by 10 late in the first half before coming unglued against the Beavers’ press, committing 13 turnovers in the second half as the Beavers went on a 31-13 run. It is a seemingly must-win game for Oregon to stay in contention for a first-round bye in the Pac-12 tournament.