Sacramento State officials are ready to undertake what might be unprecedented in the annals of NCAA Division I men’s basketball.
Should the Hornets win the Big Sky Conference regular-season title Thursday or Saturday, Sac State will have a makeshift, 2,700-seat arena built in three days inside their bustling campus recreation and health center, The Well. There, the school will host the eight-team, seven-game postseason conference tournament March 12-14.
Sac State is prepared to import bleachers, scoreboards, basket stanchions and a hardwood floor into The Well’s 130-foot-by-200-foot “gym box,” where students play intramural and pickup basketball, volleyball and badminton.
“This is going to be one of the most exciting things at Sacramento State, ever,” said Leslie Davis, the executive director of Union Well Inc., who is helping to oversee the potential transformation. “To be able to host these games will be amazing.”
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All Sac State needs is one win in its last two regular-season games – at Southern Utah on Thursday and at Northern Arizona on Saturday – to guarantee it will host the Big Sky postseason tournament for the first time since joining the conference in 1996.
If the Hornets clinch the title, seven teams – including school officials, students, alumni and family – will come to Sac State, the only California school in the nine-state, 12-team conference for basketball. Along with Sac State, Montana, Eastern Washington, Northern Arizona and Northern Colorado have secured tournament spots, and second-place Montana and third-place Eastern Washington are still in the running to be tournament hosts should the Hornets lose their final two games.
Starting as early as Saturday night, workers will begin the transformation. They will lay down a 94-foot-by-50-foot basketball floor, newly painted with the Hornets’ and Big Sky logos. On opposite sides, two 1,338-seat, 26-row bleachers will be constructed.
Risers will be built to house TV cameras. Tarp will cover the entire gym floor so fans can bring in food and drink from food trucks that will line the route from the Hornet Stadium entrance to the back of The Well, where fans will enter.
Four 20-foot-by-30-foot portable locker rooms will be built in The Well’s adjoining indoor soccer arena.
“There is a certain amount of choreography involved, but several weeks ago, we developed the mindset that we were going to do everything possible to try to keep this event on campus,” said Bill Macriss, Sac State’s interim athletic director. “There have been a lot of meetings, and thanks to a great collaborative effort, we feel we are ready to bring a great event to the students, alumni and community should we be fortunate enough to host. Everyone’s excited.”
Sac State must build the impromptu arena because the school’s main gym, The Nest, seats only 1,100 and is deemed inadequate as a tournament site by Big Sky officials. Besides lacking seating capacity, The Nest lacks adequate room for the cameras and equipment of ESPN, which is broadcasting the March 14 championship game.
As the men’s basketball team continued its historic run – the Hornets’ 19-8 record is the program’s best by far since it moved to Division I in 1991 – Sac State officials scrambled to find an alternate arena site. But the closest available facility was in Reno.
Hosting a tournament two hours away was seen as a public relations nightmare for Sac State and the community.
The Well wasn’t in the early discussions because the closure of the facility for eight days was seen as too disruptive to the students, who are assessed a fee for its operation. Sac State officials decided that by keeping the area that houses much of the facility’s fitness equipment available to the students while the tournament was ongoing, The Well was a workable solution.
Davis said that while 89 intramural games will be affected if Sac State hosts the tournament, most will be moved to an auxiliary campus gym and The Nest.
“We have signs up, and our members are aware that this was an opportunity we couldn’t give up,” Davis said. “So far, we really haven’t heard anything negative, knock on wood. I think the fact we are keeping the other part of the building open is helpful.”
Those playing pickup basketball at The Well on Monday said the excitement of being part of a major event trumped any personal disruptions.
“I come to The Well every day, so I won’t have access to it for a while,” said Sean Hayes, a student from Oceanside. “But there’s a court by my dorm, and my intramural games will be played at Yosemite Hall. For Sac State to be able to have the tournament in here rather than The Nest, which isn’t even as big as my high school gym, that makes more sense. It’s really cool.”
Nuvraj Sahota, a senior from Yuba City, also agreed there are other basketball options around campus, though not as nice as The Well.
“This is huge for our school because it’s been a long time since Sac State has had a good team,” he said. “It will be fun to learn some tips by watching all those great players who are going to be in the tournament.”
Tournament director and Sac State associate AD Lois Mattice said more than 125 volunteers will help provide security, ushers and ancillary support. Seven hotels are holding rooms for the visiting teams, no small measure for an event that might not even happen in Sacramento.
“We feel really fortunate because hotels don’t usually want to give up rooms they can potentially sell not knowing if we are going to host the tournament,” Mattice said.
Because of travel logistics and the yearly uncertainty for those schools in the running to host the tournament, the Big Sky is considering a predetermined site.
Macriss is part of a conference committee reviewing potential future tournament sites, including the Reno Events Center, possibly as early as next year.
Macriss hopes if Sac State hosts the tournament, it isn’t a money loser, despite all the costs associated with rentals, setup and tear-down.
“We’re making every effort to keep this revenue neutral and maybe even make a little money through sponsorships, tickets sales, program sales and other revenue streams,” Macriss said. “Fortunately, most of the bills don’t start coming until we actually know we’re hosting the tournament and we start to build.”
But Macriss said the situation only reinforces the need for a campus arena. In December, Sac State students overwhelmingly rejected a $438 annual fee increase to build a $125 million, 5,000-seat campus student events center.
Hornets coach Brian Katz said he hasn’t tried to think much about the tournament being at Sac State because winning on the road is such a challenge in the conference.
But he senses that if the Hornets are the host team, the seven-game tournament and the champion’s berth in the NCAA Tournament will draw spectator interest, even for those games not involving his team.
“We have a huge population base, and for the average basketball fan here, they’ve never seen anything like our tournament,” Katz said. “I think if they come out one time, they’ll see how good the players really are, and they’ll be hooked.”
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HORNETS SKY HIGH
What: Sacramento State will host the Big Sky Conference men’s basketball tournament if it beats Southern Utah on Thursday or Northern Arizona on Saturday
When: March 12-14 (seven games)
Where: The Well
Tickets: General admission: All seven games, $60; first two sessions (two opening-round games each), $20 each; semifinals (two games), $25; championship, $30. All-session Sac State students (with valid One Card) $30; individual session $15. If Sac State wins Thursday, all-session tickets go on sale noon Friday at Hornetsports.com or at the athletic center ticket office on campus. If Sac State wins Saturday, all-session tickets go on sale at 9 a.m. Monday. Individual session tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. March 11. Parking is $10 in Lot 9 for the first three games Thursday and $10 in Parking Structure 3 for the final game Thursday, and $10 in Parking Structure 3 for Friday’s and Saturday’s games.