College Sports

Big Sky Conference to showcase 24-team basketball tournament

Officials say holding the Big Sky Conference men’s and women’s basketball tournament at a neutral site for the first time in Reno creates a new dynamic for the sprawling 12-school, nine-state conference.

“I’m confident that everybody that goes up to the tournament is going to be amazed,” said Sacramento State athletic director Bill Macriss. “It’s going to create a league pride, a league awareness that we’ve never had before.”

“The Road to Reno” tournament, Monday through next Saturday at the 5,000-seat Reno Events Center, also will mark the first time that all of the conference’s 24 teams will compete. It will be the largest college conference tournament in the country.

“We’ll be at a neutral site, with proximity of team hotels to the arena, and all our schools get to participate,” said Big Sky deputy commissioner Ron Loghry. “We’ve wanted to do this for a while, so we’re super excited.”

The Sac State women will play at either 5:35 or 8:05 p.m. on Monday, and the Sac State men will play either Montana State or Portland State at 5:35 p.m. on Tuesday.

“We’re pulling out all the stops, bringing in our own floor, so we’re going to turn the Reno Events Center into the Big Sky Arena for the week,” Loghry said.

Holding the event in Reno is a bit of a gamble because Nevada doesn’t have a school in the Big Sky. In past seasons, the regular-season champion hosted the respective tournaments, so there always was a built-in fan base.

But some felt the host men’s and women’s teams had an unfair advantage, as they usually won the championship and automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. It also caused logistical nightmares because tournament destinations sometimes weren’t finalized until the final weekend of the regular season.

Last year, Sac State officials spent a number of hours and thousands of dollars preparing to convert the Well, the school’s health and recreation center, into a makeshift arena in the Hornets’ bid to host the men’s tournament for the first time. But when Sac State lost on the last day of the regular season, the tournament site moved to Missoula, Mont.

“Last year is a perfect example,” Macriss said. “It wasn’t until 9 p.m. on Saturday night that everyone knew where we were going (for the men’s tournament). We had all of 48 hours to try to book flights into Missoula. And because of the short turnaround, it made it cost-prohibitive for family, friends and students to attend.”

Sac State will bring its band, cheer squad and student rooters this year, which had been impossible.

Yet even though Sac State is the closest Big Sky team to Reno, Macriss is unsure if the Hornets will boost attendance significantly. However, the school’s conference-required allotment of 100 all-session tickets for the men and 50 for the women sold out quickly.

Both Sac State teams have struggled this season, partly because of injuries. Last year, the men and women created a huge buzz on campus and in the community by reaching the Division I postseason for the first time.

“We’ve done the what-if game ourselves,” Macriss said. “But when we were playing a preliminary (men’s) game against say a Portland State at Montana or Weber State at a (hosted) tournament, there might have been 100 to 200 people in the gym. We’re going to have a lot more than that.

“And if we make it to the quarterfinals, semifinals or finals, we know there will be even more just because of the close proximity. Our hope is that it’s a neutral site that’s going to feel like a home-court advantage.”

While Macriss and Loghry hope ticket sales will be strong, they say it’s a process. That’s why there is at least a three-year commitment to hold the tournament in Reno.

“We see this as a building-block year,” Loghry said.

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP