RENO, Nev. — Big Sky Conference deputy commissioner Ron Loghry gazed out at the Reno Events Center and made an assertion: This league is no longer immune to postseason drama.
On Wednesday alone, the conference tournament had four women’s games decided on the final possession, and Thursday’s matchup between the Portland State and Weber State men also went down to the wire.
Whether or not the high volume of pressure-cooker contests are a direct result of the tournament being held on a neutral court is not quantifiable. But it makes you wonder how those games would have turned out had they been played under the Big Sky’s old postseason system on campus sites.
“We had two plays on SportsCenter last night,” Loghry said, referencing the buzzer-beating shots that propelled the women of Idaho and Idaho State to victories Wednesday.
“I don’t know if it’s a cause and effect. It would be a dubious claim to say it’s because we’re here in Reno. I’d hate to claim that. But it has created an atmosphere where things are more even when the teams are on the court.”
The goal of an all-inclusive, neutral-site conference tournament is threefold: to create a legitimate postseason atmosphere for players, to give bottom-dwelling programs a chance to compete and build, and to make sure the team playing its best at the end of the season is the Big Sky’s representative at the NCAA tournament.
Those were all important to the coaches who pushed for the change, and Loghry said it’s now become a reality.
“When we met with the coaches, they said they thought we were out of step with March Madness,” he said. “March Madness is about upsets, last-second shots, all those things. They said, ‘We have none of that. We go to somebody else’s home gym, and nobody’s there for our games.’
“And we’re not disparaging any of our universities or their communities. They did a tremendous job with what they had to do. But we set out to create a postseason atmosphere for our student-athletes.”
But there are drawbacks.
The travel schedule of the Montana State women is a great example. By the time they played their first tournament game Wednesday, the Bobcats had been on the road for nine days. They came straight to Reno from Grand Forks, N.D., where they played their final regular-season contest.
Had the Bobcats not been upset by Idaho State, it would have turned into a 13-day road trip.
Travel, and academic concerns, were also on the mind of Robin Selvig, who has served as the Montana Lady Griz coach for 38 seasons — and was against changing the league’s postseason format.
“There’s lots of travel in it,” Selvig said. “There needs to be a little time. You shouldn’t be heading here on the weekend. We need to figure out something on that. There’s too much school missed. That’s tough.
“You ask a lot of the players when you’ve got this thing.”
There’s also the contention that the top seeds should be protected and not subject to having to play at a neutral site. They earned the right to host the tournament, critics say.
Another drawback is attendance. Crowds were sparse on the first three days of the tournament, though it picked up Thursday because fans of the Weber State and Montana men’s teams traveled so well. But there’s been an intense tournament atmosphere throughout, regardless of the attendance.
Still, bringing in more fans to experience the tournament — and the unique conglomeration of the Circus Circus, Silver Legacy and Eldorado hotels and casinos a block away from the arena — is a goal of the conference.
“Honestly, we couldn’t be happier, other than if there were 5,000 people here every game,” Loghry said. “We knew that this year would be our building block, and what this town has to offer with the arena, the hotel facility, etcetera, with that part we couldn’t be happier. We’ve had nothing but positive feedback on what we knew were the positives.”
The conference tournament will be played at the Reno Events Center for the next two years until the event comes up for bid again.