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Mike Sorensen: Las Vegas is mecca of college basketball this week

Published: Monday, March 11 2013 8:59 a.m. MDT

Larry Krystkowiak coaches the Utah Utes during a men's basketball game against Oregon at the Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City Saturday, March 9, 2013.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — When you say “basketball mecca,’’ the first place you probably think of is Indiana. Or perhaps Kentucky. Or North Carolina. Some provincial types might even say Utah.

This week, however, the mecca of the college basketball world will be just down I-15 in Las Vegas.

Four college conferences will be playing tournaments in Glitter Gulch this week, counting Monday night’s West Coast Conference championship game between Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s. The Mountain West and Western Athletic conferences crank it up on Tuesday and the Pac-12 begins a day later.

If you add it all up, 46 games, including both men and women, will played in Las Vegas over the next six days, not to mention the 14 WCC games played last week.

No wonder Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak calls it a “mini-version of March Madness.’’

For years the MWC, and before that, the WAC, was the only tournament in town. The games were always played at the Thomas & Mack Center, much to the chagrin of BYU and Utah, which often ran into UNLV on its home court and went away losers.

Then five years ago, the West Coast Conference decided to play in Las Vegas, even though its closest school is some 250 miles away. It was an experiment for the WCC, but after selling out the Orleans Arena four of the five years, commissioner Jamie Zaninovich, couldn’t be happier.

Last week he told examiner.com that “Las Vegas is a great destination’’ and “a really good fit for our conference.’’ Although the contract with the Orleans Arena runs out this year, he says he anticipates “announcing something soon” about continuing the tournament in Las Vegas.

The WAC has played at the 7,000-seat Orleans Arena the past two years, a week after the WCC’s, but hasn’t done as well. It drew less than 2,000 per session last year and with Utah State and other schools leaving the league after this year, it may need to go back to home school sites.

The Pac-12 jumped on the Vegas train this year after watching dwindling attendance at the tournament in Los Angeles. It had drawn around 17,000 at its peak in 2007, but last year drew just 11,000 to its championship game. The league considered four cities, including Salt Lake City, but chose Las Vegas because it “created the most excitement” according to commissioner Larry Scott.

The MGM Grand Garden Arena, which many MWC fans wished its league would have used to take away the UNLV homecourt advantage, will host the Pac-12 tournament and be configured to seat 13,500.

For years the excuse for not holding the MWC tournament at the MGM was that it was in the same building as a casino. Scott addressed that issue, telling the Oakland Tribune, "You're not going to see teams parading through casinos.’’

While the BYU men’s and women’s teams have already left Las Vegas, the Utah men’s and team and Utah State men’s and women’s teams are going to try and stay in town as long as possible this week (the Pac-12 women’s tourney was played in Seattle last week).

The Utes will play Wednesday night at 7 p.m. MT against USC, a team it lost to by 17 at home in January, but the Trojans just lost to last-place Washington State by 25 on Saturday.

“I know that some crazy things are going to happen in (the tournament),’’ said Krystkowiak. “I’m glad it’s in Vegas. It will be fun to get our fans there. All I know is I got an email last week saying we already sold our allotment of tickets for the tournament and I know I didn’t get that email a year ago.’’

The Utah State women will be the second seed for the second straight year and play the winner of Denver-Texas State Wednesday at 3:30 p.m. MT. The Aggie men are the No. 5 seed and will face Texas-Arlington Thursday at 9:30 p.m. MT.

The most entertaining of the four could be the original Las Vegas tourney, the Mountain West Conference Tournament at the Thomas & Mack. The MWC is solid from top to bottom as was shown on Saturday when Boise State, Air Force and Fresno State, the upcoming 5-6-7 seeds, knocked off San Diego State (4), New Mexico (1), UNLV (3), respectively, in regular-season finales.

The MWC has been ranked among the nation’s best all season and New Mexico, UNLV, Colorado State and San Diego State are all projected to be in the NCAA Tournament, with Boise State on the bubble.

So local fans going to Sin City this week, have a lot of choices for good basketball, assuming they can find tickets.

As Krystkowiak said, “It’s going to be a lot of fun.’’

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