LAS VEGAS — The West Coast Conference kicks off more than a week of collegiate basketball tournaments in this city of lights this week; it’s a storied desert enclave that’s known fame and extraordinary sorrow the past half year.
The WCC, Pac-12, Mountain West and WAC — all with teams from the Beehive State — host their tournaments in this resort, get-away city that last Oct. 1 witnessed 58 killed and 851 injured when Stephen Paddock opened fire on concertgoers from a high floor in the Mandalay Bay Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip.
Still, millions of souls pour into this show town every week to escape to a life of live entertainment, parties, tournaments, golf, buffets, concerts and of course, gambling in this place that never sleeps. This is NASCAR weekend, and there’s a UFC bout between Cyborg and Kunitskaya on Saturday.
Former BYU interim coach Tony Ingle once said he’d put money in slot machines here the day Las Vegas couldn’t pay its light bill. In other words, this place can get you, and the odds are in its favor.
MWC Commissioner Craig Thompson, a slick yet brilliant politician, kind of hijacked things here the past 48 hours when he confirmed he had been in talks with WCC powerhouse Gonzaga and other schools as part of an “exploratory” to expansion.
Expansion talk is a fuse that once lit has a life of its own. It created a lot of chatter nationally and led to plenty of athletic directors, coaches and administrators getting bugged about it. Nobody felt like expounding.
Wednesday afternoon, after rounds of debate and commentary on radio, TV, newspapers and the internet, Thompson politely declined to be interviewed, stating there was nothing to add to the discussion. Yet, the landmine had been planted, would this be Gonzaga’s last WCC tournament and if so, would BYU follow?
Thompson somehow got the discussion turned to the MWC before that league comes to town in a few days and the WCC celebrates its Decade in the Desert. Genius.
There are plenty of storylines at the Orleans Arena where fans will be greeted with heightened security measures. If you tote something in, it has to be in a clear plastic bag to this, the Gonzaga Extravaganza. Zag fans take over this building every year.
BYU will be trying to avoid going home in a quarterfinal game for just the second time ever when it faces San Diego Saturday at 2 p.m. MST. No. 3 seed BYU’s only hope of an NCAA berth is to win three games. A win Saturday would likely pit the Cougars against No. 2 seed Saint Mary’s.
Another story to watch is if Saint Mary’s, the WCC leader most of the season, can take away the automatic berth from Gonzaga in a Tuesday final if both get that far. The Gaels have been ranked most of the season and have defeated the Zags earlier this year.
Another angle begs the question, could this be the year where lesser-seeded teams upset the favorites, be it Gonzaga, Saint Mary’s or BYU? San Francisco already beat Saint Mary’s, and San Diego came close to knocking off Gonzaga in Navy Town just over a week ago. Pacific has enough athletic prowess and attitude to be a third spoiler. BYU showed it can take Saint Mary’s into overtime and was very competitive with the Zags in Spokane.
Another part of the opening billboard to the WCC affair is who will emerge as the tournament MVP. BYU’s Elijah Bryant is capable, but he’d have to get three games — actually as would any true candidate.
Gonzaga has myriad players who could end up with the trophy, including Johnathan Williams and Josh Perkins, not to mention a reserve who earned first-team WCC honors coming off the bench, Rui Hachimura.
Player of the Year Jock Landale of Saint Mary’s would be a favorite if he can lead the Gaels to a title performance.
So, Viva Las Vegas.
Let the games begin.