A Spalding sports equipment technician armed with lasers showed up recently at the Thomas &Mack Center — and he was on a mission.
He was hired for the Mountain West Conference, which is in Las Vegas this week staging its annual 11-team mid-March college basketball tournament at a venue that just happens to be the home court of one of the conference’s teams — University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
The technician was there to make sure the basketball rim and backboard support equipment were properly aligned and connected into a special Mountain West court floor transported from Salt Lake City last week just for the tournament. The technician even installed a new realigned rim, which prompted tournament Director Dan Butterly to quip, “the UNLV players probably wouldn’t even recognize the rim.”
The special Mountain West floor — bought from the NCAA Women’s Final Four in Denver in 2012 — and the realigned rims are just part of the efforts by UNLV and Mountain West Conference officials to create a “neutral” venue for the tournament.
“This week it’s the home of the Mountain West,” said Mike Newcomb, executive director of Thomas &Mack Center and Sam Boyd Stadium.
Former UNLV rival coaches such as New Mexico’s Steve Alford (now UCLA’s coach) and Utah’s Rick Majerus (who died in December 2012) have chirped about UNLV gaining an unfair tournament advantage by playing on its home court. It’s very unusual for a college team to play in a conference basketball tournament that happens to be its home arena.
With that in mind, Butterly said many steps were taken to change Thomas &Mack’s look and convert the venue into a neutral site:
■ Mountain West banners and logo wrap are everywhere, covering tunnel walls, hallways, stairs and even UNLV player posters.
■ About 400 seats in the front three rows were removed and black walls surround the court. There isn’t a UNLV Rebel logo to be seen near the court, with the appearance conjuring up a NCAA tournament setting instead of a UNLV arena.
■ The court floor has a mountainscape design, which was created for the Women’s Final Four at the Pepsi Center in Denver two years ago. The Mountain West painted the logo of its conference tourney sponsor — Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups — at the spots where the NCAA logo used to be.
■ The operators who run the shot clock, the time clock and the public address systems are all neutral employees and do not work for the UNLV arena. The only Las Vegas-based employee courtside is the scoreboard operator, Butterly said.
■ Five large “sail” banners in front of the arena that usually show UNLV themes have been replaced with Mountain West-branded logos, with the Mountain West logo also on the front exterior, Butterly said.
■ Arena and Mountain West officials hold daily meetings with Thomas &Mack staff to instruct them to be equally friendly and welcoming to fans from all the colleges. And each university was given 500 tickets, so no one institution can stack the arena with its fans. UNLV’s basketball team is treated just like any of the other 10 schools. For example, UNLV has a scheduled practice slot like all the other teams.
“It’s UNLV’s building, but we’ve done everything we can do make it a neutral situation,” Butterly said. “It’s all 11 teams’ event, not just UNLV’s.”
UNLV hosted the tourney from 2000-03 before it switched to Denver for 2004-06. It’s been staged at Thomas &Mack since 2007.
UNLV is not paying a nickel for the arena use this week. The Mountain West and Las Vegas Events, the promotional arm of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, are paying for the arena rent, Newcomb said.