The decision to move the Pacific 12 Conference men’s basketball tournament to Las Vegas was a bold one, but it appears as if league officials knew what they were doing.
Advance ticket sales for the tournament, which begins today at the MGM Grand Garden and ends with Saturday’s championship game, are up substantially from a year ago when the event was at Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles and averaged 8,938 for six sessions. The bottom bowl of the Grand Garden is sold out for all four sessions, and Friday’s semifinals and Saturday’s title game are expected to sell out entirely. The arena will seat 13,151 for the tournament.
“We’ve got a few things working for us,” Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said. “There’s a lot of buzz and renewed energy for Pac-12 basketball. We’ve had multiple ranked teams, and we’ve got several teams in contention for NCAA (Tournament) berths, so we’re going in with a lot at stake. That’s obviously an essential ingredient.
“But we anticipated people would be excited about coming to Las Vegas. The conference has had a lot of additional exposure with the launch of our own network and also the games we’ve had on ESPN. So we have a lot of positive momentum heading into the tournament.”
The biggest positive for the conference is the improved level of play. The top seeds were still undecided entering last weekend’s final regular-season games, and UCLA’s win over Washington coupled with Oregon’s loss at Utah gave the Bruins the No. 1 seed.
The coaches seem to like the switch to a neutral site.
“I don’t see an advantage for our players, but the fans are the winners,” said Colorado coach Tad Boyle, whose team is the defending conference tournament champion. “They get to go somewhere that’s exciting and fun.”
Oregon State, which will open against the Buffaloes at 2:30 p.m. today, played a nonconference game at the MGM, defeating San Diego, 86-79. But the Beavers have struggled since, and coach Craig Robinson said he’s not sure what happened in December matters today.
“We had a little taste of it, and we’re looking forward to all 12 teams being there,” Robinson said. “This is a new environment for everybody, so we’ll see how it goes.”
All 12 teams will stay at the MGM Grand, so it should be easy logistically. It’s the first time a college basketball tournament has been on a Strip property, but Scott isn’t worried over safety for players, coaches or fans in the wake of a couple of violent incidents the past few weeks.
“We come here every year for the Las Vegas Bowl, and our teams stay on the Strip and we’ve never had a problem,” he said. “I’m confident everything will be fine.”
Scott also is confident the tournament will be competitive. UCLA, led by Bishop Gorman High product Shabazz Muhammad, has won five of its past six games; California, the No. 2 seed, has won seven of eight; and Arizona, the No. 4 seed, has won four of six.
Cal has vastly improved since losing 76-75 at home to UNLV on Dec. 9. The Golden Bears allowed just 63.0 points a game in conference play, second to Colorado’s 62.2.
“We were spotty early on with our defense,” Cal coach Mike Montgomery said. “We’ve played well at times but not as consistently as we’d like.
“It’s a lot more fun to outscore people, but that’s not who we are.”
It all should make for an interesting week.
“It’s going to feel like an event in high demand,” Scott said.
Contact reporter Steve Carp at email@example.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.