WAC enters as WCC exits at Orleans Arena

The West Coast Conference set the bar high Monday night at Orleans Arena with a competitive tournament title game in front of a raucous crowd on national television.

Western Athletic Conference commissioner Karl Benson is optimistic his league can enjoy similar success as it tips off its tournament today at the same venue where Gonzaga beat Saint Mary’s 75-63 for the WCC tourney title in front of 7,146 fans.

“The reason we came to the Orleans was the neutral court and the destination,” Benson said. “We wanted to provide our coaches and student-athletes with a fair playing site and give the fans an attractive destination.”

The WAC has a one-year contract with the Orleans with a one-year option for 2012. How long the WAC stays could depend on the league’s level of success this week.

The tournament is going head to head with the Mountain West Conference, which is expected to draw big crowds at the Thomas & Mack Center.

Benson indicated that all-session ticket sales are up from the last six years — when the WAC tournament was played in Reno and Las Cruces, N.M. — but did not sell out like the WCC.

Benson said the league will probably exercise its option to play at the Orleans in 2012. But there’s no telling what will happen in 2013, when UNR, Fresno State and Hawaii leave the WAC and Denver, Texas-San Antonio and Texas State join.

“I don’t think we have many options,” Benson said. “We either stay at the Orleans or we go back to playing on campus.”

Play begins at noon today with Hawaii facing San Jose State. UNR plays Fresno State in another first-round game at 2:30 p.m.

Top-seeded and 23rd-ranked Utah State doesn’t play until Friday’s semifinals. The Aggies will probably have the largest following, and many of their fans opted not to buy tickets for all four days of the tourney.

“Unfortunately, there’s not the incentive there would be if it were a tougher ticket,” Benson said. “That being said, we’re expecting big crowds for the weekend.”

Eighth-seeded San Jose State has the league’s top scorer in Adrian Oliver, who is third in the nation with a 24.3 average.

No. 7 seed Fresno State has been led by freshman guard Kevin Olekaibe, who starred a year ago at Cimarron-Memorial High School.

“I think the first two rounds could see some surprises,” Benson said. “Those teams are all fairly evenly matched.”

The WAC tournament set an attendance record the last time it was in Las Vegas with 81,674 attending the six sessions in 1998. That won’t be the case this time.

But if Benson’s league can come close to filling Orleans Arena’s 7,847 seats, he’ll consider that a big success.

“We think the players, coaches and the fans are going to like the change coming to the Orleans,” he said. ”But at the end of the day, we have to make sure this move makes financial sense. You don’t want your conference tournament to lose money.”

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.

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