Predetermined host sites and expanding the tournament field are two major changes the Big Sky Conference is considering for their men’s and women’s basketball championships.
“It came after pretty lengthy discussions over the years with our head coaches and athletic administrators just on how difficult it was to get travel booked on a last minute’s notice. (You) don’t know where you’re going and don’t know all the teams that are going to be in it,” said Big Sky Conference Director of Championships Ron Loghry. “But then the coaches, their point was trying to build something within the conference—for lack of a better word—a community in the conference, ‘we’re all in this together’ type of event. And they just felt not having everybody there every year keeps us from doing that.”
Since 1991, the Big Sky Conference Championships have been hosted by the teams with the best regular season conference records. This format has historically caused teams and fans to not know where the conference tournament would be held until within a few weeks of when the games would be played, which made it difficult to make arrangements for travel and lodging.
“The challenge is, the way we do it now, you may not know the winner of the regular season until the last (week),” said WSU men’s basketball coach Randy Rahe. “You might have five days to figure out who’s gonna host, and that’s a logistics nightmare.”
Currently several locations are being looked at to serve as a predetermined host, including several neutral locations like Reno, Nevada; Las Vegas, Nevada and Billings, Montana. Rahe said that while he supports the idea of the conference championship being held at a predetermined site, he also likes the home-court advantage that the team would get if they were the regular season champions.
“I think on one hand, I’m a little bit torn between moving the conference tournament to a neutral site rather than having the regular season champion team host it because we’ve been able to do that some times, and if we’re good enough to do that, you’d sure like to get it on your home court. So on that hand, I like that opportunity. But I do understand that the conference would like to eventually maybe go to a neutral site. Maybe go to a place like (Las Vegas), get our conference a little more recognition,” Rahe said. “I think if you do go (to a neutral site), you have to reward the regular season champion with a bye or two, however it may be. Again, I’m a little torn because I like to have a chance to win the league, and if we do, I’d like to be at home, and I’m sure most coaches would feel that way.”
Noghry said that by having the tournament held at a predetermined site, it would help with the logistics involved in organizing it, as well as allowing the conference and schools new opportunities.
“Administrators wanted to save some money by knowing where they were going and that their team was in it, to make plans ahead of time so that the tournament could be marketed years in advance and get corporate sponsorships,” Noghry said. “Just a lot of things we and our schools aren’t able to do in the current format.”
WSU women’s basketball coach Bethann Ord said that she liked the idea of having the tournament hosted at a predetermined site each year, adding that at previous schools she has been with, that is typically how their tournaments are formatted.
“Most conferences that I’ve ever been in, that’s the way they do it,” Ord said. “I think it would be a terrific idea to have (the tournament) at one neutral site chosen before the season starts because then you’ll get more fans, more people can get there. It’s just a win-win in my opinion.”
Ord also said that another idea for hosting the tournament she would be in favor of would be if both the men’s and women’s championships were hosted by the same Big Sky school, and each year the tournament is hosted by a different Big Sky school as they rotate through the conference members.
Like Ord and Rahe, WSU Athletics Director Jerry Bovee also isn’t against the conference championships being hosted at a predetermined site. But at the same time, Bovee says that he feels the current method of determining the host site works well for the Wildcats’ program.
“Here at Weber State in the 50 plus years (the men’s basketball team has) been Division I and in the Big Sky Conference, we’ve won the regular season about half the time, so on one hand, the hot-team-hosts concept has been good to us,” Bovee said. “On the other hand, I can see the argument by some that it’s time to look at a bigger venue or a more consistent venue. I guess, for us, it feels like a mixed bag because if the hot team hosts, then we feel pretty good chance with where our program is.”
Along with the concept of predetermining where the tournament will be held each year, the Big Sky is also considering expanding the tournament size to include all 12 conference members—an idea that both Rahe and Ord support.
“I’m in strong favor of all 12 teams being in the tournament no matter where the tournament is at. I just think that that’s what the real conferences do. I think there’s a very few conferences that only take a few and leave a few at home,” Rahe said. “I think that’s as important as anything to move our conference forward. Get everybody into the tournament. It gives every team a second chance, a second season. It keeps their program and their fanbase interested.”
For Ord, including all 12 teams in the tournament adds to the excitement in the final month of the season.
“You put everybody in it, and that’s why they call it March Madness,” Ord said. “With our conference getting only one team in (to the NCAA Championships), that would add to the great, crazy atmosphere to have everybody included.”
Bovee said that by allowing all members of the Big Sky into the tournament, it will be more appealing for fans to get interested in and go to, as well as benefitting the tournament in the long run.
“For the long-term health of the tournament, you do want to provide a built-in fanbase,” Bovee said. “I think it will be easier for all fans if they know where it’s going to be and if they know their team is going to be in it beforehand.”
The final decision on the changes to the tournament could come as soon as this season’s conference championship. Bovee said that if the decision is made for the conference tournament to be hosted at a predetermined site, Weber State will make a strong push to act as host.
“If we do move towards a predetermined site, then we are definitely going to be in the mix,” Bovee said.