<strong>LAS VEGAS—</strong> I love Las Vegas. I think it is a great place to host a conference tournament. I was more than excited a few years ago when the Western Athletic Conference moved from hosting the tournament in Reno (and occasionally Las Cruces) to Vegas.
With the Pac-12 tournament now being played at the MGM Grand, three conference tournaments (WAC, Mountain West, and Pac-12) were all played during the same weekend in Las Vegas this year, with the West Coast Conference playing its tournament there the week before. This sudden mecca of college basketball provides a truly great environment.
However, as fun as the WAC tournament has been at The Orleans – which is a pretty solid venue – it is truly small potatoes when compared to the Mountain West Conference that Utah State will be a part of next season. The incredible jump the Aggies will be taking in the level of talent aside, the MW experience is so completely different than that of the WAC that it is almost comical.
With USU heading into the Mountain West next season, we decided to check out both tournaments this year while we were in Vegas. There just simply is no comparison. The Mountain West is big time. Having covered the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden in 2011 (the year Kemba Walker and UCONN won five games in five nights for the first time to win the tournament), I have seen college basketball tournaments at the highest level possible.
The MW championship game which took place Saturday afternoon and featured hometown favorite UNLV and nationally ranked New Mexico blew my MSG experience out of the water. There are literally very few moments that equal the sheer volume of the Spectrum at its loudest during the 2007-11 years, but the Thomas & Mack Center crowd was up to the task.
And don’t be fooled, this wasn’t simply because the Rebels had their home crowd there. New Mexico Lobo fans were at least equal to, if not greater in size and volume than the UNLV crowd. Simply put, with more than 18,000 in attendance, it was one of the most electric basketball games I’ve ever been to.
Once that game ended, we grabbed some dinner, and then headed back to The Orleans to catch the WAC title game between New Mexico State and the team that knocked out USU, UT Arlington. The game itself was a decent game, as the Mavericks put up a good fight and were in it right until the end. After returning from the Thomas & Mack Center though, the atmosphere was laughable.
There were maybe 1,000 fans dispersed throughout the arena. I can’t imagine how it must have looked on TV, but it was a poor showing for a conference that continues to fade into irrelevancy.
We know that Utah State will have to improve its basketball product to compete with the top teams in the MW conference next season. However, the team is not the only thing that will have to improve. USU fans have traveled well in the past, and they will need to show up en masse again. Certainly an improved product on the court and an improved conference will help.
More important than showing up, the crowd will have to get involved. Along with the MW championship game, I also caught one of the semifinal games, and one of the things that stood out to me was what appeared to be the lack of a discernible student section. Either that is not how the MW conference operates (providing student sections for schools), or the alumni from the various fanbases are so involved that I could not tell the difference.
Whatever the case may be, Utah State students, fans, and alumni better be prepared. With the recent end of its 2012-13 season, USU is no longer a mid-major program. The Mountain West was the No. 1 ranked conference in RPI this season – ahead of Big 10, the Big East, the ACC, ahead of everybody. Five of the conference’s nine teams made the NCAA tournament – that’s 55.6 percent of the teams.
This is a very exciting time for Utah State, but it’s also time to put-up or shut-up. USU students, fans, and alumni have long believed that if given the shot the Aggies could compete in this type of conference. They will get their shot with football first in a few months, but the Mountain West will always be just outside the power conferences in college football. That is not necessarily the case in basketball, as this current season has proven. Just like the coaches and players must improve to compete, the students, fans, and alumni must be up to the task as well.