The Pac-12 Tournament champion will be crowned Saturday night, but the big winner this week was the conference itself, as the event's first year in Las Vegas has been a rousing success.
The Pac-12 (then the Pac-10) brought back its postseason tournament in 2002 and had held it at Staples Center in Los Angeles until this year. LA seemed like a logical choice of venue given its tourist allure and proximity to two of the conference's schools, but attendance had suffered in recent years, in part due to an overall decline in Pac-12 quality of play. The vast Staples Center has never been accused of intimacy, and this weakness was exposed many games last year were played in front of quiet, sparse crowds.
A change was needed and the Pac-12 took its act 260 miles east to an already cluttered conference tournament field in the desert. Vegas also plays host to the West Coast, WAC and Mountain West tournaments, but the Pac-12 has been able to distinguish itself with superior talent and close games (through the first two days of the tournament, the average margin of victory in all games was five).
The MGM Grand Garden Arena has served as a suitable venue in its inaugural year hosting a college basketball tournament, its smaller capacity compared to the Staples Center helping to make for more television-friendly crowds. All the conference's teams are also staying at the MGM Grand, making for a central base of operations and meeting point for fans that did not exist in Los Angeles.
Las Vegas is also seen as more of a destination city, its main industry obviously being tourism. As Arizona coach Sean Miller said before Friday's game, "this gives people an excuse to come to Las Vegas." The city is also in driving distance from for fans in Arizona, Utah and Southern California, covering almost half of the conference's 12 teams. One complaint in previous years was the lack of students at the tournament, and this change should help alleviate that problem.
Friday night's first semifinal game between the Pac-12's preeminent basketball schools - UCLA and Arizona - showed what a difference the move has made in this first year. Strong contingents of fans from each school packed the arena and made for a raucous environment that was nonexistent in previous years.
An added bonus for the television crowd this year is the return of the hyperbolic basketball philosopher that is commentator Bill Walton.
A change of scenery, quality play, energetic crowds, and the quotable Walton have all combined to inject some life into an event that was struggling for relevance.
One drawback to this year's format is the late timing of the championship game. The Pac-12 has always concluded its tournament on Saturday at 6:00 eastern time on CBS, but this year's contract with ESPN has shoved the finale into the 11:00 slot, which means one of the week's most exciting tournaments will end while most of the country has gone to bed.
Despite this one blemish, moving the tournament to Las Vegas has proved to be a smart move for the Pac-12, and I wouldn't be surprised if commissioner Larry Scott looks to extend the three-year contract with the MGM Grand after next year's event.