basketball idaho

It’s the semifinals of the 2015 Big Sky Men’s Basketball Tournament and the Northern Arizona University Lumberjacks just hit a pair of free throws. The game is tied with eight seconds left. Montana inbounds the ball to Jordan Gregory, who takes it the length of the court and makes a layup to regain the lead.

Jermaine Edwards, a Montana player who wasn’t dressed out for the game, runs into the middle of the floor to celebrate. But there’s still half-a-second left in the game, and Northern Arizona is trying to inbound the ball to set up a last-ditch heave.

The refs should call a technical foul on the Griz, but they don’t.

After the game, first-year Griz head coach Travis DeCuire gets into an argument with the Lumberjacks’ coach. It turns into a pushing match. Within a few seconds, everybody on the court is shouting and shoving.

Meanwhile, over 7,000 fans at Dahlberg Arena egg them on. The house is packed. Everybody is on their feet. It’s a real college basketball moment in a real college basketball environment.

This was the last time the team with the best record in the Big Sky Conference hosted the league tournament. The next year, 2016, only 2,516 people showed up to the Reno Events Center for the championship game. In 2017, there were 2,025. Two out of three seats were empty.

The decision to move the tournament to a neutral site — Reno from 2016-18 and Boise, Idaho from 2019-21 — solved some logistical problems. Teams and fans could book flights and hotel rooms years in advance, instead of getting just a week or two of notice. That’s part of the reason nearly every other conference in the country hosts its tournament in a neutral arena.

But by falling in line with the rest of college basketball, the Big Sky lost part of its identity. When ESPN broadcasts the Championship Game on Saturday, nothing will distinguish the Big Sky from the Big West or the Southland or the Mid-American conferences. It’s just another league with a tournament in a second-rate city. At the end of the game, one of the teams will cut the nets down in an empty arena, celebrating the fact their next game will be on a big-time stage in a sold-out arena.

The neutral site kills the energy during the regular season as well. As time wound down in a 75-74 Griz win at Dahlberg last month, a Griz fan told me, “I know this a great game, but it’s tough to care since it doesn’t matter if they win.”

The conference season is nearly meaningless. When the tournament moved to Reno, the Big Sky allowed each of its 11 schools a spot. The teams with the worst records aren’t cut out. The only thing worth playing for is the first-round bye that comes with earning a top-five seed. If you aren’t near the middle of the pack, you have nothing to worry about.

In the Big Sky, the best regular season team is the one wins the most of its 20 games over 11 weeks. Each week, every team studies upcoming opponents’ film, finding weaknesses and deciding how to pick each team apart. It’s chess.

In the Big Sky, the best tournament team is the one that can win four games in four days (or three games in three days with the bye). Teams may not even get 24 hours of rest, and most of that time is spent recovering so they won’t burn out by the end of the weekend. It’s a marathon.

The Lady Griz, who’ve been running a six- or seven-player rotation because of injuries, will play Thursday, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, Wenesday, Friday, if they make it to the championship. That’s six games in eight days.

Good teams with good coaches perform better in the regular season, and that’s who should represent the Big Sky in the national tournament.

Cut out the fat at the bottom of the league and throw in another rest day instead. Give the best team home-court advantage, since the tournament will still value stamina over smarts.

This weekend, Griz fans should be buying buckets of paint  for their faces, their signs and maybe their bodies – as Montana defends its home court for three straight days, trying to punch their ticket to March Madness.

Instead, fans of every single team will watch from home. It will be equal and it will be balanced, but it won’t be fair. It won’t be fair to the players; they deserve an audience. It won’t be fair to the Griz; they deserve support. It won’t be fair to fans; they deserve a show.

Nobody deserves an empty arena.