The Big Sky is doing a fast shuffle to get a makeshift arena ready in case Sacramento State wins the men's regular-season title

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This is the final installment of College Hoops Hangout, a weekly feature on the Pac-12 Confidential blog in which we’ve looked at trends, names and faces in college basketball outside the Pac-12, plus the hot games of the week.

It would be unfair, maybe even cruel, to suggest the Big Sky Conference is making its post-season tournament up as it goes along.

But as we speak, down in Sacramento, they’re fashioning an arena that’s very likely to host the league men’s championship next week. It’s a bit of quaint, low-major creativity to pull off something that’s going to be very important to a lot of people.

Here’s the short version of a long story: Sac State leads a competitive Big Sky by a game over Eastern Washington and Montana, and all it has to do is win one game on a two-game finishing road trip this week (at Southern Utah and Northern Arizona) to claim the regular-season title and host role. And that has sent the conference in search of a place to play the tournament.

Problem is, the Hornets play in something called “The Nest,” which is about as big as a lot of nests. The school website lists capacity as 1,012, which lends a whole new meaning to the concept of cozy.

Oh, and it was built in 1955.

About late January, when it became apparent Sac State was a threat to win the regular-season title, the wheels began turning in the league office. As Doug Fullerton, the commissioner, explains it, when Sacramento State entered the league, part of the contract stipulated that it couldn’t host the league tournament in the Nest because of its limited capacity.

“They knew the deal,” Fullerton told me early this week.

Ergo, we have “The Spa” – my term, not the Sky’s – about to host. If the Hornets hold up their end of the bargain, they’ll host the tournament in a 3,000-seat gym (with portable bleachers) otherwise known as the wellness center at Sac State, a student rec facility. Actually, their nickname for it is “The Well.”

The Big Sky pondered alternate facilities in Sacramento but was vexed by a lack of a mid-sized arena. It looked at Reno, but that’s two hours from Sacramento, and despite the gaming that might lure fans of the league, nixed that idea.

“The idea came up of the new wellness center and ‘building’ an arena from it,” said Fullerton. “They’re actually building us an arena in there.”

It’s not as easy as having a 94-foot basketball floor. An arena taking this on has to have adequate locker space and auxiliary rooms, TV platforms, a media workroom and connectivity. The NBA Kings are furnishing basket stanchions.

“It’ll be full, I’m sure,” Fullerton forecast. “Three thousand, on a good, tight shot on ESPN. I hope this is some kind of a genesis for them. They’ve got money and student fees that the president is reluctant (to spend). I think a 5-6,000-seat arena in that city would be busy constantly. I hope this triggers it.”

Fullerton says that without the facility-on-the-fly, the league would have gone to its No. 2 site. That could have been Eastern Washington, which put itself behind the eight-ball with losses the past two weekends to Northern Arizona and Montana. The Eagles have a 21-victory season going — most in their 32-year Division I history — but it’s likely they’ll have to prove themselves away from home to make it to their second NCAA tournament.

They won’t have this problem next year in the Sky. The league has decided to go to a predetermined host site, because, as it has added members like Southern Utah and North Dakota, the crunch with small locales can be overwhelming on short notice.

But that’s a knotty issue, too: Go neutral, and you run the risk of fans in the host city not caring about the event. Put it on the home floor of a league member, and you forfeit neutrality.

Five cities of an original seven are bidding: Missoula (the women’s tournament only), Spokane for both sides, and for the men’s tournament only, Reno, Ogden and Billings.

Senioritis

Gonzaga’s 73-70 loss to Brigham Young last week only added to my portfolio of weird Senior Night games witnessed. It’s an occasion peppered with sentimentality, which, in a fiercely competitive game, can make for strange seasoning.

Back in 1981, Oregon State was undefeated at 26-0 and about to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated (there was no conference tournament then). It was No. 1 and Senior Day in Corvallis would be a rich occasion to send off players like Steve Johnson, Mark Radford and Ray Blume, guys who had meant so much to the program.

Arizona State had other ideas. It was ranked No. 5, which should have been warning enough, but it was also a hugely talented team with future NBA talent like Byron Scott, Fat Lever and Alton Lister.

ASU led 40-20 at halftime and the Beavers never really made a serious charge. It was stunning – but not nearly as stunning as what happened the next week, when unheralded Kansas State upset the Beavers in the NCAA tournament.

Back in 2008, I was at Washington State’s Senior Day festivities, against Washington in Pullman. That was a big emotional day as well, as the class that put the Cougars on the map under the Bennetts, Dick and Tony, was saying goodbye – Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver, Robbie Cowgill.

Washington very nearly spoiled the occasion. It took everything the Cougars had to get it to overtime, and they won in double overtime, 76-73, a game in which the UW’s Jon Brockman sprained his ankle down the stretch.

Still remember Dick Bennett saying it just wouldn’t have been right if WSU had bid goodbye to those seniors without a victory, and perhaps it wouldn’t have. That was a watershed couple of years for the Cougars, an astonishing 52-win stretch in two seasons that probably will only grow more fabled with time.

The Gonzaga loss last week didn’t seem to carry quite the same gravitas, perhaps because Gonzaga has been winning a lot longer than the Cougars had before the Bennetts arrived. The shocking nature of it was wound up mostly in the fact that the Zags never led, pretty much unheard-of on their home court (it hadn’t happened in eight years).

But, stuff happens. They don’t always follow the script, and win or lose, life goes on – which is, after all, sort of the unspoken message on Senior Night.

This week

Saturday brings a sizzling ACC doubleheader, with second-ranked Virginia at No. 16 Louisville at 3:30 on ESPN, followed by third-rated Duke visiting North Carolina (19th) at 6 on ESPN.

Before that, at 1 p.m., there’s an interesting game between two unranked teams fighting to get into the NCAA tournament – Kansas State at Texas on ESPN2. At the same time, there’s Stanford at No. 5 Arizona on CBS.

Monday night is the West Coast Conference semifinals, at 6 and 8:30 p.m., respectively, on ESPN and ESPN2, respectively. Gonzaga, if it advances, would figure to be in the 6 p.m. slot. Tuesday night is the WCC final at 6 on ESPN.

The list

Pac-12/10/8

Single game scoring

 

  1. (tie) Lew Alcindor, UCLA vs. WSU, 1967        61

Eddie House, ASU vs. Cal, 2000        61

  1. Gary Payton, OSU vs. USC, 1990        58
  1. Lew Alcindor, UCLA vs. USC, 1966        56
  1. Hank Luisetti, Stanford vs. Duquesne, 1938     50