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Will WCC Tournament be played in Las Vegas? Spokane? BYU’s Mark Pope weighs in

So what will the conference tournament — set for March 4-9 — actually look like during a pandemic?

BYU coach Mark Pope claps on the sideline of a game against the Pacific Tigers at the Marriott Center in Provo.
Brigham Young Cougars head coach Mark Pope works the sideline during the game against the Pacific Tigers at the Marriott Center in Provo on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021.
Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

For now, the annual West Coast Conference Tournament is scheduled to tip off in less than one month at Orleans Arena — likely without fans being allowed to attend.

Reality is, half of the WCC’s 10 teams have been on pause since last week and BYU’s two scheduled home games against Saint Mary’s (Thursday) and San Diego (Saturday) were postponed or canceled.

So what will the conference tournament — set for March 4-9 — actually look like during a pandemic?

Around the country, there have been debates about whether or not conference tournaments should be played and whether they can be played safely.

On Tuesday, the Big Ten moved its tournament from Chicago to Indianapolis, which will be hosting the NCAA Tournament this season. Holding the conference tournament in Indianapolis is expected to increase the chances of Big Ten teams meeting testing and safety protocols.

Could the 2021 WCC Tournament be relocated to, say, Spokane?

That’s a scenario coach Mark Few of No. 1 Gonzaga floated Monday after an 82-71 win over the Cougars.

The Zags are, of course, a lock to get into the Big Dance and they don’t necessarily need to play in the WCC Tournament. For Gonzaga, it’s about competing for a national championship and it doesn’t want to risk any COVID-19 cases preventing it from playing in the NCAAs.

BYU is also projected as an NCAA Tournament team as an at-large participant.

The WCC Tournament’s title game is scheduled for March 9 and Selection Sunday is set to be held March 14, with the NCAA Tournament starting March 18-19.

The WCC has numerous contracts — including with ESPN, which will broadcast some of the conference tournament, as well as with corporate sponsors. The conference tournament is a big revenue-generator for the league, although less so without fans being able to buy tickets.

With the NCAA Tournament canceled last year, programs all over the country missed out on millions of dollars.

“Especially in a conference like ours, actually in any conference, it’s about how many wins we all can accrue in the NCAA Tournament,” Few said. “That’s how all the schools get their money, so that has to be part of it. However, we want to play games. My guys live to play and I don’t necessarily know that we want to take three weeks off (before the NCAA Tournament).”

Few suggested having the top four teams play in Spokane to determine the WCC Tournament champion.

“I think there’s probably a way to do it and it probably isn’t gathering all 10 teams down in Vegas,” he said. “Whether it’s taking the top three to Spokane and playing it off after they settle it earlier or something along those lines, everybody has put some good thought into it and I think we’ll come to a good conclusion when it’s time.”

BYU coach Mark Pope said on his coaches show Tuesday that contingency plans are being discussed.

“That’s all going to work itself out. Do you know what I like? I like the fact that we’re having every possible conversation in real time so that nothing’s going to take us by surprise,” he said. “We’re coming down to the end here and we’re going to have to make some decisions. Hopefully, everyone’s churning through the ideas and the thought process and going to figure it out.”

Pope understands what the WCC Tournament means to the league.

“We have two teams that are squarely in (the NCAA Tournament) right now. That’s important for the league. It’s important financially for the league,” he said. “We’ll figure out the best way to proceed and it will happen. Coach Few does swing a big stick in this league. So a lot of times when he says something, it’s like, that’s what’s going to happen. We’ll see.”

For months WCC officials have discussed numerous scenarios and backup plans when it comes to hosting the WCC Tournament.

“In this environment, we have contingency plans behind everything because that’s just the prudent thing to do. Right now, we’re optimistic,” WCC commissioner Gloria Nevarez told the Deseret News last month. “We have four other leagues that are tipping off in Vegas. We began meeting regularly with them, in order that we’re coordinated and all sharing the same information.”

The Pac-12, the Mountain West, the Western Athletic Conference and the Big West also have their conference tournaments scheduled to be played in Las Vegas in March.

Being able to stage a safe conference tournament is a major priority for the WCC.

“The tournament is definitely the crown jewel of our conference operations and events. It is a sold-out event every year. Last year, it was amazing,” Nevarez said. “It’s been sold-out every year since we began in Vegas (in 2009). It’s been amazing.

“Secondly, our ESPN exposure during that event is amazing on both the men’s and women’s side. We’re very fortunate. Leagues our size don’t have that kind of tournament exposure. Typically, we send multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament. Our WCC event has definitely been a platform to doing that in a lot of years.”

Determining the seeding for the tournament will be something to watch as well, considering that teams have played an unequal number of games.

BYU, for example, have had nine league contests while Saint Mary’s, Santa Clara and San Diego have played only five.

Pope said the league has “started to look at other metrics — win percentage, NET rankings, they’ve kind of gone back and forth. Everything is nontraditional. For seeding in the tournament, you just can’t use straight-up record anymore.”

In a college basketball season unlike any other, get ready for a conference tournament, unlike any other.