LAS VEGAS — It was a thrilling few days of basketball at Orleans Arena last March, featuring a few instant-classic games and instant-classic performances, thrilling the sellout crowds in attendance.
But nobody had a clue about the dramatic changes that were coming.
In the West Coast Conference Tournament quarterfinals one year ago, Saint Mary’s Jordan Ford (43 points) out-dueled Pepperdine’s Colbey Ross (42 points) in the quarterfinals, on their way to recording two of the top three scoring performances in WCC Tournament history.
Then two days later, in the semifinals, Gonzaga, ranked No. 2 in the nation, squeaked past San Francisco 81-77. That was followed by Saint Mary’s 51-50 upset of No. 14 BYU in the semifinal nightcap as Ford drilled a game-winning jumper with 1.4 seconds left.
The Zags went on to defeat the Gaels the following night to claim yet another WCC Tournament championship.
Just days later, college basketball, the NCAA Tournament — and seemingly the world — shut down due to the pandemic.
In 2020, the WCC was one of the few conferences that completed its tournament. Many other league tournaments, which tipped off later, either ended abruptly or were canceled due to the spread of COVID-19.
“I remember how much we didn’t know and how quickly we started learning and knowing what everything meant with COVID-19,” recalled WCC commissioner Gloria Nevarez. “We went into that tournament knowing about it. We had protocols. We were in hyper-cleaning mode and disinfecting. But our social distancing wasn’t really a thing yet. We talked about fist bumps instead of handshakes. It wasn’t until the NBA canceled that everything changed. Then it’s incredible how long this has been. I never really imagined us having the same conversation all the way to the next year’s tournament.”
Here we are, one year later, and the WCC Tournament is back — but under much different circumstances, in an almost entirely empty arena.
The conference, and its 10 member schools, have been planning this event for months to ensure that the WCC Tournament could be played safely. The WCC worked closely with medical personnel in the city of Las Vegas and Clark County officials. The league considered myriad contingency plans as the pandemic continued on.
There was speculation that Gonzaga, projected as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, might opt out of playing in the WCC Tournament. There was speculation that the tournament might not be played at all.
As it turned out, 19 of the 20 WCC basketball teams (only the San Diego women’s team isn’t participating due to COVID-19 issues) are in Las Vegas for this year’s tournament.
This time, of course, no fans are allowed in the arena. There are no bands, no cheerleaders, no mascots. The pageantry and spectacle that defines the conference tournament doesn’t exist this year.
Unlike other years, famed ESPN analyst Dick Vitale isn’t wandering around the bowels of Orleans Arena between games. Broadcasters that are on-site have to use their “golf” voices during free throws because it’s so quiet inside the arena.
There’s a limited number of media members on hand, sitting in the upper reaches of Orleans Arena, about a $10 cab ride from the court.
“We are meeting or exceeding state, local and federal guidelines in all facets of hosting this event,” said WCC spokesman Ryan McCrary. “The WCC’s protocols and procedures mirror what teams will experience at the NCAA Tournament. By not allowing fans, friends and family into the arena we are further minimizing the risks and making student-athlete health and safety the priority.”
Nevarez explained why the conference decided not to allow fans this season.
“This is certainly a difficult decision, but it is the responsible decision for the WCC,” she said. “The WCC Tournament has been sold out ever since the event was moved to Las Vegas 13 years ago, and we value the passionate fan bases and the ability of friends and families of our student-athletes to support their teams each year. Unfortunately, we are in unprecedented times and we must take unprecedented measures.
“The guiding principle in everything we discuss is the health and safety of our participants,” Nevarez continued. “Limiting the number of people inside the Orleans Arena that are not subject to our testing and safety protocols helps provide the safest environment to conduct our tournament. While Clark County has provided the opportunity to have a limited number of spectators for our event, we made this decision to allow us to be in the best position to protect our student-athletes, staff and everyone at our event.”
For teams with NCAA Tournament hopes, it’s crucial to remain healthy in order to avoid jeopardizing their chances of playing in the Big Dance due to COVID-19 issues.
BYU coach Mark Pope said this year’s WCC Tournament experience will be “super different” than last year. The Cougars are waiting until Sunday night to travel to Las Vegas ahead of Monday’s semifinal game.
“Our idea is like, we’re going to try and give ourselves the least chance of any outside exposure that we possibly can,” Pope said. “We’re going in on Sunday night because we have to test at a given time Sunday night. So we’re actually going to land, go straight to our testing appointment, and then go straight to our rooms. We’ll be quarantined there except for shootarounds and games. We’re taking the utmost caution. That part is in the background, but we clearly felt the reality of losing this opportunity last year and we’ll probably be forever scarred from that. So we’re being incredibly cautious and trying to take every precaution possible, including making this as compact and making it the most low exposure trip.”
BYU women’s basketball coach Jeff Judkins, the WCC women’s Coach of the Year, said his team, which also plays in the semifinals Monday, was planning to leave for Las Vegas Saturday afternoon.
“In the past we would have gone down Friday night and watched our opponent. We can’t watch our opponent live. So we’re going down Saturday afternoon,” he said. “We’ll do our normal stuff like we’re preparing for a game. On Sunday, we’ll let them relax and we’ll have some type of Sunday (religious) service. We’ll do that and keep them busy by doing some things as a team. We’re kind of used to this.”
Teams have been navigating through the pandemic all season long and even dating back to last summer.
“This whole year, we haven’t been able to go out anywhere. We’ve had to stay around, stay in. That’s why to be Coach of the Year this year is pretty amazing because of what we’ve had to do — all the teams — staying inside,” Judkins said. “You’ve had to stay on your players to stay careful with COVID-19. But I think we’re used to it. We’re more prepared for it. That’s a big part of coaching. It’s not always the X’s and O’s, but it’s all the other stuff that you’re trying to do. But I have a really good team with really good leadership. They want to win. … We’ll have to be careful with (the virus). We may go for a walk around the hotel. I don’t know. We’ll see what we can do.”
Regardless of the outcome of the WCC Tournament, this promises to be much different from last year’s version — and any other tournament that’s preceded it.