The Pac-12 is flirting with disaster with its hoop tournament in Vegas

The Pac-12 is flirting with disaster with its hoop tournament in Vegas
March 18, 2013, 9:00 am
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Let me just say this right off the bat, for a conference like the Pac-12, a post-season tournament makes very little sense.

Yeah, television money, I know. But long-term, I can't imagine TV networks are going to continue to pay for conference tournaments that not many people care about. Sure, in Oregon people were glued to their televisions, but really, nobody outside the state is going to get pumped up about this thing. And the TV ratings are probably wildly successful compared to the in-arena attendance.

The conference knows that no school in the league could host the event and draw crowds for anything but its own school's games. That's why the tourney was moved to Los Angeles' Staples Center, where it didn't draw well, either. So the conference decided it was time to move the event to Las Vegas, where the tournament could provide inveterate gamblers an excuse for one more gambling junket combined with some hoops. And it worked, to a degree. The tournament drew more fans -- including more than 11,000 for the title game -- and everyone in the Pac-12 seemed happy.

But for the few extra bucks, I think the conference is making as big a gamble as the guys in the high-stakes poker room.

Picture this... the tournament is actually being held in the MGM Grand Garden arena, which is attached to the MGM Grand hotel. The teams are all staying in the MGM Grand hotel. Which features, by the way, a "state-of-the-art 5,300-square foot betting arena." That would be the MGM Grand's race and sports book... a Disneyland for sports bettors. You can get a bet down on just about anything in that place, but keep in mind, too, unlike policies of old in Las Vegas, you can now even bet on the college games being played in that attached arena.

Or, as one of the Comcast SportsNet Northwest people on the scene covering the tournament said to me, "This is insane. I can stand in the MGM Grand sports book and bet on a college basketball game that's going to be played in this building."

If you ask me, it is insane. Do you think college basketball players, some of whom are actually over 21 and legally capable of wagering in the casino and sports book, aren't gong to hit that casino? If you do, you don't know college-age kids very well. Of course they were in the casino, for sure. At least one of them:

Walking around MGM, odds were you’d run into a player or two, as all 12 teams were staying at the hotel. Brock Motum, Washington State’s star big man, could be seen sitting at a slot machine, signing autographs for fans even after his Cougars had already been eliminated.

Look, I don't think the world will come to an end if a basketball player throws a few quarters in a slot machine. But I'm also pretty sure a picture of one of the players holding court at a slot machine won't end up on the cover of that school's media guide next season. I'm old enough to remember the point-shaving scandals that used to haunt college basketball in an earlier era. And really, it wasn't that long ago -- 1994 -- that Arizona State's Hedake Smith was involved in one of the biggest scandals of them all. To a whole lot of players, many feeling used and abused by the NCAA these days, anyway, it probably doesn't seem like a big crime just to shave a few points off a game -- not affecting the outcome -- but just the final score.

That's why when a Washington player threw in a seemingly meaningless three-pointer at the buzzer last week against Oregon, cutting the Ducks' winning margin from six to three, it caught the attention of some people who like to bet games. Depending on whether you wagered the game with the Huskies getting three or four points, that shot either got you a push or covered the spread. Money changed hands on that shot and when you play the game in Vegas, a whole lot more scrutiny will come with such a thing than if the game were played in someplace like Seattle or Eugene.

I just don't think it makes sense for a conference -- the haughty presidents of the schools in the Pac-12 sometimes come off as if they're running the Ivy League of the West -- to mess around with the temptations that Las Vegas can bring to college basketball players.

This is a bad bet for the conference. It's a gamble the Pac-12 cannot afford to lose.