West Coast College Basketball Teams Descend on Las Vegas

Hoops, anyone? The area will host the Pac-12, Mountain West, Big West, and Western Athletic Conference tournaments.
West Coast College Basketball Teams Descend on Las Vegas
Southern California guard Boogie Ellis (5) is defended by Arizona guard Kylan Boswell (4) during the first half of a game won by the underdog Trojans in Los Angeles on March 9, 2024. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo)
Dan Wood

While it won’t exactly qualify as the center of the college basketball universe this week, what with premier conference tournaments going on in Kansas City, Nashville, Minneapolis, New York, and Washington, D.C., Las Vegas will nonetheless be rocking with postseason hoops action.

The Pacific 12, Mountain West, Big West, and Western Athletic Conference tournaments will take place simultaneously at separate venues in the Las Vegas area as teams strive to be included when NCAA Tournament selections and pairings are announced March 17.

All will run March 13–16, the Pac-12 at T-Mobile Arena on the Las Vegas Strip, the Mountain West at the Thomas & Mack Center on the Nevada-Las Vegas campus, the Big West men’s and women’s tournaments at the Dollar Loan Center in suburban Henderson, and the WAC men’s and women’s events at Orleans Arena downtown.

The Pac-12’s final season before schools go their separate ways as part of a seismic realignment of college athletics has been rather anti-climactic, with most conference members failing to distinguish themselves. Regular-season champion Arizona (24–7 overall) remains a national power and runner-up Washington State (23–8) is also likely to be NCAA Tournament-bound, but that could very well be it for the once-proud league.

The Mountain West, meanwhile, doesn’t have the national cachet of power conferences such as the Big 12, Southeastern, Big Ten, Big East, or Atlantic Coast, but could conceivably triple the Pac-12’s NCAA Tournament representation.

“I genuinely believe there are seven different teams that could win the Mountain West Conference Tournament,” college basketball analyst Gary Parrish said during a March 6 CBS Sports Network studio show. “I don’t think there are seven different teams that could win the Big 12 Tournament. I don’t think there are seven different teams that could win the SEC Tournament. But that Mountain West is totally up for grabs. It’s going to be perhaps the best watch we have all week.”

Utah State, with a roster nearly full of newcomers under first–year Coach Danny Sprinkle, surprised everyone by winning the Mountain West regular–season championship with a 14–4 record and going 26–5 overall.

The Aggies and fellow top-five seeds Nevada, Boise State, UNLV, and San Diego State earned first-round byes and won’t play until March 14. Other than UNLV, all those teams, as well as New Mexico and Colorado State, boast at least 22 victories and are considered legitimate NCAA Tournament contenders.

Opening–round Mountain West games March 13 include Fresno State (11–20 overall, 4–14 conference) against Wyoming (15–16, 8–10) at 11 a.m., and San Jose State (9–22, 2–16) against Colorado State (22–9, 10–8) at 1:30 p.m. San Diego State (22–9, 11–7) will face UNLV (19–11, 12–6) on its home court at 2:30 p.m. March 14. The championship game is set for 3 p.m. March 16 and will be televised by CBS.

None of the Pac-12’s four California schools own a winning record and thus would advance to the NCAA Tournament only by capturing an unlikely conference tournament championship.

Despite going just 14–17 overall and tying for ninth place at 8–12 in conference play, USC might be the best bet to make a deep Pac-12 run. The Trojans, who have been beset by injuries much of this year, closed the regular season with three consecutive victories, including a 78–65 upset over visiting Arizona, then ranked fifth in the Associated Press national poll.

“I thought this was the team we were going to have in January,” USC Coach Andy Enfield told reporters after the March 9 win over Arizona. “We’re coming together as a team. I’m proud of our guys. They’ve really improved since we got healthy. We’re playing at a pretty high level.”

Guards Boogie Ellis, a senior, and freshman Isaiah Collier are scoring a team-high 16.6 points per game apiece for the Trojans, who open the Pac-12 Tournament at noon Wednesday against Washington (17–14, 9–11).

“We have to go into Vegas confident, and also understand the margin for error is very small,” Mr. Enfield said. “We know that because we’ve been on the wrong side of a few [close] games this year.”

UCLA, a much younger and far more inconsistent team under Coach Mick Cronin than in recent years, is 15–16 overall and finished fifth in the Pac–12 at 10–10. The Bruins open tournament play at 2:30 p.m. March 13 against last-place Oregon State (13–18, 5–15).

Bay Area rivals California (13–18, 9–11) and Stanford (13–17, 8–12) square off in a first–round game at 6 p.m. March 13. The Golden Bears and Cardinal split two regular–season meetings, each winning at home.

The Pac-12 title game is set for 6 p.m. March 16 and will be televised by Fox.

UC Irvine, which is 24–8 overall, captured the Big West regular-season title with a 17–3 record. The Anteaters and UC Davis (19–12, 14–6) have byes into the March 15 semifinals.

UC San Diego, 21–11 overall, finished second in the Big West at 15–5 but will not play in the conference tournament because the Tritons are in the process of transitioning to NCAA Division 1 membership and post-season eligibility.

Opening-round Big West games March 13 match UC Riverside (15–17, 10–10) against Cal State Bakersfield (13–18, 8–12) at 6 p.m., and UC Santa Barbara (16–14, 9–11) against Cal State Northridge (18–14, 9–11) at 8:30.

Long Beach State (18–14, 10–10) will face the Riverside–Bakersfield winner at 8:30 p.m. March 14 in what could be the final game for Coach Dan Monson. The university announced March 11 that it has mutually agreed to part ways with its 17-year coach at the conclusion of the season.

The Big West championship game is set for 6:30 p.m. March 16 and will be televised on ESPN2. As one of the nation’s lower-ranked conferences, the Big West appears likely to send only its tournament champion to the NCAA Tournament.

The Big West women’s tournament begins March 13 with UC Davis facing Cal State Fullerton at noon, and UC Santa Barbara meeting Long Beach State at 2:30.

UC Riverside and Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo have byes into the March 14 second round, while top-seeded Hawaii and No. 2 UC Irvine have byes into the March 15 semifinals. The championship game is set for 3 p.m. March 16.

California Baptist, located in Riverside, is the lone California school in the 11–member WAC. The Lancers’ women are 26–3 and won the regular–season championship with an 18–2 record. The tournament’s top seed, they earned a bye into a noon March 15 semifinal.

Cal Baptist’s men, 15–16 overall, went 8–12 to finish eighth and secure the final WAC Tournament berth. They open at 6 p.m. March 13 against Utah Valley (16–15, 11–9).

The WAC championship games are set for March 16, the women at 10:30 a.m. on ESPNU and the men at 8:30 p.m. on ESPN2.

Dan Wood is a community sports reporter based in Orange County, California. He has covered sports professionally for some 43 years, spending nearly three decades in the newspaper industry and 14 years in radio. He is an avid music fan, with a strong lean toward country and classic rock.