Las Vegas goes from forbidden city to go-to city for NCAA

Once a hands-off, non-starter to host the NCAA Tournament, Las Vegas has now become partners with the NCAA as it hosts the West Regional for the first time and will host the Final Four in 2028.

LAS VEGAS — If you look hard enough in college basketball, you can usually find something or somebody with a Las Vegas connection to it.

Sixteen months ago, they played something called the Good Sam Empire Classic at T-Mobile Arena. It featured the nation’s top two teams at the time — No. 1 Gonzaga and No. 2 UCLA. Even though it was late November, it generated plenty of attention in the college hoops world. Lots of hype, lots of anticipation. After all, it was No. 1 vs. No. 2. Who wouldn’t want to watch? Certainly, the fact Gonzaga beat UCLA in the national semifinals at Indianapolis only a few months earlier was cause for great anticipation.

Then they tossed the ball up.

Gonzaga 83, UCLA 63. 

“It reminded me of something you’d see in a regional final or a regional semifinal,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said at the time after his team whupped up on the Bruins. “It was a great atmosphere and it matched perfectly for the game, what was at stake and the two teams that were out there.” 

Thursday, these two teams renew acquaintances on the same court, only this time it is in the NCAA West Regional semifinal. And the stakes are considerably higher this time around than they were back on Nov. 23, 2021. The winner of the Sweet 16 matchup plays Saturday against the survivor of Arkansas-Connecticut for a trip to the Final Four in Houston. The loser is done.

At least in 2021, there was still a lot of basketball left to be played for both teams. I’m guessing UCLA coach Mick Cronin kept a copy of the game tape and he’s likely breaking it out before the game, you know, just to serve as a friendly reminder in case his players forgot what it was like to leave Vegas a big loser.

Both Gonzaga and UCLA were here just a couple of weeks ago. The Zags were cutting down the nets at the West Coast Conference championship at Orleans Arena on March 7; the Bruins falling to Arizona at T-Mobile in the Pac-12 championship game March 11.

Now they’re back in town. However, Vegas has not been kind to the guys from Westwood. They’re 2-3 this year, losing to Illinois and Baylor back in November, then losing the Pac-12 title game to Arizona after beating Colorado and Oregon. So luck has not been a lady to UCLA.

“I think we want to break the curse here,” said freshman Amari Bailey.

We should be treated to a much more competitive game this time around. There’s no Chet Holmgren, the 7-foot-1 version of Olive Oyl to wreak havoc on UCLA. He’s in Oklahoma City these days trying to figure out the NBA game. Drew Timme and Julian Strawther are still with Few while Cronin will have the duo of Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell on the floor seeking revenge for last year’s beat-down.

“Yeah, I’ve seen it,” Jaquez said of the tape. “We’re glad to be here in the Sweet 16.

“I think it’s a new team. We’ve got a lot of new guys. That game has little effect on what we’re doing now.”

The fact these games are even being played in Las Vegas remains amazing to me. Much like when the Raiders moved here from Oakland and I still didn’t believe it until they actually kicked the ball off against the Saints inside Allegiant Stadium for the first-ever Las Vegas Raiders home game three years ago. When you live here long enough, you develop a healthy distrust and dislike for the NFL and the NCAA. 

But thanks to the hard work of a lot of people behind the scenes over a lot of years with a little help from the U.S. Supreme Court, the NCAA relented and granted Las Vegas a Regional for men’s basketball as well as the 2028 Final Four along with the men’s ice hockey Frozen Four in 2026. Getting the Court to overturn the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) and paving the way for legalized sports betting throughout the country no longer was a valid reason for the NCAA to snub Las Vegas. That and the fact we’ve had college championships played in this town since the 1980s but more recently, when the WCC went to the Orleans in 2009 and the Pac-12 followed at the MGM Grand Garden in 2013, then moving to T-Mobile in 2018 to join the Mountain West at the Thomas & Mack Center, the city became Basketball Central in March.

Today, five conferences (WCC, Pac-12, WAC, Big West and Mountain West) play their postseason tourneys here. The NCAA noticed and, more important, paid attention. Not a sniff of scandal and with the sports books keeping a watchful eye on the betting, it has been smooth sailing.

Few and Gonzaga deserve some credit for the NCAA being here this week. The Zags’ success here (12 of 15 WCC tourney titles, three runner-up spots) and sold out games annually at the Orleans since 2009 created a great atmosphere in Las Vegas for the NCAA to see.

“We don’t take any credit,” Few said. “Back then, we were pushing hard for a neutral site. So I give Commissioner (Michael) Gilleran, and our president at Gonzaga and our athletic director Mike Roth for pushing that through. It ended up being a brilliant move (to come to Las Vegas). 

“There’s so much energy. You’re walking down the street and there’s WCC teams. There’s Pac-12 teams and fans. There’s WAC teams. There’s Mountain West. It’s like a mini-Final Four around here that week of the conference tournament. It’s the place to be.” 

But while conference tournaments are wonderful to host, this is special. The West Regional, which is sold out, starts what will be a trifecta of major sporting events in town. In mid-November, the Formula 1 Las Vegas Grand Prix auto race will run down the Las Vegas Strip attracting an estimated 100,000 spectators. Then on Feb. 11, 2024, the Super Bowl will be played in front of 70,000 at Allegiant Stadium, a game that the NFL refused to allow Las Vegas to place television ads on only a few years ago and where the books still have to call it something other than “Super Bowl” in taking bets on the game.

“Long overdue,” Cronin said of the NCAA setting up shop here for something other than its enforcement staff. “Once the NFL came here, it opened everything else up (for Las Vegas). I’m happy for the city.”

Is it any wonder the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority is rubbing its collective hands in glee? And perhaps high-fiving the folks at Las Vegas Events, which works with the hotels and the LVCVA to bring major events to the city like the NCAA Regionals and the Final Four.

Two weeks ago was fun around here with the conference tourneys. Last week, with the start of the NCAA Tournament, it was just nuts with the town packed to watch and wager on the games over the first two rounds. This week? It’s time to celebrate and enjoy being part of the tourney and being a trial run for the Final Four. Oh, and next week, the NIT will play its championship outside of Madison Square Garden for the first time as it holds its Final Four at the Orleans Arena. March has never been madder in this town.

But the Big One — the NCAA Men’s Final Four — is on the horizon. It’ll be 2028 before you know it.

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