Red All Over: Canceling conference tournaments in the middle of COVID-19 would be the right thing to do

The Pac-12 tournament, and the rest of the conference tournament slate, will get played, even if it makes less sense in the middle of COVID-19

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I preface what I am about to get into here by stating that the Big East tournament is sacred to me and a lot of other people. The quarterfinal round on Thursday of Championship Week at Madison Square Garden is one of my very favorite basketball days on the calendar.

With that out of the way, let’s get to it: Just for this season, with the COVID-19 pandemic rolling on, college basketball conferences should do the logical thing and not play conference tournaments come March.

If you’re a team firmly in the NCAA Tournament, what is the value of adding more travel, more hotels, more logistics to your plate with a conference tournament, knowing that the NCAA is mandating seven straight days of negative tests before a team arrives in Indianapolis for March Madness? If you’re one of those teams, you want to be taking less risks, not more.

If you’re UCLA, Oregon, Colorado or USC, and you know you’re going to the NCAA Tournament, in this climate, bothering with the Pac-12 tournament hardly seems worth it, especially with the testing protocols the NCAA has put in place for Indy.

Granted, if you’re, say, Stanford, and you’re squarely on the bubble and need to bolster your resume, fine, I understand going out of your way to show up in Las Vegas for three or four days. There’s more incentive for the Cardinal than the Oregons and UCLAs to bother.

Just for this season, conferences should give their respective regular-season champion the league’s automatic NCAA Tournament bid. The regular-season champion is a far-more accurate gauge of who the best team in a league is vs. the conference tournament champion anyway, but that is a rant for another day.

“I’m very confident,” Utah athletic director Mark Harlan told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I think the partnership with the league, Las Vegas Convention Bureau and hotels association, I think we can bubble the guys and the girls in terms of the two tournaments and do it in a safe manner. I don’t think we’ll have fans, but that hasn’t completely been determined.”

This is all going to fall on deaf ears, because conference tournaments are money grabs, always have been. In a normal year, the leagues gain, for starters, TV revenue and ticket sales across several days. The host city fills hotel rooms, restaurants and local attractions. Much of that will be moot as the Pac-12 tournament is not expected to allow fans at T-Mobile Arena, but the league will get all 10 conference tournament games on television. Three of the 10, including the March 14 championship game, will be on an ESPN channel.

As the calendar turns to February next week, it appears to be a mortal lock that the Pac-12 tournament gets played beginning March 10. Same with the rest of the Power Six, all the way down to the low and mid-major leagues such as the MAC, NEC, SWAC, Southland Conference, and the like.

It is not out of the question that some of these leagues pare down their fields in the interest of lessening the virus burden, but these events are going to get played.

Honestly, that seems like a terribly shortsighted idea, even if we do have to skip Quarterfinal Thursday at the Garden this year.

What’s on my mind, Utah or otherwise

• I’ve got something on Utah’s remaining schedule lined up for Friday, but the Pac-12 did the Utes no favors in the month of February with the way it has tweaked things in the face of COVID-19 issues around the league. Utah will play 10(!) games in February, and close with five in 10 days. Larry Krystkowiak is not thrilled with that, and I don’t blame him.

• Harlan told The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this month that they would not immediately fill Kyle Brennan’s Deputy AD for Internal Operations/COO spot within the athletic department. Instead, Harlan said the plan was to see how the semester played out and revisit the situation if necessary. On Tuesday, the school announced it has hired Utah Hall of Fame softball player Charmelle Green, currently a Senior Associate AD at Penn State for Brennan’s spot, effective March 1. What to make of that quick switch-up from what Harlan said to making a hire, I’m not entirely sure.

• The NCAA Tournament selection committee has a clear history of finding reasons to not let mid-major programs into the field of 68 as at-large selections. I say this because Utah State lost at UNLV on Monday and BYU lost at Pepperdine on Wednesday. The Cougars’ resume remains stout, even with that loss to KenPom’s 133rd-rated team, but too many of those down the stretch, and things can change. To me, the Aggies’ situation feels more tenuous because there are more potential potholes playing a Mountain West schedule. From now through the end of the regular season, the only team Utah State plays with a KenPom rating better than 125 is Boise State (KenPom 64; Feb. 17, 19). The Aggies would be well-served to make hay against everyone else they face.

• Arizona State has had its fair share of COVID troubles, but the Sun Devils have been among the Pac-12′s most-disappointing teams at 4-8 overall and 1-5 in the Pac-12 with six straight losses. In the preseason, on paper, Arizona State was a very reasonable pick to win the league. At worst, the majority of careful observers had the Sun Devils at No. 2 behind UCLA, which has expectedly risen as the class of the league this winter.

Your questions

Q: “Now that we’ve had almost a year of sports with no fans, do you think fans really impact games? Is there really a “home field/court advantage,” or is that something us fans came up with to justify spending money to go to the games?” — Billy Hesterman

A: I’ve always felt that a strong home crowd bringing the noise is worth at least a few points. At a minimum, a good home crowd can help with momentum, energy in the building, and maybe even staving off an opposing rally.

I saw one football game in an empty Rice-Eccles Stadium, I’ve seen three basketball games at an empty Huntsman Center, and my stance on home crowds has only strengthened. The Huntsman Center, specifically, feels like a completely sterile, neutral-floor environment without 10,000-12,000 people screaming for the home team.

Yes, I absolutely believe fans can impact the outcome of a game.

Q: “I trust your pizza taste buds more than others, so what is your go-to order at some of the places you’ve found here locally? You’ve mentioned a few places you’ve tried, but what does an East Coast guy order? Help me out.” — @hereforsportUofU

A: The only way to judge a pizza place you’re ordering from for the first time is to go with a plain slice/pie. If a place can’t get crust, cheese and sauce correct, why would I trust that place to do a pizza with toppings? Makes no sense to me at all. The first-time order is plain, always.

For what it’s worth, in terms of toppings, I enjoy a good veggie pie nowadays. I used to do cured meats, but I’m completely out on pork, not to mention most other meats these days.

Q: “What’s the protocol or process for determining if fans can be in attendance this fall?” — @kwlundeberg

A: The Utah athletic department isn’t quite all the way there yet on making that decision, but to be honest, it’s very early and there’s a lot of time to figure it out.

A lot of that will depend on how the vaccine distribution continues to progress, and the department is going to survey its season-ticket base on the matter, just as it did back in June when it looked like the 2020 season was going to potentially start on time.

When I spoke with Harlan earlier this month, his hope for the fall was to have a full Rice-Eccles Stadium, whose capacity will be 51,444 once the south end zone project is complete in July.

Personally, I’m not yet convinced that Rice-Eccles will be full for the Sept. 2 opener vs. Weber State, but I certainly believe there will be some sort of fan presence, which would be better than 2020 when there was no fan presence.

Q: “Five Guys or In-N-Out?” — @SaltLakeJake

A: I’m going to hedge hard here. Five Guys, but In-N-Out also gets the job done, and I understand why someone may choose it.

The allure of In-N-Out is real. The fact that it is only in six states, none of which are east of Texas, has led to it having something of a cult following, while East Coast folks wonder what the big deal is and want to try it.

When I was dating my wife several years back, we took a late-afternoon flight from JFK to LAX for a wedding that weekend. We got off the plane at midnight, went right to In-N-Out for the first time, and it was painfully average. The times I’ve had it since have been hit or miss. In-N-Out is fine, I don’t hate it, I don’t mind it.

All of that said, my opinion is that Five Guys quality is better, specifically the fries, which blow In-N-Out away.

Random musings

I started tweeting about bagels on Wednesday morning, and it quickly came to my attention that some of you prefer toasted bagels vs. non-toasted bagels. If you subscribe to this notion, I want to make clear that you are a certifiable lunatic. The only time to toast a bagel is if you’re pulling one out of your freezer, that’s it. A fresh bagel, preferably right out of the oven, doesn’t need anything except your preferred topping(s). The only bagel people crazier than toasters are the ones that order the bagel scooped out. Those people should be indicted.

• I went to my first Knicks game 30 years ago this Tuesday. They beat the Sacramento Kings. Patrick Ewing, the idol of every Knicks fan of a certain age, didn’t play because he had the flu. I was only 8-years old at the time, so the clearest thing I remember is my father, older brother and I were listening to WFAN 660AM on the drive into Manhattan. At some point, they said Ewing was out. Ewing wasn’t playing, so I’m pretty sure I demanded my father turn the car around and go home while we were on the Grand Central Parkway. That plea didn’t pan out.

• Honest question: Where is it easier to drop $150 without even realizing it until you get to the register, Trader Joe’s or Costco? Honestly, that’s a close call.

• We tried Rusted Sun Pizzeria for the first time over the weekend after many people recommended it. Solid, enjoyed it, will go back. I think next up in the never-ending pizza search is going to be The Pie Hole for the second time. I tried it right when I got here and wasn’t blown away, but I suspect that was because I walked in there at a very off hour.

• Can someone explain this GameStop-stock market situation to me? It may help if you explain it to me like I’m a 5-year old.