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Kensing: Las Vegas a burgeoning basketball oasis

Photo Credit: Associated Press
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It’s a rare but welcomed occasion when Your Humble Author takes in a sporting event for leisure rather than work.

Don’t get me wrong: I get an indescribable thrill covering sports, and the moment that subsides is the moment I should get out of this line of business.

Nevertheless, there’s something to be said for rolling up to the arena in shorts, ordering a beer en route to my seat and chopping it up with friends purely as a spectator.

The crowd in Thomas and Mack Center for Saturday’s session of the NBA Summer League included a number of bros like yours truly in our general issue Banana Republic or J. Crew. The air conditioning provides relief from the triple-digit Mojave Desert temperatures outside, but the same can be said of any of the dozens of casinos along The Strip.

Something else pulls us away from the tables.

An allure stronger than cramming into the pool while a DJ spins tracks beckons us to the UNLV campus. It’s Dr. Naismith’s Game that attracts us — and not just the 20s-to-30s set, either.

Families, youth and high school teams, basketball junkies of all ages watch on their Saturdays to see former college stars like Michigan State product Denzel Valentine take the next step.

Based on his effort Saturday, and in Monday’s championship, Valentine looks more than ready for the NBA.

Others use the Summer League as a career fair. Someone like Arizona’s Kaleb Tarczewski or South Dakota State’s Nate Wolters, both of whom performed well for the Washington Wizards, could net a roster spot as a result.

For the fans, these two weeks offer a unique peak behind the curtain. Further, the Summer League offers the perfect vacation destination for both NBA and NCAA hoop-heads alike.

Greats of the NCAA hardwood return to the limelight for a summer fling, a real treat for longtime followers of the game

For example, Jimmer Fredette was in action for the Denver Nuggets. One of the greatest college shooters of all-time in his tenure at BYU, he certainly wasn’t shy about firing away. They didn’t fall with quite the same regularity, a remainder that college stardom does not always translate to professional success.

Summer League has grown into an attraction all its own, and for that, the NBA deserves credit.

It’s cultivated a vibe akin to Major League Baseball spring training, and in the same way mild temperatures in Arizona and Florida lure fans throughout March, the Entertainment Capital of the World makes Summer League an easy sell for the basketball crowd.

However, the Summer League functions as just one tent pole in the growing basketball oasis that is Las Vegas.

College basketball’s taken full advantage of the built-in destination Las Vegas provides. The Mountain West Conference became the first to capitalize, using the Thomas and Mack Center for its tournament since the late 1990s, save a brief and disastrous spell playing in Denver last decade.

Of course, the Mountain West merely used the home venue of a member institution, UNLV. UNLV’s success in the 1970s, which peaked under Jerry Tarkanian in the early 1990s, showed that Sin City can indeed be Basketball Country.

On our cab ride back from Thomas and Mack Center to Monte Carlo Saturday, the driver regaled us with stories of the Shark days. He described home games as the must-see events of the city, attracting crowds that filled the arena parking lot with Mercedes-Benz.

A quarter-century later, college basketball is gaining a new kind of presence in Las Vegas.

The West Coast Conference followed the MWC’s lead, moving its conference tournament from on-campus venues to the Orleans Arena in the late 2000s.

The WCC Tournament kicks off a nearly two-week whirlwind of college basketball action. The Western Athletic Conference takes over Orleans shortly after the unofficial Gonzaga Invitational concludes.

When the WAC Championship tips off on Selection Sunday’s Eve, the MWC is usually just wrapping up five miles away — and the Pac-12 is also getting underway on The Strip.

11 March 2016: The Utah bench celebrates with Utah (35) Kyle Kuzma after sinking a basket in overtime during the men's Pac-12 Basketball Tournament game between the California Golden Bears and the Utah Utes at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire)

(Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire)

The Pac-12’s move from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in 2013 solidified the latter’s status as a college basketball oasis. After struggling to attract fans to the Staples Center for a decade, fans have flocked to MGM Grand Garden Arena every March.

The Pac-12 Tournament moves across the street to T-Mobile Arena next season.

T-Mobile’s opening this spring promises new possibilities for basketball’s boom in Las Vegas. The gorgeous, state-of-the-art venue is ready-made for major events — like the CBS Sports Classic, which features four of college basketball’s best programs in Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio State and UCLA, for a one-day spectacular in December.

With more basketball being played in Las Vegas every year, the next phase is the NCAA thawing its stance on postseason play there.

Conference tournaments obviously can set up shop in Vegas, but the NCAA has barred national championship events. Don’t chalk that up to bureaucratic overreach — point-shaving scandals at various times in the sport’s history, and incidents like members of the 1991 UNLV team being photographed with nefarious characters, have made the NCAA understandably leery.

But times change, and the time for an NCAA Tournament opening weekend in Las Vegas has come. It should be a bonanza for fans and media alike — and I’ll happily make the pilgrimage as either one.

Kensing: Las Vegas a burgeoning basketball oasis

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