The Big Sky gets small this week – 14 teams from nine states and three time zones, all bouncing basketballs under one roof at Dahlberg Arena in Missoula.
The Big Sky Conference expanded to 10 teams this season, and Montana’s Grizzlies and Lady Griz teams both earned the right to host their respective three-round tournaments.
It’s something like the league has never seen before. Throw in the more than 140 AAU boys and girls’ teams that’ll be playing tourneys in 11 schools around town on Saturday, and you’ve got March Madness, Missoula style.
Motels are heavily booked and restaurants and shops stand ready for the onslaught, said Melanie Brock of the Missoula Downtown Association.
“There already was a huge weekend planned for downtown with the Top Hat reopening Friday with all this great bluegrass music scheduled, and the St. Patrick’s run downtown on Saturday morning and the St. Patrick’s Day parade at noon,” Brock said.
“We’re excited to showcase all these other activities for when the games aren’t going on, so people who are coming to Missoula are going to get to experience Missoula, too.”
“The weekend itself is going to be pretty festive even with the local ticket holders, so obviously it’s going to stimulate the economy in a positive way,” said Dan Carlino, whose DoubleTree Hotel is housing two teams. “People are going to be out and about attending the games and going out to dinner, so aside from the teams that are in from out of town, you’ll definitely get a lot of lift from the locals.”
Three Big Sky women’s games went in the books on Wednesday, and the same will happen Thursday on the men’s side starting at 3 p.m.
The Montana Lady Griz and Grizzlies get involved in semifinal rounds on Friday that start at 11 a.m. It all wraps up Saturday with the women’s title game at 2 p.m. and the men’s at 7 p.m. The latter will be seen on ESPNU.
“It’s all excitement. No dread whatsoever,” said Brad Murphy, director of the Adams Center, on the eve of Wednesday’s opening round of Big Sky women’s games. “Have our people worked really hard? Yes. But this place is ready. It’s 100 percent ready to go. ”
This is the third time both Big Sky tournaments have been in the same place at the same time. The first two also were in Missoula, in 1991 and 2000, and each was a six-team affair.
Now there are seven apiece, and the scramble is on.
UM athletic department officials booked 300 rooms in 12 motels around town for teams, officials and media.
“That’s all they could get” with the crunch on hotel rooms, said Jon Kasper of the Big Sky office in Ogden, Utah.
Travel to and around Missoula is a sticky issue for out-of-town teams that didn’t know where or when they’d play.
Women’s teams from Southern Utah and Northern Colorado flew to Montana to get here Tuesday. Men’s teams from the same schools took buses – 775 miles over two days from Cedar City, Utah, and 850 miles in one long day on Tuesday from Greeley, Colo.
The North Dakota men, who play the middle game Thursday against Southern Utah, caught a one-way flight to Missoula on Tuesday. They’ve booked Beach Transportation to get them around town, and will keep it to get back to Grand Forks when they’re done playing, according Bob Mitchell, the general manager of the bus company.
Practice time in the Adams Center is an issue with this many teams, Murphy said. The Lady Griz, who don’t play until Friday at 1:30 p.m., got the 6 a.m. practice slot in Dahlberg Arena on Wednesday so that teams playing later in the day could get in shoot-arounds. All seven men’s teams took turns working out in the West Auxiliary Gym starting at 11 a.m.
Ticket sales were going strong as the games began Wednesday afternoon, with some 3,050 all-session passes for the men’s tournament already sold and 2,070 for the women’s tourney.
“That is very good,” Murphy said. “We totally expect that we’ll be pushing the 6,500 to 7,000 range for Friday night and Saturday.”
Capacity in Dahlberg Arena is 7,211. Last year’s men’s title game in Dahlberg, an 85-66 Montana victory over Weber State, drew 7,042.
Tickets are the most challenging logistics of hosting twin tourneys, Murphy said.
UM knew for sure last Thursday night that the Lady Griz had clinched the host’s role, but it wasn’t until 4:30 p.m. Saturday, when the Montana State men polished off Sacramento State in Bozeman, that the Grizzlies were assured of a second straight postseason in Missoula.
“The biggest part then is we have to reseat people in a lot of cases, because each team is given 100 tickets and we have to hold them in blocks. We have a lot of reserve seat people that have to be moved and that is a time-consuming process,” said Murphy.
“It’s a ton of work for people you never see,” UM associate athletic director Chuck Maes said.
Juggling locker rooms is one of Maes’ chores.
“We need five and we have four,” he said.
Still, the rewards of hosting far outweigh the challenges. Maes was around when UM hosted men’s and women’s tournaments in 1991 and 2000, and the fieldhouse and athletic department staffs at Montana are pros when it comes to postseason football and basketball events.
“It’s our chance to shine,” said Maes. “It’s our chance to prove that we can do it, and do it well, so we want people to tell us if we’re not doing something right. We’re not opposed to having people give us a better idea.”