Thirty-one years ago in an arena in downtown Denver that now is a parking lot, NCAA men’s basketball tournament selection committee chairman Jim Delany presented the 1990 national championship trophy to Jerry Tarkanian and his UNLV players.
Delany’s background was in NCAA enforcement. His smile was so forced that it appeared his face might break into tiny pieces before the opening salvo of “One Shining Moment.”
Any love between the NCAA, UNLV and the city it represents was lost amid a torrent of Rebels victories and lawsuits that would have blown the mind of Bill Walton clear back to his Grateful Dead and size-17 sandal days.
So, when Doug Gottlieb, a former Oklahoma State point guard who now has his own Fox sports talk show, inferred last Friday that Las Vegas not only would make an ideal host for a West Regional or a Final Four but for the whole darn ball of bracket-busting wax — 63 games, one site fits all, alternate with Indianapolis — Delany’s strained facial features immediately came to mind.
It also vindicated Jim Livengood, who years later would succeed Delany as men’s basketball selection committee tournament chair.
If the former UNLV athletic director was crazy for suggesting a variation of the Indianapolis bubble that has facilitated the return of March Madness amid a health pandemic would work in Las Vegas, he was crazy like a fox.
“It’s not just a vision now, one of those Buck Rogers comic book things,” Livengood said of conducting an entire NCAA Tournament at a common site, a re-imagining of ideas he proposed after retiring from UNLV in 2013 and becoming a sports consultant.
Remember the one-and-done Vegas 16 tournament at Mandalay Bay in 2016 that became the Vegas 8 because of a widespread lack of interest in playing for another postseason booby prize?
But the concept of transforming a basketball tournament into something resembling a football bowl game piqued the interest of NCAA women’s basketball coaches. They wondered if playing their entire Sweet 16 in Las Vegas, per Livengood’s suggestion, would make more financial and logistical sense than the current model of four regional sites spread from coast to coast.
Nothing has come of that proposal yet. But Livengood believes it is mostly because it has been pushed to the back burner — and not off the stove entirely — because of COVID-19.
“I don’t think it’s a question of it will happen, it’s when,” he said of consolidating NCAA tournaments. “If the Indy and San Antonio (site of the entire women’s tournament) experiments work, we might see a whole different line of thinking.”
What was once a bounce pass now seems more like a slam dunk for Las Vegas, Livengood said, with the addition of T-Mobile Arena and Allegiant Stadium to the local sports landscape and the NCAA’s evolving views on legal sports wagering.
The marquee facilities, combined with the suitably sized Thomas &Mack Center, MGM Grand Garden, Michelob Ultra Arena at Mandalay Bay and even the arenas at the Orleans or South Point for potential play-in games, would mirror what Indianapolis has at a much closer proximity.
“With hotels practically right next to them,” Livengood says of a setup that has proved popular with the various conference tournaments that already call Las Vegas home.
Ease of travel, access to large arenas and high school gyms in which to hold shoot-arounds, the possibility of warm weather in which to play golf before the games and showrooms and lounges to frequent afterward … to use Dick Vitale’s expression, Las Vegas has suddenly become a prime-time player as a potential NCAA Tournament site.
“If you look at the kind of things that the city has to offer, it checks every box,” Livengood said, sounding less like Buck Rogers and more like Mark Few at Gonzaga, whose shining moment has yet to come.