The Mountain West Conference has been holding its basketball tournament at Thomas and Mack Center in Las Vegas since 2007, and will continue holding it there through at least the 2016 season. The conference also held the tournament there from the conference’s inception in 1999 through 2003 before it temporarily moved to the Pepsi Center in Denver. Thomas and Mack is typically the home of the UNLV men’s basketball team during the season, but it is almost impossible to tell that during the tournament.
In 2012-13, the Mountain West had nine basketball members. They will be expanding to eleven members moving forward. Those schools are: Air Force, Boise State, Colorado State, Fresno State, Nevada-Reno, UNLV, New Mexico, San Diego State and Wyoming. San Jose State and Utah State will be the tenth and eleventh schools in the conference. Hawaii is a football only member. BYU, TCU, and Utah are all former Mountain West members.
Thomas and Mack was first opened in 1983, and has a basketball capacity of 18,776. 18,500 attended the 2013 MW Championship game. In addition to UNLV and MW basketball, the facility has also been host to the 2007 NBA All Star Game, an Arena Football League team, Big West Conference and WAC basketball tournaments in the 1990s, a Lakers playoff game in 1992 due to the LA Riots, as well as various wrestling and boxing matches and concerts.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Thomas and Mack has a lot to offer as far as food goes, and most of it is for a very reasonable price. The typical stadium food is all available for about 4 or 5 dollars. There's also a chicken tenders and fries basket that is a lot of food, tastes good, and only costs $7. Pepsi products are sold at the Mountain West Conference tournament, as well as Budweiser.
Throughout the concourse, there are specialty snack bars that sell Mexican food, barbeque, sandwiches, pizza, and other things. These items are a little more expensive, but still pretty reasonable for a basketball arena, and for Las Vegas in general. There are several bars set up along the concourse as well, each of them having a little extra standing room behind them away from the seating area.
It certainly helps the overall feel of the tournament by being held on a conference member campus in UNLV, in their home arena. But the rest of the MW fans bring their A game.
In 2013, the Mountain West used a floor that had an interesting look to it. The east side of the court (TV side) featured a mountain range. This court was used for the 2012 Women's Final Four in Denver, with a few changes. The Mountain West logo in the center of the court is really cool. The new MW logo looks the same from each side, so fans on both sides of the court are essentially seeing the same image. The rest of the court also had various brown shading, giving it a mountainous look.
On the west side, banners of every school hang. That, in addition with all of the UNLV banners being taken down prior to the tournament really gives it a neutral feel. Obviously UNLV fans show up in bigger numbers than the rest of the schools, but it isn't a huge home-court advantage by any means.
The center scoreboard has live video of the game on constantly, with replays of the big moments. The video is from a separate Mountain West feed instead of the CBS Sports feed and the MW cameras are on the opposite side of the floor from the TV cameras, which is a little confusing. The scoreboard itself in the center is very clean, no extra mess. Just the score, time, timeouts remaining, period, and team fouls. That's it. There are two scoreboards at each end that give some player stats, but nothing that is too overwhelming and superfluous.
The teams sit on the west side of the court, with the higher seed in the north end and the lower seed in the south end. Both teams enter from tunnels in the northwest corner of the stadium. The east and south side section numbers are lower than the west side numbers if you are planning a trip to Thomas and Mack using just the seating chart.
The seats are pretty comfortable, not great, and there are no cup holders. Some of the upper level seats have a partially obstructed view due to some hand rails along the upper area and the camera wells used for the various TV and MW crews. The PA announcer also seemed to get a lot of info wrong during the game, which was kind of weird.
Every timeout has some sort of contest or entertainment going on, which is exactly what you would expect in Las Vegas. There was a contest where a contestant had 30 seconds to make a free throw, three pointer and half-court shot to win $5,000. One guy went 3-3, won it in about ten seconds. It was kind of unbelievable.
Being in Vegas and pretty close to The Strip, how could the neighborhood not be a 5? Well...
There's a very awkward dead space in between Las Vegas Blvd. and UNLV where there is absolutely nothing. All there is are planes flying into McCarran International, and they are probably only about 40 feet off the ground when they pass over Tropicana Blvd. Thomas and Mack left a lot to be desired as far as entertainment in the immediate area.
The closest hotel on The Strip is MGM Grand, and it's about a 20 minute walk from MGM to Thomas and Mack down Tropicana. Obviously, The Strip is one of the best neighborhoods for a sporting event you could ever imagine, but it is a little bit of a walk or drive, and most of it is farther north than where the arena is. But with the PAC-12 moving its conference tournament to MGM Grand Garden Arena, and the WAC tournament in Orleans Arena just a little west of Las Vegas Blvd., there are a lot of options bunched together in one area.
Mountain West basketball fans go hard. Really hard.
UNLV fans win out as far as numbers go. But New Mexico is a close second, and they are definitely a rowdier bunch than the Rebels fans. San Diego State is probably third as far as numbers, followed by Colorado State, Boise State and Wyoming. Air Force, Fresno State, and Nevada fans were a little harder to find.
Wyoming head coach Larry Shyatt: "I felt like I was in The Pit and I was really disappointed."
New Mexico player Cameron Bairstow: "You look out, it's a sea of red out there. That really influenced the game. It really felt like a bit of a home court advantage which always helps. Every time we made a big basket, they were on their feet. I think it really helped in this game."
New Mexico head coach Steve Alford: "Well, we know what kind of crowd we have. We know what kind of fans we have. I've said it so many times. It's a blessing and honor to be the head coach of New Mexico. There's a lot of reasons for that. The top of that list has always been our fan base. They're incredible. They're loud. Our guys come out. They're into the game. Even being in a neutral setting here, they still do the things they do in the Pit. We're up 5, you got the ball, they know to get up because that's a big defensive stop. We get up 8, we have the ball, they get up because they know the difference in being up double figures, what that means. They're a very knowledgeable fan base. We appreciate what they do more than you could possibly imagine. They're a big part of our program."
More from Coach Alford: "I say it every year: we have the best fans, not just because they come out in volume, but then they have volume when they're here. They travel well. Whether we're at home or we come to this tournament. You introduced UNLV, this is their home, you introduced UNM tonight, I'd have to give a serious nod to the UNM fans. That's pretty impressive."
If you're going to make a fairly long trip to watch your team play, chances are you know a ton about basketball and are extremely passionate about your team. I think this is what adds that extra magic to the Mountain West tournament. The fans are into every game, from opening tip to the final buzzer. The championship game between UNLV and UNM was one of the best crowd atmospheres I've ever seen. Everyone had so much passion and love for their team.
Driving to Thomas and Mack is probably a poor idea. Out of the three days I was at the tournament, the only time I drove was for the championship game, and it took about an hour to drive from MGM Grand to Thomas and Mack. Walking is easier and cheaper. It costs around $15 to park in the UNLV parking lots around the arena, compared to free parking at the MGM self-parking garage. You can always take a cab or bus or limo to the arena, but you still have to sit in the traffic on Tropicana. Getting out of the parking lots after the games is a little easier because the one way streets lead away from the arena better than they do when going to the arena.
Once in the arena, the accessibility doesn't really improve too much. The concourses are narrow, making them hard to get around when there are even just a few fans walking around. The food lines don't move fast enough to get people out of the way either, so it becomes almost impossible to get around the arena during a timeout, halftime, or in between games.
Another negative, the bathrooms are small and dirty, just adding to the concourse traffic. It really doesn't help that there is only one concourse for all of the fans. The upper and lower levels are both accessed from the same walkways. When you have 18,000 people all using the same areas, it will get crowded. There is no way around that. There is also just one main entrance and exit to the arena, another major design flaw.
The Mountain West Tournament is very reasonable as far as pricing is concerned. All session tickets can be purchased for just over $100 in advance, which is great because it includes all of the men's and women's games over the week.
The food prices are also very reasonable compared to the rest of Las Vegas. Sin City nickles and dimes you for every little thing, but not the concessions at Thomas and Mack. The one expensive thing is parking, but that can be taken out by walking to UNLV instead of driving.
The court may have looked bad on TV, but in person it really didn't. The Mountain West has always been that conference just underneath the big six, and it tries everything possible to get the national recognition it deserves. The quality of basketball has been greater than the PAC-12 the last couple of years and it doesn't seem like that's going to be changing in the near future.
UNLV head coach Dave Rice: "I've always said this Mountain West tournament, make it a commercial, Friday night, those semifinal games in the Mountain West Conference, that's as good as it gets."
"The energy in the building was fantastic. It was a March type game."
The overall fan friendliness and fan involvement by the conference is also a huge upside. Each game featured a "Twivia" question, where fans had the ability to win free stuff through the Mountain West twitter feed (@theMWC). Social media was a huge part of the tournament, with constant advertisements for the conference's Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram pages. They posted fans' photos and tweets on the boards during timeouts. Also, the many promotions during game breaks and constant entertainment take the tournament to another level above regular season play.
And it seems like a small thing, but taking down all of the UNLV stuff for the tournament to make it feel like a neutral court/NBA arena is another extra. Yes, the concourse still has some UNLV stuff that can't get taken out like tributes to the 1991 National Championship team, but other than that you can't even tell that you're on UNLV's campus during a game.
One last extra: the city of Las Vegas. Coach Dave Rice: "Coach (Larry) Eustachy and I talked about that briefly before the game. Just that it's absolutely without question the best city in America to have the tournament, certainly the PAC 12, the WCC, the WAC have all recognized it's trendy to have a tournament in Las Vegas. At the same time there's a lot of pressure for our guys to perform on this floor. I think the crowd was terrific. Exciting for us to be part of a great tournament in Las Vegas."
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