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COLLEGE SPORTS: Big Sky Conference eyes predetermined tournament sites

Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton addresses the media shortly after meeting with league presidents at the Alerus Center June 4th, 2014. Men's basketball was at the forefront of the discussion as the commissioner and several presidents wish to consolidate the site of the league's conference tournament to one single location. (Luke Franke/Grand Forks Herald)

The Big Sky Conference took the next step Wednesday in a movement to put the men’s and women’s conference basketball tournaments at predetermined locations.

In spring meetings at the Alerus Center, league presidents asked Big Sky commissioner Doug Fullerton to continue to explore the process of altering the championship model.

The league will put together a formal proposal and present it to league presidents at its annual meeting in October.

The new setup would begin in the 2015-16 season. One of the predetermined sites discussed this weekend is Las Vegas, which hosts a number of conference basketball tournaments in March. Spokane and Seattle were also mentioned as possible destinations.

“Over the next several months, school administrators and conference staff will diligently work to assess which format makes the most logistical and financial sense, and that could be a predetermined location,” Fullerton said. “This is a major philosophical change for the conference, and there are many issues to study before we take a formal proposal back to the presidents.”

Playing to host

The current setup for the conference basketball tournaments is for the regular-season champion on the men’s and women’s side to host the conference championship. Last season, the UND women hosted the conference tournament at the Betty Engelstad Sioux Center.

The current format at campus sites provides a number of positives, including strong attendance and an advantage for the No. 1 seed.

Protecting the No. 1 seed is considered important at the Big Sky level because the league and its members benefit from sending the top team to the national tournament in hopes of pulling off an upset.

However, there are drawbacks from the current format that were highlighted this past season.

For example, the women’s regular-season crown wasn’t determined until the final week of the regular season. The battle between UND and Southern Utah meant the schools couldn’t line up travel plans in advance to Grand Forks and Cedar City, Utah — destinations that aren’t easy for flight travel.

“Our school administrators and coaches have raised valid concerns, including travel costs, travel logistics, student-athlete welfare and fan experience,” Fullerton said. “We need to continue to have discussions regarding how many teams will qualify, and if we move to a predetermined site, where that will be and if the location will be the same for the men and the women.”

Flight issues are also a concern for traveling fans.

“We fill up airlines quick,” Fullerton said.

The format for this past season called for the top seven teams in the 11-team league to advance to the conference tournament.

But in the 2014-15 season, Idaho joins the league for all sports excluding football to bring membership to 12 teams. With the bump to 12 teams, the 2014-15 conference tournaments will now include eight teams and the top seed doesn’t receive a bye, which it did in the previous setup.

Beginning in the 2015-16 season, Fullerton said the coaches are pushing for all 12 teams to go to the conference tournament at a predetermined, neutral site.

Fullerton, however, is cautious of the movement.

“I don’t want 150 people watching our championship game,” he said. “If Portland State is playing UND in Spokane, how many people are in the stands? I’m not saying UND doesn’t have a great fan base, but I’m saying that’s a long ways from home. I have to be careful.”

Big Sky adds men’s golf

The conference will sponsor a men’s golf championship in the spring of 2015. Men’s golf is returning as a championship sport in the Big Sky for the first time since 2002.

UND, Idaho, Northern Colorado, Southern Utah, Sacramento State and Weber State all sponsor men’s golf. All but Idaho, which played men’s golf in the WAC, were previously affiliated with the America Sky men’s golf league.

The league also announced that it has accepted the University of Hartford and Binghamton University as affiliate men’s golf members. Both institutions were previously members of the America Sky.

“The addition of Hartford and Binghamton will allow us a buffer in terms of overall numbers for men’s golf in the Big Sky,’’ Fullerton said. “What it amounts to is those two institutions competing for three days in the Big Sky championship, under the agreement that the championship will always be held in the West. Those teams helped many Big Sky programs sustain men’s golf by joining the America Sky. Now that we have a championship, we are extending the courtesy back to them.’’

League tweaks volleyball setup

The eight-team volleyball championship will be held at the site of the regular-season champion. Last season, the tournament was held at the site of the regular-season champion from the previous year and just six teams advanced.

Next year, volleyball will be split into two six-team divisions for the regular season. Teams will play each team in their division twice, each team in the other division once, creating 16 conference matches.

The North Division will include UND, Eastern Washington, Idaho, Montana, Montana State and Northern Colorado. Idaho State, Northern Arizona, Portland State, Sacramento State, Southern Utah and Weber State will be in the South Division.

Tom Miller

Miller has been with the Grand Forks Herald sports department for the past 13 years. He's also a Grand Forks native and UND graduate. 

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