Horizon League commish: Detroit perfect fit for tourney

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — When the Horizon League went searching for a single venue for its men’s basketball tournament, it didn’t have to think too long.

Detroit seemed a natural fit from the get-go, given the two local schools — Detroit and Oakland — would provide a natural fan base and other schools’ fans, with the exception of Green Bay and Milwaukee, wouldn’t have to travel far to attend the games.

The tournament, which has been dubbed “Motor City Madness,” kicks off Saturday at Joe Louis Arena and concludes with Tuesday’s title game.

“It was almost the perfect situation for us,” Jonathan B. LeCrone, the Horizon League’s commissioner since 1992, said over the phone from his home in Indiana Thursday morning ahead of his trip to Detroit. “It’s a very good two-way street.”

The tournament, run in partnership with Olympia Entertainment and sponsored by another company under that Mike Ilitch umbrella, Little Caesars, is signed to a five-year contract to be played in Detroit. It’s the first time since 2002 the entire tournament has been held at a single site.

The first two years will be played at Joe Louis Arena before the tournament switches to the new Red Wings arena, which is scheduled to open late in 2017.

Detroit (15-14) will open against Youngstown State (11-20) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Oakland (21-10), with its runner-up finish in the regular season, gets a double-bye into Monday’s semifinals.

In an interview with The News on Thursday, LeCrone acknowledged having Detroit and Oakland playing prime-time roles should help the league draw more local interest in Year 1. Students of any kind, high school or college, can get into the tournament games for just $10. LeCrone hopes for good attendance figures, though some of the upper deck will be curtained off.

A potential matchup between Oakland and regular-season champion Valparaiso (26-5) in Tuesday night’s final might lead to the removal of the curtain, not that LeCrone is allowed to root for any schools.

“One of our big goals has been to have a well-attended championship game. We want it to look good,” said LeCrone, who didn’t have an update on ticket sales but added walk-up crowds always play a big factor. “If people come, it’s considered to be important. We’re going to work very hard to make sure we have a lively crowd.”

Nothing burns a conference commissioner more than to see empty seats in a nationally televised championship game. The Horizon League’s title game will take center stage on ESPN, which is sending arguably its top college basketball team in Mike Tirico and Dan Dakich to announce the game.

The Horizon League is banking on Detroit and Oakland helping to draw good crowds to Joe Louis Arena.

The winner of the championship game will get an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament. If it’s not Valpo, the Horizon League could be looking at multiple bids, with Valpo a strong at-large candidate for a tournament where the conference recently has made some noise — especially when Butler was a member.

For the last several years, the Horizon League has held most tournament games at campus sites of the higher seed, including the championship game. That’s not so fair for the lower seed.

Plus, moving the four-day tournament to Detroit makes the whole thing more of an event.

“The great thing about Detroit for Saturday and Sunday, our fans from member schools can also drive in,” LeCrone said. “It’s a great place to be if you think about the hotels, the restaurants, bars and casinos. You can come to Detroit and have a really great time.”

LeCrone also likes the idea that the Horizon League, even if in a small way, can be a part of Detroit’s revitalization. Even when the area gets NCAA Tournament games, those are always out at The Palace of Auburn Hills.

While the current contract with Olympia is five years, LeCrone said the Horizon League will be open to staying longer if the event proves sustained success.

There are other options down the road — theoretically Indianapolis or Chicago — but it’s debatable whether the tournament could draw the exposure or attendance it likely will in Detroit.

The Horizon League and ESPN are also in the midst of a seven-year contract.

“Five years is a pretty long time. It’s a really good term for us. I’m just really excited. If it goes well, we could be there much longer in Detroit,” LeCrone said. “One of the things we talked about is how many years would it take to really build equity in the event, have it really embraced by the community, embraced by all our league members. I’m not sure how long that will take.

“We’ll continue to think about it. For now, we’re just really committed to making this first five years in Detroit as good as we can.”

tpaul@detroitnews.com

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Horizon League tournament

Saturday-Tuesday, Joe Louis Arena

Saturday

Game 1: Cleveland State vs. Green Bay, 12:30

Game 2: Northern Kentucky vs. Milwaukee, 2:30

Game 3: UIC vs. Wright State, 5

Game 4: Youngstown State vs. Detroit, 7:30

Sunday

Game 5: Game 1 winner vs. Game 2 winner, 1

Game 6: Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner, 3:30

Monday

Semifinals

Valparaiso vs. Game 5 winner, 7

Oakland vs. Game 6 winner, 9:30

Tuesday

Championship game

Semifinal winners, 7, ESPN