Detroit — Those pale faces walking around Joe Louis Arena late Saturday night probably belonged to Horizon League officials.
Top-seeded Oakland’s stunning, 81-80 loss to eighth-seeded Youngstown State at the buzzer eliminated the second local men’s team from the Horizon League tournament, after just one game each, no doubt costing the league serious cash in anticipated ticket sales for the later rounds.
Detroit Mercy lost, 85-60, to Milwaukee in its first game Friday night.
In two years of the Horizon League tournament playing at Joe Louis Arena, Oakland and Detroit Mercy have played a combined five games.
“I hate to say it, you know,” Detroit Mercy athletic director Robert Vowels said at halftime of the Oakland-Youngstown State game, “but it’s gotta be us and Oakland to keep this thing moving and going.
“I think if that happens, then we have a chance to be pretty good.”
Instead, when the men’s final takes place on ESPN on Tuesday night, there are likely to be too far many empty seats for the Horizon League’s liking, just like last year, when Green Bay (500 miles by car) beat Wright State (209 miles) in a sparsely attended final.
Oakland (25 miles), the second seed, was upset by Wright State in last year’s semifinals.
The crowd for Saturday night’s Oakland-Youngstown State game was 8,481, and the atmosphere was electric. The Horizon League can’t openly root, but behind closed doors, someone must have been hoping for at least two more crowds like that. Now, it’s not going to happen.
Oakland coach Greg Kampe acknowledged that, as well as the pressure of playing in, essentially, your backyard.
“I don’t think there’s any extra pressure on the team or the players,” he said. “Sure, there is on me, sure there is. Their payday is the crowd. Look at how great that crowd was tonight, and it could’ve been two more times.
“And so, I know that, I understand that. It’s really bad for the money.
“From my standpoint, I’m gonna get that, but not the kids. The kids, all they’re worried about is going to the NCAA Tournament.”
Speaking of the NCAA Tournament, that’s another hit the Horizon League has taken the last two years, from an exposure and financial standpoint.
Last year, both top seeds, Valparaiso and Oakland, were upset early, costing the league a potential solid seeding, and a chance at multiple games. As it was, Green Bay got a 14, and was blown out by Texas A&M.
This year, again, the top two seeds are gone, as No. 2 seed Valparaiso — missing star Alec Peters — lost to No. 10-seed Milwaukee, 43-41, late Saturday night.
There’s a good chance the Horizon League’s NCAA Tournament representative now will be a No. 15 or 16 seed.
And that might even be a worse development for the league than all the empty seats ESPN will creatively try to avoid showing Tuesday night.
“This is good basketball,” Vowels said of the Horizon League tournament, which is in Year 2 of a five-year agreement with Olympia Entertainment. Next year, the tournament moves to new Little Caesars Arena. “As long as it’s here in Detroit, both Oakland and Detroit Mercy need to be playing well to bring out the fan base.”