LCA desires college basketball showcase every year

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Discussions are ongoing to make the early season college-basketball showcase an annual event at Little Caesars Arena.

The event, however, is highly unlikely to involve Michigan State and Michigan every year.

“We’d like to do something like this every year, but we understand that doing exactly what we did is going to be very difficult in terms of scheduling,” said Tom Wilson, CEO and president of Olympia Entertainment.

“Obviously, it’s tougher for Michigan and Michigan State. They’re already doing scheduling for 2020.

“But I think they’re motivated to do it again.”

The inaugural college-basketball doubleheader last Saturday featured an opening game between Michigan and Detroit Mercy; the nightcap was Michigan State and Oakland.

The event sold out, drawing 20,645 — the largest attendance so far at the new arena. One ticket got fans both games, and the second game was easily the heavy draw, with most of the seats filled as No. 2 Michigan State turned back Oakland, 86-73. For the opening game, a 90-58 Michigan romp, saw fewer than 5,000 people in the stands.

The disparity in crowds didn’t catch Wilson off-guard, nor will it necessarily hinder how Olympia moves forward with such events.

“We know you’re gonna have a situation where a lot of Michigan fans aren’t gonna watch the State game, or vice versa,” he said. “There’s also a magic to being No. 2 in the polls. I do think right now, with all the talent on State, with Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson, it didn’t surprise me there were a few more fans for that game.

“That game was so competitive that people stayed in their seats. The fear of an upset in the second half or the anticipation, depending on which way you were rooting, made that a compelling game to watch.”

“Overall, we were pleased.”

Moving forward, Olympia obviously would like Michigan State and Oakland involved. The rivalry, between longtime coaching buddies Tom Izzo and Greg Kampe, has grown in recent years, even though the Spartans are 16-0 in the series. There have been some competitive games, including the overtime game that sold out The Palace two years ago.

The schools have one year left on their current contract, and next year’s game is scheduled for East Lansing. Michigan State wouldn’t want to give up that home game to play at LCA.

The schools are talking about a new, long-term deal, which would play every other year in East Lansing and every other year at a neutral site. So, theoretically, Michigan State and Oakland could play again at LCA in 2019, if a new deal gets finalized.

Having Michigan State play another team say, next year, wouldn’t be as much of a draw as the Oakland game has proven to be. As for just switching the opponents and having Michigan play Oakland and Michigan State playing Detroit Mercy, that's tricky. Michigan cancelled its series with Oakland after 2011 and Michigan has no desire to start it up again, and Michigan State and Detroit Mercy haven't played since 2002, though the schools are at least talking about renewing that rivalry at some point. Then there's this important hurdle: Michigan State and Michigan are about to be seriously handcuffed by nonconference scheduling. Starting next season, the Big Ten is expanding to 20 conference games from 18, plus there’s the annual Big Ten/ACC Challenge game.

That limits the nonconference opportunities like a one-off day at LCA.

“Balancing the schedule with Big Ten, nonconference — in particular, events like the Champions Classic and Big Ten/ACC Challenge — is a difficult task,” said Mark Hollis, Michigan State’s athletic director. “It is important that the Spartans have key games at Breslin and Detroit.

“Little Caesars Arena is a great sports-event destination and we will strive to participate in future regular-season events there during upcoming seasons.”

Wilson said he’s already had brief discussions with Hollis, Oakland athletic director Jeff Konya and Detroit Mercy athletic director Robert Vowels about how to move forward with the event. He plans to talk soon with Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel.

There is mutual interest in extending the series between Michigan and Detroit Mercy, given their coaching connections — Detroit Mercy head coach Bacari Alexander spent six years on Michigan coach John Beilein’s staff before taking over at Detroit Mercy. But is that enough of a draw to anchor an event at LCA? Probably not.

Wilson said there is interest in getting the other state schools involved, such as Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Eastern Michigan, in future years. But, again, without Michigan State — the clear-cut headliner — to anchor the schedule, it’s tough to see the event being worthwhile from a financial and ticket-selling standpoint.

Wilson said Olympia desires to keep the basketball showcase a Michigan-centric thing, so it doesn’t seem like there’s interest in bringing in other powerhouse programs from outside the state.

“Our original thought was, maybe we do it over a couple days, with eight teams, but then we thought, ‘Let’s crawl before we walk,’ ” Wilson said, laughing. “That took us down to four.

“Our hope we be, we could do something involving all those Michigan schools on maybe a rotational basis.”

One thing Wilson made clear — Olympia wants LCA to be seen as a home for college basketball.

These were the first college-basketball games at the new arena. The next ones will come in March, first for the Horizon League men’s and women’s tournaments, and then during the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament. LCA and Detroit plan to be annual bidders for NCAA Tournament games. NCAA and Horizon League officials were on hand Friday and Saturday to check out the venue and logistics, and to watch the games.

Wilson said they came away pleased. So did all coaches involved — especially, you better believe, Izzo, whose team has a very good chance to be slotted into the NCAA Tournament bracket for early round games at LCA.

When the Spartans will play regular-season games again downtown remains to be seen.

But almost everyone involved last Saturday is motivated to come back, and soon.

“We would love to be a part of it, we want to be involved,” Konya said Konya. “If Olympia thinks we can be a part of it, we’re going, baby. We are in.”