Detroit — The Horizon League can claim progress. Whether it’s enough to save the basketball championships in Detroit, well, that’s going to be a heavily-debated topic when commissioner Jon LeCrone and Olympia Entertainment CEO Tom Wilson sit down in the coming weeks.
The league announced Tuesday that attendance at its men’s and women’s championships was up again in 2018, but the uptick was modest — to 30,228 fans for the five-day event. That’s up less than 1,000 from a year ago, despite reasons this year’s event should’ve been a much better draw.
Among those reasons: The intrigue over the new host venue, state-of-the-art Little Caesars Arena, plus the fact the local favorite Oakland men’s team played two games instead of its one-and-out performance each of the previous two years.
In the announcement, the Horizon League doesn’t clarify if its number was paid attendance. It simply refers to it as fans in attendance.
The Horizon League this year offered free admission to Detroit Public Schools for the first three days of the tournament, several young Detroit students were bussed in for the women’s championship game last Tuesday, and each of the 10 Horizon League members were forced to buy ticket blocks. It’s unclear how many tickets the institutions were required to buy.
The arena didn’t come close to filling up for any of the five days, March 2-6, despite the upper deck being curtained off. That cut the capacity down to around 11,000 seats.
“That’s hard, particularly on some of our early-round games,” LeCrone said last week. “We have to build it. Attendance is important, and we’ll continue to work on it. Attendance does also drive the bottom line.
“We’ve got to work harder.”
The Horizon League brought its men’s basketball tournament to Detroit in 2016, and attendance was 20,098 at Joe Louis Arena. It bumped to 29,240 last year, when the women’s tournament was added to the schedule, doubling the number of games to 18.
The men’s contract runs through 2020, though Olympia does have an opt-out available after this, the third year.
Even if the men’s tournament doesn’t leave Detroit completely, it’s very possible a new format could be brought in, cutting down the number of days the Horizon League leases out LCA. This year, the Horizon League was given a six-day block, including a workout day. That’s a lot to ask for the Pistons and Red Wings to hit the road at the same time for a week.
A Mid-American Conference-like setup is possible for future years. That would see opening-round games played at campus sites, with the quarterfinals, semifinals and finals taking place at LCA.
The women’s tournament is on a year-to-year basis, and it’s tough to see it returning. Its crowds, even for the three games played by local teams Oakland and Detroit Mercy, were extremely light.
LeCrone said there’s no timeline for a decision on the immediate future of the Horizon League tournaments.
“There’s work to do,” he said. “We think this is the right place for us.”
It remains to be seen if the feeling is mutual.
NO BRACKET CHANGES
For the third consecutive year in the men’s tournament, the Horizon League’s No. 1 seed lost its opening-round game.
This year, it was Northern Kentucky falling to No. 8 Cleveland State. Last year, it was No. 1 Oakland losing to No. 9 Youngstown State on a buzzer-beater. And two years ago, it was No. 1 Valparaiso being stunned by No. 4 Green Bay.
Mid-majors such as the Horizon League benefit greatly from its top seeds winning the conference championship, because it usually means a better seed in the NCAA Tournament — and a better chance at a victory, which means critical cash for the conference.
Still, LeCrone doesn’t anticipate any changes to the bracket — like the Horizon League made between Year 1 and Year 2 of Motor City Madness in Detroit. In Year 1, the top two seeds received double-byes into the semifinals, both lost, and cited the long layoff as a possibility. So in Year 2, the top four seeds received single byes in the quarterfinals. Again, both top seeds lost.
This year, No. 2 Wright State became the first 1 or 2 seed to win a game in Detroit, and went on to win the tournament and earn the automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
“Brackets and dates and facilities don’t have a whole lot to do with whether you win or lose, it’s how you play. We’ve tried every single bracket, every single format,” LeCrone said. “We’re not trying to protect the No. 1 seeds. We’re not trying to do that.
“I don’t necessarily think our format has a lot to do with whether the No. 1 seed makes it.”
History might suggest otherwise.
From 2003-15, at least some portion of the Horizon League tournament was played on campus sites, and during that span, the No. 1 seed won the tournament seven games, and made the championship game 12 times.
Three times in that span, the Horizon League received multiple bids into the NCAA Tournament. That was during the extended period of Butler excellence.
LeCrone dreams of the Horizon League eventually being a multi-bid regular, but truth be told, that has little to do with the tournament bracket these days, and more to do with the down nature of the league — which this year was ranked 26th out of 32 leagues in conference RPI. That’s why there’s been so much turnover in head coaches. Nine of the Horizon League coaches have been hired since 2014, with only Oakland’s Greg Kampe (1985) on the job longer.
One of those new coaches is Dennis Felton at Cleveland State, which made the Horizon League championship game.
Felton was best known for a six-year run at Georgia from 2003-09, before he was fired and spent some time in the NBA. He took over the Cleveland State job after last season, and had his challenges.
One of those challenges, however, was not Kenny Carpenter.
The former Detroit Cass Tech star was heading into his senior season, and could’ve looked to transfer rather than ride it out with a new coach. He stayed, and Felton couldn’t have been more grateful.
“We just couldn’t have done anything we accomplished this year without Kenny,” Felton said. “He was a three-workout-a-day guy during the summer, and so we started using him as a shining example with the rest of the players from the very beginning.
“It was obvious his game was getting better and better and better — the more you put into it, the more you get out of it.
“He just always was leading.”
The 6-foot-5, 180-pound guard averaged 13.3 points and 5.1 rebounds, easily career highs.
He starred in the Horizon League tournament, scoring 22, 15, 16 and 18 points in the four games to earn all-tournament team honors.
“Sometimes what (new) coaches do, they don’t have any appreciation for the players they inherited. They just want to use them as an excuse for why we’re not going to be good, and that’s just not my way,” Felton said. “When I took the job, they became my guys.
“I think because that’s my way, I think the feeling was reciprocal with those guys (including Carpenter).”
EXPANSION NOT LIKELY
Expansion always is a hot topic of conversation with the Horizon League, but LeCrone said he doesn’t expect any movement in the next year.
The Horizon League had to act quickly last year, when Valparaiso left in May. IUPUI was added in June.
“I think it would be unlikely, but who knows,” LeCrone said. “The interesting thing about membership in Division I college sports is two sides of the equation. We might be interested in Member X, but they have their own decision-making process, and that might not sync up with our timing.
“I think we’re in a really good configuration right now.”
Valparaiso leaving was a big blow for the strength of basketball, but also worried the Horizon League baseball coaches. Horizon League baseball is down to six teams — including Oakland. That’s the bare minimum for an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
LeCrone said that’s a consideration, but added “it’s really driven by basketball, it’s our financial engine.”
A quick-fix safety net could be adding an associate member for baseball, or a school that joins the Horizon League just for that single sport. LeCrone said he’s not a fan of associate members, and that it’s only been done once in his tenure, and that was with soccer.
Belmont is a member of the Horizon League for men’s soccer, because the Ohio Valley Conference only offers women’s soccer.