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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Are neutral site games ruining college basketball?

Rebecca Noble
Gonzaga fans cheer on their basketball team in a sparce Staples Center fror the Gonzaga vs Arizona game on Friday, Dec. 3 in Los Angeles, Calif.

During the Lute Olson era for Arizona men’s basketball, the Wildcats built a foundation by playing the best in the country anywhere, anytime. Fast forward 30 years and times have changed dramatically.

The Wildcats are coming off a 69-62 defeat at the hands of No. 8 Gonzaga in Staples Center in Los Angeles on Saturday. Before that, they fell to Butler in Las Vegas. Two big games, neither of which took place in McKale Center or as a true road game.

The allure of college basketball has always been the intensity of fan bases, specifically student sections, and when games are played hundreds or thousands of miles away from either team’s home, it’s difficult for students to attend—thus losing the true passion within that game.

“Yes and no. A game like Michigan State in Hawaii, of course not,” said Arizona head coach Sean Miller when asked if neutral site games are hurting college basketball. “I think you don’t want to play just anybody at a neutral site. The industry of college basketball, like everything, what used to be, isn’t today. Scheduling, especially in non-conference, is much more difficult today than it would’ve been five years ago or even 10 years ago.”

The past marquee neutral site games not only presented matchups worth watching, but were formed tournament-style to give teams more games at a neutral site in a brief amount of time. The preseason NIT, Maui Invitational and Great Alaska Shootout used to be premiere events to highlight college basketball, but that is not the case anymore.

The Wildcats alone have played in three neutral-site events with a fourth coming in Houston later this month: the Armed Forces Classic, where the Wildcats beat Michigan State; the Las Vegas Invitational, where they beat Santa Clara but lost the final versus Butler; the Hoophall LA, which Arizona lost to Gonzaga; and soon Texas A&M in Houston in the Texas Shootout.

The Armed Forces Classic was an exception; the Wildcats’ trip to Honolulu was warranted and justified in recognizing the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. Playing in front of crowds of less than 5,000 each in Las Vegas and Los Angeles was quite the opposite.

“The neutral part is something we entertained this year because a lot of others are doing it,” Miller said.

Some schools, like Kentucky, get paid to play at neutral-site events. According to the Courier-Journal, Kentucky will receive $950,000 for appearances against Michigan State in New York, North Carolina in Las Vegas, ASU in the Bahamas and against Hofstra in Brooklyn. It is not known if Arizona has received the same benefits for its travels this season.

“If you just took, for example, Kentucky or Kansas, they are playing more and more neutrals,” Miller said. “Every time they decide to play a neutral game, it makes others do the same and it takes away opportunities for home and away series. And, as you know, it’s not like anybody is chomping at the bit to come to McKale [Center].”

Having a balance of non-conference home games and neutral site games is vital to a fan base, which is what Miller and his staff are currently trying to address.

“We would love to have more home-and-homes,” Miller said. “Next year, we start a home-and-home with UConn and will return a home-and-home with Gonzaga. … Unfortunately, there aren’t as many takers as maybe there was 10 years ago or five years ago, because there are so many more neutral-site opportunities.”

Follow Saul Bookman on Twitter.

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