By Wayne Otto
College Basketball Columnist
College Sports Journal
SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The calendar says it is March and that can mean only one thing to basketball fans: NCAA March Madness, the annual rite of passage for every college basketball player, coach, and fan.
March Madness produces a stage for new stars to emerge or fail and teams’ dreams to come to fruition or to crash during the month long quest and journey that culminates with the national championship.
That dream, that mission starts with the individual conference championship tournaments and ends with the Final Four events in all collegiate divisions. At the NCAA Division I level, there might not be a more exciting men’s and women’s tournament in America than the annual Summit League tournament that is held in Sioux Falls, SD.
In its sixth year at the 53 year old Sioux Falls Arena, the tournament has produced sold out crowds in the 6,500 seat “barn”, along with competitive games that have produced stars, including rookie sensation Nate Wolters of the Milwaukee Bucks.
Wolters was the SL tournament MVP twice as he led his South Dakota State Jackrabbits to the title and then into the NCAA tournament.
Last year the men’s tournament attracted 23,710 spectators in its four sessions, of which three were sold out. The women’s tournament drew 21,158 with two sold out sessions.
“The atmosphere is probably the highlight and what makes the tournament” states Summit League commissioner Tom Douple. “I think that atmosphere is one of the best on college basketball for any tournament and the excitement permeates throughout the building. Fans are right on top of the action and very loud.”
“The passion that the players play with, the coaches coach with, and the fans cheer with adds to the atmosphere. There is so much pressure to win on everyone at a mid-major conference tournament that it really brings out the best in everyone from an effort and focus standpoint”. adds Brad Newitt, Midco Sports Network TV analyst.
Next year the tournament moves next door to the new 12,000 sate of the art Denny Sanford Premier Center.
“Fans will have larger concourses, more points of sale, replay and suites,” Douple says, listing off the benefits of modern arena necessities. We’re also looking into creating a Fan Fest area in front where fans can gather before the games. The fan experience is a high priority and we’re going to see if we can make it work.”
The Southern, Sun Belt, Colonial, NEC, MAAC, MEAC, Big South, Southland and other conferences should take notice and apply the Summit League tournament business model to their tournaments.