Tuesday, March 10, 2009 | 1:29 p.m.
The first college basketball game Karl Benson ever saw was in Spokane, Wash., when he was "in seventh or eighth grade." It featured Gonzaga.
The last college basketball game the Western Athletic Conference commissioner has witnessed (at least until tonight, when the WAC men's and women's postseason tournament gets under way in Reno) also featured Gonzaga.
Benson was at the Orleans Arena on a fact-finding mission Monday night. The facts check out. After watching the 'Zags destroy Saint Mary's in the West Coast Conference championship game in front a capacity crowd, Benson is convinced -- more than ever -- that the Orleans also would make a great home for the WAC postseason hoop shindig beginning in 2011.
He said the WAC coaches and athletic directors have been down with the idea for a couple of years, when he and then-Orleans Arena director Steve Stallworth first discussed the possibility.
But when he took it to his board of directors -- the school presidents -- a couple refused to sign off.
(My guess is that Utah State was one of them, but it's just a guess.)
When Benson ran the idea up the flagpole again, after the fellow mid-major WCC beat the WAC to town, there was less opposition.
If the WAC board ratifies an agreement to move its volleyball tournament here in the fall, then it's all but a certainty the basketball tournaments would move here the next year.
Benson said the WCC business model, where the schools would be required to purchase "X" number of all-tournament passes, works for the nine WAC schools.
"And the coaches say the neutral site is a priority," he added.
"The coaches have been very supportive, the athletic directors have been very supportive. But when we took it to the board of directors in June 2007, there wasn't a consensus at that time to pursue it."
Benson is no stranger to overseeing college basketball tournaments in Las Vegas, having presided over the WAC event at the Thomas & Mack Center for three years before half of its membership decided to form the Mountain West Conference.
Meanwhile, the WCC is said to be ecstatic over its one-year deal to move its tournament to the Orleans and is expected to rubber stamp an option to return next year.
“It was terrific, it’s probably the best thing the league has done in my 20-plus years here,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. “It’s big time, presents the league well and obviously the fans are going to come. And beyond all that, it’s fair, which is the greatest thing.”
Darren Davis, the new Orleans Arena director, said if the WCC doesn't return it would be a bigger upset than Buster Douglas over Mike Tyson. He said the WCC has until June 1 to exercise its option.
"My feeling is it will be done way before that," Davis said.
If the WAC follows the WCC to town, it will be in a double literal sense. Benson said after the WCC cuts down the nets on Monday, the WAC would just put up some new ones and start playing on Tuesday.
If this is WAC tournament week, then sooner or later, a buzzer is bound to go off -- and somewhere, Keith Van Horne will sink a jump shot that barely beats it.