College basketball’s opening week features teams traveling many miles to play in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Indianapolis, New York and at the Naval Academy.
No home team. No road team. Many games aren’t played anywhere close to a campus. Nobody seems to mind, because almost every coach is looking for an even playing field.
Why not Sioux Falls, S.D.?
No. 11 Wichita State will travel 485 miles and Memphis 813 to play at 1 p.m. Tuesday at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls. Both schools receive $100,000 from Sanford Frontiers, the game’s promoter, and the prized opportunity to play a good opponent on a neutral court as part of ESPN’s Tip-Off Marathon.
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“It’s hard for people to understand why this game is happening,” Sanford Pentagon general manager Eric Larsen said. “After they see it, they understand.”
WSU coach Gregg Marshall announced the game in March and sees it as a remedy for the criticism his non-conference schedule took last season.
“And we get a nice check,” he said.
Sioux Falls wants to be a destination for big-time college basketball, unlikely as that may seem. The state is home to two NCAA Division I schools — South Dakota State and South Dakota — and both are about 60 miles from Sioux Falls. Both are newcomers to Division I from Division II and members of the Summit League.
The Pentagon is the marquee piece of a 162-acre area sports complex opened in 2013 at a cost of $19 million. The Sanford Sports Complex offers nine basketball courts, three sheets of ice and training and sports medicine facilities. It holds volleyball tournaments, camps and clinics and an indoor tennis center opens in January. High school football teams who wanted to avoid the cold and prepare for the playoffs use the indoor fieldhouse.
The 3,200-seat main arena is called Heritage Court and is designed to create the intimacy and look of a high school gym from the days of short shorts and Converse Chuck Taylors. Historical displays celebrate South Dakota’s basketball history.
“The venue has really got that Hoosiers feel of the 1950s and 1960s,” said Krista Orsack, director of marketing for the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau. “All athletes want to play in that kind of setting.”
The atmosphere, Larsen is confident, will sell the event to the participants and the fans in the arena and watching on TV. He expects a sell-out and for WSU fans to out-number those rooting for Memphis. The Pentagon sold at least 400 tickets to WSU fans, who also rented one of arena’s six suites.
Orsack said the city, population of around 160,000, began to think big when the Summit League Tournament moved there in 2009 and set attendance records at the 6,000-seat Sioux Falls Arena. The building of the Pentagon provided a state-of-the art facility to attract schools eager to help their schedule without playing a road game.
Wisconsin defeated St. John’s last 86-75 last season in front of a full house. This season, South Dakota State will play Florida Gulf Coast and UNLV will play South Dakota. An eight-team NCAA Division II tournament that includes Washburn, Pittsburg State and defending national champion Central Missouri ends on Sunday. In 2013, Minnesota played Milwaukee in an NBA exhibition game.
Next season’s game is set, Larsen said, although he wouldn’t reveal the teams.
“A lot of schools are looking for neutral-court games,” he said. “I don’t think Memphis would have gone to Wichita State to play, and probably vice versa.”
Promoting basketball events is a growth industry, judging by Darron Boatright’s cell phone. WSU’s senior associate athletic director works on scheduling and his options seems to grow every season.
“I have a voice mail on my phone right now from a promoter,” he said. “You just literally never know what people are trying to put together.”
The Pentagon contacted WSU and asked if it would be interested in playing Memphis. WSU athletic director Eric Sexton signed the contract on Feb. 28. Larsen signed on March 4.
“We immediately said yes,” Boatright said. “It was about a two-day process. Boom, next thing you know we had a contract.”
Besides the high-profile opponent, WSU liked the location, which doesn’t favor either team significantly. ESPN’s involvement convinced Boatright that the event would be professionally run and the facility adequate.
“I probably wouldn’t have as much interest in playing Memphis in Nashville,” Boatright said. “As long as it’s neutral, it doesn’t matter where it is. If it’s true neutral, I think Coach Marshall is willing to play any top-tier program anywhere.”
The weather — high of 21 degrees predicted for Tuesday — may keep traveling fans from cruising Sioux Falls. Orsack recommends Falls Park, where the Big Sioux River gives the city its name. She also recommends eating chislic, a cubed meat, marinated and often topped by garlic salt, that is South Dakota’s contribution to local flavor.
“If you’re coming to Sioux Falls, you've got to try the chislic,” Larsen said. “It’s on just about every menu.”
Wichita State vs. Memphis
When: 1 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Sanford Pentagon, Sioux Falls, S.D.
Records: WSU 1-0, UM 0-0
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM