L AS VEGAS — What a turnout by the Red Wave.
Fans dressed in red shirts and hoodies filled several sections of the Thomas & Mack Center — for a Mountain West Conference Tournament women’s game — and made the place feel like their homecourt.
They stood in unison at the start of each half, and remained standing until their team scored, and greeted each subsequent basket with enthusiastic cheers.
When the other team’s best player fouled out, they rose up again and waved her off the court.
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The Red Wave sure loves its New Mexico Lobos.
Oh, you thought I was talking about Fresno State?
There are a few Bulldogs fans here, but you’ve got to squint to find them. How few became clear during Wednesday night as red-clad fans rose from their seats at the beginning of the second half of a women’s semifinal.
After the Bulldogs scored on their opening possession, about two dozen people sat down. The other 3,000 remained standing.
“It felt like we were back at the Pit,” said New Mexico guard Bryce Owens, comparing the atmosphere to the Lobos’ home arena. “Definitely great to hear we have the fans behind us.”
The Fresno State turnout for Thursday night’s men’s game was a little better, but not much. There was as much yellow in the arena as red — leftover Wyoming fans from the earlier session.
Of course I shouldn’t be surprised Bulldogs fans are notable only by their absence. Unless someone’s giving away iPads, they hardly attend home games. So what made me think more than a few die-hards would catch a flight or make the 400-mile drive?
Still, the contrast between Fresno State’s turnout compared to that from New Mexico, Wyoming, San Diego State and UNLV is striking. Even Boise State, Air Force and Utah State brought significantly more supporters.
In fact, I’d say there are fewer Bulldogs fans in attendance than any conference school except San Jose State, whose men’s team was ineligible, and Nevada, which went 9-22 and fired coach David Carter.
Not the company you want to keep.
I can already hear the “buts” and counter-arguments. From a matchup standpoint, the Fresno State men drew the worst possible opening opponent. Why would Bulldogs fans travel for what’s more than likely a one-game trip?
Gotcha. But let’s compare that to New Mexico fans, who traveled by the thousands to watch their men’s team in a play-in game. After the Lobos lost to Air Force, every single one of them stuck around to support the women.
How many Fresno State fans would’ve done the same?
The truthful answer: Very few.
New Mexico fans are notorious for how well they travel, but it’s not just them. Wyoming fans are also here in throngs. Including Cowboy Ken, the guy who goes to games shirtless under a barrel.
During the Wyoming-Utah State quarterfinal, Cowboys fans were so loud that their “W-Y-O” chant drowned out the Aggies band.
Same goes for UNLV and San Diego State. Both had large turnouts (to be expected for the host school), and I’m told Aztecs fans don’t really start showing up until the semis.
Why is Fresno State so underrepresented? Some of it surely has to do with Bulldogs fans’ perception of the tournament — and the conference as a whole.
The Mountain West Tournament has been a fixture here since 2000, save for a three-year detour to Denver’s Pepsi Center from 2004-06. (“You could practically hear crickets,” a conference official said.)
Las Vegas has become conference tourney central (the Pac-12 men, Western Athletic Conference and West Coast Conference also are here), but make no mistake: The Mountain West plays on the biggest stage.
Three times out of the last four years, the men’s semifinals sold out the 18,500-seat Thomas & Mack. Last year “only” 15,135 turned out, which was considered a letdown. But that’s still more than the Pac-12, which plays at the MGM Grand’s 13,500-seat venue where championship boxing and UFC events are held.
This is my first experience at the Mountain West Tournament, and it’s more than I expected. From the venue to the behind-the-scenes organization to the crowd turnout, this is nothing less than a big-time event.
I’m making this point because there’s a certain segment of the Bulldogs fan base that seems to believe the conference is somehow beneath them. To these folks, the league is basically a WAC Redux. Nothing to get too pumped up about.
Last month, when Jim Bartko unveiled his five-year strategic plan, one of my regular emailers expressed frustration because he expected Fresno State’s athletic director to announce the Bulldogs were moving to the Pac-12 or Big 12.
Huh? On what planet is he living on?
These are the kinds of fans I’m talking about: a little jaded and out of touch with reality.
Fresno State still led the conference in football attendance last season, so it’s not as if Bulldogs fans have vanished. But the reputation they garnered for packing visiting venues up and down the West Coast is based on decades-old history and has very little to do with the actual present.
The Red Wave? Here in Sin City the Bulldogs’ version hardly qualifies as a ripple.