ANCHORAGE, Alaska - Sure, Maui may be a little better weather.
However, the early season college basketball tournament with the longer, and equally storied history happens to reside in chilly Alaska.
Now its 31st edition, the Great Alaska Shootout has become a staple of Thanksgiving week and the time that big-time college basketball comes to the cold north. Aside from the Iditarod, the Great Alaska Shootout is the biggest sporting event in the state.
But the tournament taking place this weekend was a scramble for University of Alaska-Anchorage athletic director Steve Cobb and is arguably the weakest field the tournament has offered in its history. There are no teams from major conferences - none of the name, ranked powers that have made a trip to Anchorage a regular part of their early season plans.
Instead, the 2008 Shootout is a group of mid-majors with potential and marks a slight shift in the approach the tournament will take in the future as it faces challenges it's never experienced in the attempts to keep big-time college basketball coming to Alaska.
"It's a free market and we've got to compete in it," Cobb said.
The history of the Shootout is on par, if not even a bit more impressive than its Thanksgiving week companion a few thousand miles to the south in Hawaii. Patrick Ewing played his first college game in Alaska. Duke, North Carolina and Kansas have each come three times. Aside from the host school, UAA, the team with the most tournament wins is Purdue with 10 victories in four trips.
No Shootout participant has ever gone on to win the national title, although plenty have gone on to play in the Final Four, and NCAA champs the year before or the year after have made the trip to Alaska.
"There are two tournaments the coaches will tell you they want to play in and they want to win and that's Maui and the Great Alaska Shootout," Cobb said.
The biggest challenge for the UAA staff to navigate now is the proliferation of early season exempt tournaments in recent years. Cobb said four years ago - when the Shootout's field feature Utah, Alabama, Oklahoma, Minnesota and tourney champ Washington - there were only 28 early season tournaments certified by the NCAA.
This year, there are at least 82, Cobb said.
And the setup for those tournaments hampers the Shootout's ability to attract some teams. There will never be a problem getting teams to sign up for the Maui Invitational. But when the choice is traveling thousands of miles to Alaska, or potentially staying within the Continental U.S. it sometimes becomes hard to justify the travel.
Throw in that the Shootout lost its national television contract with ESPN after the 2007 tournament and this year's field was left scrambling to fill schools just a few months ago. Seattle University, in its transition year from Division II to Division I, was the final team added in late summer.
"The biggest thing we think that got us in trouble this year was ESPN canceling and not replacing it with a national TV contract," Cobb said. "We're really close to having a TV contract for next year ... with the Versus network. We're going to get that back in place and up our guarantees a little bit and that should remedy it for the foreseeable future."
Cobb already has agreements for some well-known schools from major conferences for the next two years. The Shootout has also reached a pact with the Western Athletic Conference to send one team each year.
The coaches like the trip from a basketball standpoint. Unlike Hawaii, Florida or the Caribbean, there are fewer distractions here and the focus can remain mostly on the basketball floor.
Plus, there is always the likelihood of seeing a moose.
"This is a great place to come. It's a great learning experience for the kids who may never be back to Anchorage or Alaska," said Portland State coach Ken Bone, who came as an assistant with Washington in 2004. "And we can get a lot accomplished as a team and get ourselves focused in the right areas."
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