It’s funny how perspective can change.
I used to be a sports writer and columnist in Charleston. One that implored city officials to wake up or lose the Mountain East basketball tournament.
Of course, Charleston did lose the MEC event. They are taking it to the ‘Banco, as the saying goes. But, because of my move north, I’ll still be able to see tournament action.
Which warms my heart. See, I’ve been hitting the event since it was the West Virginia Conference. My first memories of college basketball centered on Fairmont State, not WVU, because of a pepperpot men’s coach named Joe Retton. For my 18thbirthday, my parents’ gift wasn’t wrapped. It was Retton walking through our front door.
Yet how will this move to Wheeling go? How has it gone so far? The action begins Wednesday at the Wesbanco Arena.
“Wheeling has certainly rolled out the red carpet,” said MEC commissioner Reid Amos on Monday afternoon. “We’ve experienced terrific support from the city and local government officials, led by Mayor Glenn Elliott and Health Plan CEO Jim Pennington. The Health Plan not only supported the MEC by being our presenting sponsor, but it’s encouraged other corporate sponsors to come on board. It’s an opportunity to stage a terrific event for our student-athletes and fans.”
So the political and corporate support has been there. Now we’ll see if the fans follow suit. If they do, one would expect a tournament contract extension with the city.
“This tournament starts a two-year agreement with the city,” Amos said. “The agreement includes a conference option for 2021. With this initial commitment, Wheeling and WesBanco Arena will have every opportunity to demonstrate its ability to serve as a long-term home for this event.”
Charleston’s Civic Center offered 13,500 seats compared to Wesbanco Arena’s 5,406, but Amos seems quite comfortable with that.
“An arena we can configure to have 2,000 reserved seats and 3,000 additional (general admission) seats is in many ways an ideal setting for us,” said the commissioner. “It’s one where we believe we can develop demand for access to the best seats. Add in the four-panel HD video board and we can engage sponsors in an entirely different way. We can deliver an enhanced experience for our student-athletes and fans.
“I can’t imagine that local officials could have gotten much more for their investment in the renovations at the facility. The new box office and lobby is stunning, every seat in the arena is new and the HD video board makes a significant impact. We are looking forward to staging our event at WesBanco Arena.”
So, that established, what am I looking for in this tournament?
I’m looking forward to seeing coach Ben Howlett’s high-flying West Liberty team, which is ranked No. 7 nationally at 24-3. And if you want to put a face to the team, well, there’s leading-scorer Dalton Bolon, who is tearing up the MEC despite having to wear an eye-patch. Bolon, who is averaging 22 points a game, suffered an eye injury prior to the season.
If you want to check out the league’s top scorer, hit the 8:15 p.m. game on Friday, when Concord’s Tommy Bolte takes the floor. On Jan. 23, he scored 65 against the University of Charleston in a double-overtime Mountain Lion win. In last season’s tournament, Bolte had 51 as his team upset Fairmont State. The sophomore is averaging 29 points.
Also in the men’s division, we’ll see if West Liberty is challenged by the league’s second tier of Fairmont (21-7), Notre Dame (20-8), UC (20-8) and Concord (19-9). The Hilltoppers lead the country in scoring at 103.5.
And – get this – the No. 20 Glenville women are almost scoring at the same pace. The Pioneer women, led by Emily Stoller and her 18.6 average, average 103.1 points. They are 28-2.
Can the second tier of UC (23-5), Concord (22-6) and West Liberty (20-8) topple GSU?
For sure, we’ll want to see West Liberty’s Marissa Brown, who averages 24.3 points.
Oh, for those wanting tickets, check out wesbancoarena.com or hit the box office.
Should be a fun week.