The Great Alaska Shootout turns 39 this week, and some of the pregame talk is whether Anchorage's annual college basketball tournament will live to see 40.
Drastically reduced support from the state is forcing severe budget cuts at the University of Alaska, and UAA's pet event is not immune to the impact.
UAA's athletic program is under orders to cut $1.9 million from its $10.3 million budget by next school year, and the Shootout is already in the process of downsizing.
The tournament, which begins Tuesday at the Alaska Airlines Center, has faced cuts in each of the last two years, going from a budget of more than $1 million in 2014 to a budget of $753,000 this year, according to athletic director Keith Hackett.
So far the reductions aren't obvious to fans, although boosters and sponsors are likely to miss the luncheon at which all eight of the men's coaches spoke. Both the luncheon and the banquet for the four women's teams were cut this year.
More noticeable changes are coming, Hackett said. The configuration of the tournament will change next year, he said, maybe by going to four days instead of five, maybe by other ways.
"We want to do everything we can to continue to bring life to this tournament," Hackett said.
With that in mind, get ready for a bucking salmon, shooting contests with four new trucks as the grand prizes, shuttle buses between downtown and the Alaska Airlines Center, an airline ticket giveaway, beer gardens, burrito bars, smoothie bars and spin moves from UAA guard Suki Wiggs, DJ Spencer Lee and a huge foam boom called The Meltdown.
"There will also be basketball," said UAA's Tim McDiffett, a senior associate athletic director.
Bringing D-I hoops to town
Last year's Shootout will be remembered for a record-breaker and a bracket-buster.
Wiggs, a gifted scorer for the Seawolves, poured in 99 points in three games to break the Shootout scoring record of 97, set in 1993 by Purdue's Glenn Robinson.
Middle Tennessee State won the tournament championship and about four months later busted March Madness brackets everywhere by stunning Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Wiggs is back to lead the Division II Seawolves' annual quest to slay a Division I dragon, and seven Division I men's teams from mid-major conferences will spend Thanksgiving in Anchorage, where they hope to become this season's Middle Tennessee State.
Though longtime fans remember the days when Kentucky and North Carolina headlined the Shootout, mid-major teams have filled the tournament for the last decade or more. That's because top-tier teams follow the money to preseason tournaments like the Battle 4 Atlantis in the Bahamas, which pays six-figure appearance fees to its teams.
The Shootout pays far less — $15,000 apiece to the three women's teams and an average of about $58,000 apiece to the seven men's teams, Hackett said.
As a result, this year's tournament has teams like Buffalo, Iona and Weber State. They aren't big-name programs, but all three made the NCAA Tournament last season, and Buffalo almost pulled off a first-round upset of Miami.
"It's a great opportunity to watch Division I basketball, and it's the only time of the year it's here in Alaska," McDiffett said. "The talent level in college basketball is huge. It's significant. There's great players everywhere all across the country … as well as globally.
"…We've had a lot of good teams in recent years."
The biggest names at this year's tournament will be riding the pine.
Two women who are among the best to play the game and a man who spent several years coaching in the NBA will star on the sidelines.
Cynthia Cooper-Dyke, the USC head coach, is a two-time Olympic medalist, a two-time NCAA champion and a four-time WNBA champion.
Jackie Stiles, a Missouri State assistant coach, is the all-time leading scorer in Division I women's basketball with 3,393 points, including 1,062 in her senior season at Missouri State.
And Eric Musselman, Nevada's head coach, coached in the NBA from 1998 to 2007, a stretch that included two seasons as the head coach of the Golden State Warriors and one season as the head coach of the Sacramento Kings.
He worked miracles with the Wolf Pack last season, his first as the school's head coach. He guided a team that won nine games in 2014-15 to 24 wins, one of the best turnarounds in the country.
Rusty Osborne, the coach of the UAA men's team, said he looks forward to going up against Division I coaches every year at the Shootout.
"It's nice to match wits with those guys," he said.
Bucking salmon, foam booms
Hackett, who has maintained an optimistic attitude throughout his three years in Anchorage, sounds confident yet cautious about the Shootout's future.
"Only time will tell," he said. "The budget is a critical thing, and as you know, we're getting a significant reduction."
Hackett said a strong partnership with GCI, the Shootout's title sponsor, makes the tournament possible. GCI is in the third year of a five-year sponsorship deal that includes cash and in-kind donations, details of which have not been disclosed.
GCI has exerted a lot of marketing muscle for the tournament this year with its "Friendsgiving" promotion. The name acknowledges the many Alaskans who celebrate Thanksgiving with friends instead of family because their family is far away, and GCI is packaging the tournament as a festive extension of the holiday.
It has teamed up with BAC Transportation, Humpy's and Williwaw to provide a hourly shuttle service between downtown and the Alaska Airlines Center, including a Friday shuttle that will take people from the tournament to Town Square in time for the holiday tree lighting.
It has teamed up with Anchorage Chrysler Dodge for shooting contests that will be held at halftime of both the men's and women's championship games. The grand prizes are four new Ram 1500 trucks.
It will give away prizes at every game – think headphones and streaming devices – and it will honor Black Friday deals through Dec. 1 for anyone with a Shootout ticket stub.
As part of the Friendsgiving promotion, DJ Spencer Lee will play music courtside at several games, McDiffett said. Across the hall, the Alaska Airlines Center's auxiliary gym will provide all kinds of diversions beginning Wednesday — a beer garden, a prime-rib carving station, a mechanical bucking salmon and the duck-and-dodge challenge of a rotating foam boom called The Meltdown.
"People expect more than just the game, and our goal is to engage fans of all ages," McDiffett said.
CBS Sports will be back to air live broadcasts of the five men's games — the championship game and all four first-round games — and tape-delayed broadcasts of both men's semifinal games.
In a bit of irony, GCI's cable service doesn't include CBS Sports, so Alaskans will only be able to watch the CBS Sports broadcasts if they have Dish Network or DirecTV.
GCI will broadcast all of the other games, including the women's games, on cable channel 1.
The Shootout has felt more energized since it left Sullivan Arena and moved into the Alaska Airlines Center in 2014, the same year GCI's sponsorship began.
The arena is smaller and the bleachers are closer to the court, so a crowd of 2,500 feels significantly bigger than it does at the Sullivan. A video scoreboard that hangs over halfcourt shows replays and galvanizes fans with a dance cam.
It's the perfect home for the tournament, said McDiffett, but for how much longer?
Earlier this month University of Alaska president Jim Johnsen withdrew his budget-cutting plan to eliminate the ski teams at UAA and UAF and the indoor track team at UAA, but that was a temporary reprieve.
UAA's athletic department still needs to cut 20 percent of its budget by next school year. And there could be more cuts beyond that as the state legislature grapples with its own budget crisis.
Can the Shootout survive all of that?
"That's a good question," McDiffett said. "I wish I was more confident but I think we all approach it with some trepidation, honestly. We've been through some unsettling times and I think the whole state has. … There's just not as much money to go around.
"I wish I was dead certain we would be back here for the 40th, and we have every intention of (doing) so, but there's got to be a lot of decisions with the reductions we're going to have to make.
"Believe me, everything will be looked at as we go forward."
So the Seawolves will enjoy it while they can.
"It's 39 years now … and that's a long time," Osborne said. "…There are buildings in Las Vegas that have been torn down and rebuilt in the last 39 years.
"For something to last this long, it's special. We take a lot of pride in it."
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated which year Glenn Robinson set his scoring record.