Tuesday, March 31, 2009

College basketball in a football stadium? Bad fit


I experienced the most thrilling moment of the NCAA Tournament to date first-hand Saturday night in Boston.

Sitting two rows behind the Villanova bench, I watched as the Wildcats' Scottie Reynolds drove the ball all the way to the hoop for the game-winning layup, sending the 'Cats to their first Final Four since the miracle season of '85 with a 78-76 win over Pittsburgh.

I didn't care who won the East Region's final — I like both 'Nova and that team of grinders from the Steel City. But what I loved was the atmosphere in the T.D. Bankworth Garden (I'll just call it the Gawden from here on out) throughout the game.

Heck, the place was even electric during Thursday's pair of regional semifinals that didn't exactly demonstrate the best, most exciting competitive basketball.

I wasn't in the Gawden all weekend, however. I also got the chance to watch the other regional finals in Glendale, Ariz., Indianapolis, Ind., and Memphis, Tenn. None of the three games were close to as exciting as the final I witnessed, but there was another diminishing factor that I noticed from watching on TV.

While there seemed to be a good atmosphere in Memphis, at the FedEx Forum, where the Tar Heels fans created a din and filled the place up, the same couldn't be said of Glendale and Indianapolis.

It's not that the Midwest and West regional finals didn't have intrigue. Rather, it's that they were played in huge, unfit-for-hoops football stadiums. Connecticut and Missouri battled in the Arizona Cardinals' 21st-century stadium; Michigan State and Louisville went at it in the Indianapolis Colts new, spanking stadium.

Nice places ... for a football game.

But not for hoops. All I needed to see were all the empty seats the CBS cameras caught — unintentionally, I assume. It's not like they were way in the upper deck, either. There were thousands of unused seats in the lower level.

Crazy, right? Well, actually not that inane, considering that they still couldn't be considered good seats. The fact is, a basketball court is much, much smaller than a football field (think 94 feet vs. 360 feet). Thus, a quality seat for a Colts game was a crappy seat for the Spartans' conquest of the Cardinals Sunday.

And when a stadium isn't full, it's not as loud. The cheering is more disparate, less unified. Even when one team's section becomes gregarious, they cover too small a portion of the stadium to greatly increase the stadium's noise meter.

Here's what the NCAA should do (but, obviously, will never do). Stipulate, quite simply, that all tournament games up until the Final Four should be played in actual basketball arenas. I know that's not plausible these days for the Final Four — and that's fine.

They'll actually be able to fill up Ford Field this weekend with roughly 60,000 fans. We can thank the Michigan State fan base for that.

But watching Sweet 16 games and Elite Eight games played in quarter-empty stadiums doesn't exactly promote the sport's best month so well.

What does is an atmosphere like I encountered in Boston. The Gawden isn't a football stadium, but it still packed in 18,871 fans (official attendance) for the Pitt-'Nova game. That's quite a good haul, and just 15 fans short of the attendance out in quiet Glendale (18,886)

And the arena was filled to capacity. That lent itself to a great environment, in which both teams' cheering sections made plenty of noise in addition to scattered fans throughout the arena. And because of the shape of the Gawden — not as wide and open as a footballs stadium — the noise was contained and heard from one side of the Gawden to the other.

Of course, the great game helped. But even without the memorable finish, people who participated in the regional would have left Beantown saying good things about the din the Gawden created.

I doubt that was the case out in Arizona or even in Indy, which had much better attendance numbers (33,084 on Sunday).

Next season, the regional sites include Salt Lake City, St. Louis, Houston and Syracuse. Only Salt Lake City and Syracuse use their gyms for basketball on an annual basis.

That's where I want to be.

If you're looking for plenty of available tickets, however, book your flight for St. Louis or Houston.

There should be plenty of get-the-binoculars-ready seats available.

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