Friday, October 7, 2022

Candid Coaches: Which arenas boast the best home-court environments in college basketball?

CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander surveyed roughly 100 coaches for our annual Candid Coaches series. They polled everyone from head coaches at elite programs to assistants at small Division I schools. In exchange for complete anonymity, these coaches provided unfiltered honesty about a number of topics. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be posting the results of our summer survey on the state of college basketball.

If you compiled a list about the best things about college basketball — the features, quirks and ingredients that make the sport great — the obvious go-to atop such a list is the majesty and spectacle that is the NCAA Tournament. But No. 2, as far as I’m concerned, is the frenzied, intoxicating environments within so many of the sport’s treasured venues. The in-arena experience, but also how that excitement also translates to television, is one of college basketball’s viable selling points over the NBA.

There are well over 100 barns that bear characteristics, intimidations and histories that make them distinct. Among all these enchanting hoops theaters, which rank as the very best? There’s no better group to ask than the people who’ve experienced the highs and lows of being in these buildings for years, some for well over half their lives: the coaches. 

Let’s see what they had to say. Each coach polled was asked to submit their top three when we asked …

Which arenas have the best environments in college hoops?

Tier 1

Allen Fieldhouse (Kansas): 67.3% of all ballots

Cameron Indoor Stadium (Duke) 50.5%

McCarthey Athletic Center, aka The Kennel (Gonzaga) 27.4%

Tier 2

Mackey Arena (Purdue) 15.8% of all ballots

McKale Center (Arizona) 15.8%

Assembly Hall (Indiana) 10.5%

Rupp Arena (Kentucky) 10.5%

Tier 3

Breslin Center (Michigan State) 8.4% of all ballots

Koch Arena, aka The Roundhouse (Wichita State) 8.4%

Neville Arena (Auburn) 7.4%

United Supermarkets Arena (Texas Tech) 7.4%

Schools appearing on at least four ballots: Grand Canyon, Arkansas, Butler, VCU, Tennessee, Dayton

Schools appearing on at least three ballots: BYU, Illinois, Iowa State, Providence, San Diego State 

Quotes that stood out

On Allen Fieldhouse

  • “I know a lot of mid-major head coaches who have nightmares about that place.”
  • “The history gives you chill bumps and the officials always find a way to screw you.”
  • “We played there, kept it a game, were in the game and then it turned at halftime and the crowd took over more than Kansas did. They had a significant impact on the outcome of that game and I was like, ‘Holy s—, this is all f—– up.’ We rolled up to the gym and we get there an hour and a half early and it’s cold, freezing, snow on the ground. And they’re all out there, a mile-long line to get into the arena. And we’re like, ‘Oh, f—.”http://www.cbssports.com/”
  • “Allen Fieldhouse is a treasure. You walk by the hall of fame, you walk through the fans on your way from the locker room to the floor, and then there’s just something about when you step on that floor and think of the history of the game. And then at some point the “Rock Chalk” chant echoes through the arena. You know this is what basketball is supposed to be.” 

On Cameron Indoor Stadium

  • “The size of that building, and the students, just make it really hard. It feels like everybody is just right on top of you. That they always have a great team to root for helps too.”
  • “I would say the noise level is just over the top. Coordinated chants, people are right on top of you, feels so confined and tight in there compared to big large arenas, like Yum! Center. So quaint that it can be intensely loud.” 

On The Kennel

  • “They built that thing right. Perfect size. Students are wild. I don’t blame (Kentucky coach John Calipari) for not wanting to play there. It’s a madhouse.”
  • “When you travel that far to play them, it’s a really long way to go to get your ass kicked. Fans feel like they are on top of you.”

  • “When they play ‘Zombie Nation’ before tipoff, it’s one of the best student section hype songs I’ve seen. It gets loud and the arena actually shakes.”

On Mackey Arena

  • “When Mackey Arena is rocking, I think it is the best atmosphere in the country. Freshmen basically piss down their leg in that place when it is rocking.”
  • “Loyal, family-type atmosphere. It’s really got that basketball nostalgia vibe that comes from that state. And they pack a ton of people into a small space. One of the loudest gyms in the country. It’s intimidating.”
  • “Love the old-time feel. The setup is weird and the students behind your bench at weird angles. Always liked that place.”

On McKale Center

  • “The fact they stand until you score makes it a game within a game. Gotta get the old timers on their ass ASAP.”
  • “The basketball fans are really good in the sense they’re brutal to your team behind the bench, they’re loud, they have a good mix of older and younger. And the way their arena is built is a cool place.”

On Assembly Hall

  • “When Indiana is at its BEST, the 17,000-plus on top of you can’t beat. I’ve been in there when the building has actually started shaking.”

On Rupp Arena

  • “20,000 no matter who the opponent. Loud and passionate.”

On Breslin Center

  • “You can’t hear yourself think. The noise from the crowd, specifically the student section behind you, is jarring. Their coach coaches with great passion and their crowd is an extension of him and his team.”

On Koch Arena: 

  • “Win, lose or draw there will be 10K in there. Fans are loud. Have to use play cards, players can’t hear. And very knowledgeable of the game.”

Best of the rest

Texas Tech: “Fans are passionate and angry. Great combination for a home environment, not-so-great experience as a visitor. The most underrated venue in college basketball.” 

Auburn: “Small, but so hard to go into their facility and win. Fans are super-engaged, and Bruce (Pearl) does as good as any coach in the country bringing excitement to their program with his shenanigans with student engagement.”

Grand Canyon: “Like putting a basketball court in the middle of a club in Las Vegas. The decibel level that they play the music at is painful.”

Dayton: “They love college basketball. Have played there without students around and they still pack the place. Chants of ‘Go Dayton Flyers’ rang in your head for weeks after.” 

Butler: “I think the history of Hinkle, when you walk in and you feel like you’ve been thrown back into the good old days of basketball. Fans know the game, are respectful for the game and it’s a really cool arena, man. I got chills every time I stepped in there to coach. The fans are always there, are polite, are into it. The other cool thing about it is it’s an old-school arena that in 30 years will still be a great place to coach or play a game at.”

Rutgers: “It’s a s—hole but there’s 8,500 people and it’s a vertical wall. We walked in there, 10th in the country, and I’ve never been in an arena like that. We were getting our ass kicked and I was like, ‘Get me the F— OUT OF HERE.” 

Providence: “When they are rolling the atmosphere is ridiculous. They have the DJ going, fans talking to your players. I’ve been in there a couple of time when it’s ridiculous.”

St. Bonaventure: “The fans and students are there early and on game night it is the biggest party in town. The small arena will get loud and the students sit right on the court. A Franciscan monk will have to walk the sideline multiple times a game to quiet any student throwing profanities. It is an experience.”

Utah v Arizona

Arizona’s McKale Center has long been established on the short list of most intimidating venues in college hoops. Getty Images

The takeaway

For transparency’s sake, the full question was prefaced with, “From what you’ve seen and/or experienced … ” meaning coaches were allowed to answer based on where they’d been, if they wanted, or go by other influences. Some coaches polled opted to pick two places they’d been, then lobbed their third vote for a place they’d seen on TV dozens of times or heard about from coaching contemporaries. (This is how Gonzaga got a few extra votes, in fact.) Some coaches voted strictly on places they’d only been. (This is what prevented Kansas from getting even more votes.)

Coaches were also not allowed to pick their own arena. (They were allowed to vote for schools they previously worked at, however.) Thirty-seven schools received at least one vote of the ~300 votes we received, and though coaches weren’t asked to explicitly rank 1-2-3, Kansas was the first option for just about half the coaches surveyed. That building is special, and while the general public might consider Cameron Indoor to be the most renowned venue in men’s college hoops, those within the sport comfortably hold KU’s 67-year-old hallowed home the best. Be it because of the history, the rabid fans, the endless success of the program, any and all of it, Kansas is home to the top venue in the sport. 

Heading in, Allen Fieldhouse was a slight favorite over Cameron Indoor, and to no surprise, those two basically separated from the field. But credit to The Kennel, as Gonzaga is a clear-cut No. 3. It’s another testament to the unprecedented job Mark Few has done there. Having been at all three of these venues, I can unequivocally say they make logical sense as the three best right now in the sport. If I were to make a list of my five favorite home-venue environments, those are all vying for No. 1, with the McKale Center, Gampel Pavilion (UConn), The Dunk (Providence) and Hinkle all at the table. 

In reality, I’ve been to more than 30 truly great college basketball venues, though. Off the top of my head, I can remember sweet experiences at Rhode Island, Baylor, Maryland, Syracuse, Kentucky and Yale — and that’s just the start of it. 

The great thing about college hoops is how many of these gotta-see-one-there venues exist and how they differ in size, shape and appeal. The Phog holds 16,300 people. Cameron is barely more than half the size of that (9,300). The Kennel is nearly one-third smaller than Cameron: 6,000. Rupp Arena is palatial: encroaching on 22K, and Syracuse’s football-dome-turned-basketball-home (which did receive a vote) exceeds it by 11,000! Meantime, Mackey Arena is the coziest 14,000-seater you’ll ever find, and I don’t know if there’s a more humbling barn in the country than The Palestra in Philly (capacity: 8,700). 

The architecture of these arenas varies so greatly, too: Indiana’s Assembly Hall looks nothing like Illinois’ Assembly Hall (now known as the State Farm Center). Arizona’s McKale Center is built deep into the ground, whereas TTU’s United Supermarkets Arena (that name, woof) is almost entirely an above-ground structure. Texas‘ sparkling-new Moody Center just opened … and then there’s Matthews Arena, a capacity of just over 5,000, going strong since 1910 and still the home of Northeastern basketball. 

It all comes back to the fans, though. Buildings carry ghosts in their halls and stories in their walls — but it’s the fans and students who manage to animate brick, concrete and hardwood, elevating a sports experience to something spiritual. When you have the fans and the history, that’s where you get the truly special houses of the holy. 

This question more than any other in this year’s survey got me revved up for the season. I can’t wait for it to start so we can be there again, under a roof, watching these buildings get brought back to life, and with it, the soul of college basketball. 

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