The 68 Best Places To Watch D1 College Basketball - And More
Late last season, I, Joe Connor, (aka Mr. Sports Travel) completed a nearly 30-year journey – to enjoy a game at every school’s home venue in NCAA Division I college basketball. I attended my first game while studying journalism at Texas Christian University (TCU) in January 1993. And I came nearly Texas full circle when I attended a contest at my last D-I men’s gym – Tarleton State in February 2022. A week later, I took in a game at the final D-I women’s only gym on my list – Siena College (note: 25 D-I ladies’ programs have a separate, primary home court from their male counterparts).
Shortly, I present to you my “Top 68 NCAA D-I College Basketball Game Day Experiences!”
But first, have I got a story to tell!
CALLED TO TRAVEL
My late father, an Air Force veteran, introduced me to sports and travel. Growing up in suburban West Hartford in the 1980s, University of Connecticut basketball wasn’t what it is today. Hartford was a hockey town and he introduced me to the game and coached in the towns’ youth program. He also taught me basketball, baseball, football, tennis, and many other sports. My Dad and I enjoyed road trips across New England, from Red Sox and minor league games to youth hockey and the pros, including to the Springfield, Massachusetts Civic Center to watch the Whalers before the Hartford Civic Center re-opened in Jan. 1980 following a roof collapse. The 1979-80 season was the city’s first in the National Hockey League – Hartford had made it to the “big leagues.”
My father passed away in my late 20s – I realized then how short life can be. This experience shaped my whole life trajectory. I was not going to “wait” until I retired to do what I wanted to – and that was pursue my two passions: sports and travel. As a self-employed Career Coach with no children and who has never married, I’ve put most of my income in rental properties which is how I 100% self-fund my trips. I’ve sports traveled to nearly 40 countries across six continents, enjoying more than 55 different sports. I’m planning another trip overseas starting in November 2022 with the goal of enjoying hoops on five continents – wish me luck! On a professional level in North America, I’ve enjoyed a game at every NBA, NFL, NHL, and MLB venue, plus every NBA G-League venue and countless minor league baseball and hockey tilts.
COLLEGE SPORTS – AND HOOPS TRAVELS!
Primarily because growing up hockey was my sport and ruled the roost, neither my father nor I ever attended a UConn hoops game – or any basketball game for that matter! I also never played any level of organized hoops.
But the on-campus experience at TCU was so enjoyable that I knew one day I wanted to travel to as many campuses as possible to enjoy not just basketball, but my other favorite team sports – football, baseball, and ice hockey.
In fact, my late father took me to my first college football game on Sept. 12, 1992 when Steve Spurrier and the Gators hosted Kentucky in “The Swamp!” On Nov. 5, 2022, I finished seeing a home game at my last NCAA D-I Football Championship Series school – there are 131! On Oct. 2, 2022, I finished enjoying a game at every NCAA Division I men’s hockey venue – there are 62! I’m closing in on seeing a game at every D-I college baseball venue. They don’t call Mr. Sports Travel for nothing! To mark turning 50 this year, I’ve enjoyed a sporting event in each of the 50 United States, plus the District of Columbia and even British Columbia Canada.
Since 2018, across the lower 48 states, I’ve driven my car to sporting events that is “wrapped” in the American Flag, raising awareness of OperationFirstResponse.org, a four-star rated charity that helps veterans, service members, first responders, and their families. I began writing a travel column for the printed Basketball Times in 2012 and following the COVID year, here on CollegeBasketballTimes.
Math has never been my strength, but my college hoops games attendance by the numbers (and memory!):
Men’s NCAA D-I: about 500 (home games at all 363 schools.)
Women’s NCAA D-I: about 55 (home games at all 25 schools that have their own gyms separate from the men.)
Former NCAA D-I Hoops Venues (now all volleyball venues): about 35.
I’ve enjoyed approximately 80 NCAA D-II or III games in roughly 30 different states, plus the District of Columbia, and about another 40 or so games at NAIA or junior colleges across the fruited plain. I’ve attended about a half dozen games in The Basketball League (minor league circuit) and taken in a high school contest in 35 states, including playoff championship tilts in West Virginia, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska.
TOP 68 NCAA DIVISION I COLLEGE BASKETBALL GAME DAY EXPERIENCES
Dispersed across four brackets to mirror March Madness, my bracket is based primarily on noise! Also, I prefer a smaller, intimate atmosphere and could care less about amenities and suites. The bracket is geography-based (example: Connecticut in the East, North Carolina in the South, Iowa State in the Midwest, and Washington in the West). Within each region, I also explain “five burst bubbles,” plus my additional favorite cracker boxes, other unique venues, favorite court-designs, rivalries, and other fun facts. Additional bracket notes:
Based ONLY on my personal game day experience prior to this season; NOT based on program success or attendance!
Skews predominately based on my experiences attending at least one men’s game at the primary home court of each school, including those with multiple home venues.
Includes visits to all schools that have joined D-I this season from D-II.
Games attended at neutral site venues, including post-season games, were not considered.
And unlike the real March Madness, not every conference has at least one representative! My rules rule!
MR. SPORTS TRAVEL’S GAME DAY ATMOSPHERE – BRACKETOLOGY 101!
The left side of my bracket is the Midwest and West. The right side of the bracket is the East and South.
The 2022-23 D-I college hoops season features 363 men’s team and 361 women’s teams (SoCon members VMI and The Citadel do not have women’s programs). All but two schools are in one of 32 conferences.
Schools from 16 conferences made my bracket, with the “Big 10” boasting 11 teams (memo to Commissioner Warren: time for a re-brand to Big 16/20, whatever); Ditto, “Atlantic-10,” which has 15 teams!
The ACC, Big East, and SEC each have eight representatives while the Big 12 has seven. The other conferences with multiple schools in the bracket are the Atlantic-10 (five); Mountain West and Pac-12 (four each); and the American Athletic and West Coast with three each as well. The Western Athletic, aka WAC, has two teams.
The Buckeye State and the Hoosier State each have four teams, followed by North Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Tennessee, and New York with three each. A total of 35 states are represented in my bracket, from Rhode Island to Florida and Washington to California, reinforcing the immense popularity of the coolest 48 minutes in sports!
MR. SPORTS TRAVEL’S EAST BRACKET – MY TOP 17 GAME DAY EXPERIENCES IN THE EAST!
For this bracket, “The East” comprises the New England (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont) and Mid-Atlantic states (New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, West Virginia, and Virginia), plus the District of Columbia, Michigan, and Ohio.
The Buckeye State leads the East with four schools in my bracket.
EAST – PLAY-IN GAME/FIRST FOUR IN:
#17 Providence (Big East): Playing off-campus is an automatic demerit for me unless the atmosphere is off the charts. While the Friar women play on-campus at the old men’s gym, the gents play at the downtown Dunkin’ Donuts Center. The men’s atmosphere can be solid for Big East and rival games, especially against Connecticut and Rhode Island. Recommend men play an occasional game/s at old venue! Alumni would love it – Mr. Sports Travel too!
EAST – ROUND OF 64:
#16 THE Ohio State University (Big 10): Never cared for this building and have been here multiple times. Feels sterile. But Buckeye Nation makes its impact, especially in the lower bowl for conference tilts or primo non-conference matchups. Wish they could have incorporated some of the design lore of St. John’s Arena when they built this. They did not.
#15 Michigan (Big 10): Like Ohio State, this is a venue most enjoyed for a Big 10 rival game, like Michigan State. Has many of the same bland qualities as its border nemesis. But, hey, Buckeyes fans, I do have The Horseshoe ahead of The Big House in my “Top 25 Ultimate NCAA D-I College Football Experiences!”
#14 St. John’s (Big East): Syracuse likes to brand itself “New York’s team.” Freedom of speech – but ‘Cuse is closer to Canada than the heartbeat of the Empire State – NYC. And St. John’s is the Big Apple’s college team, occasionally playing Big East games at The Garden. The men also play on-campus at Carnesecca Arena, which offers a smaller, better atmosphere, including my last visit against Marquette on New Year’s Day 2019.
#13 St. Bonaventure (Atlantic 10): What can brown do for you? How about make for a great small-town game-day atmosphere in Western New York! The students are right in the thick of the action here. One of my favorite cracker boxes in college hoops.
#12 Pittsburgh (ACC): The student section here is off the charts. Wish the Panthers would play a throwback game at Fitzgerald Field House, which I’ve attended for volleyball.
#11 West Virginia (Big 12): Almost heaven? Not exactly, unless you’re a Mountaineers fan in “Hugginstown” and besting Kansas on home court! The building feels ancient, but the students and diehard loyal fans make up for it!
#10 Virginia (ACC): For a men’s game, the Hoos faithful rev up the volume inside this absolute gem of an arena. The Cavaliers have also done a great job of showcasing the rich history of the program on the concourses.
#9 Cincinnati (American Athletic): When I first visited in 2008, the program was still rebuilding after having just hired Nick Cronin and the atmosphere was lame. When I returned 10 years later – what a difference winning makes, plus a consistently packed house and an updated venue.
EAST – ROUND OF 32:
#8 Maryland (Big 10): I have long mocked the Washington, DC metro area for its mostly bandwagon sports fans. The exception is Maryland men’s basketball, the No. 1 sports experience 10 miles from The White House (sorry, Georgetown fans but you know it’s still true). Great buzz, especially for Big 10 action.
#7 VCU (Atlantic 10): Good luck finding a ticket to a men’s game. Most recent game I enjoyed was packed to the gills with a super vibe! Sweet intimate venue with not a bad seat in the house.
#6 Xavier (Big East): One of my favorite college basketball towns, the Musketeers Cintas Center is four miles from its arch city rival. And this place jumps. The ‘Nati-X rivalry is one of the best in college hoops.
#5 Dayton (Atlantic 10): It’s no accident why the NCAA hosts the men’s “First Four” here – a guaranteed sellout. Same goes for Dayton’s men’s games. This is one of my top 10 favorite non-big city sports towns in America.
EAST – SWEET 16:
#4 Connecticut (Big East): Bias alert: Still have Connecticut in my heart. The Whalers have been long gone but the Huskies have not looked back. I prefer enjoying games on campus at Gampel Pavilion over downtown Hartford because it’s more intimate – and college sports belongs on campus! I’ve attended men’s and women’s games at both venues.
#3 Villanova (Big East): Off the I-95 corridor in the East, there is no better on-campus game day experience than The Pavilion (if Villanova is playing at The Palestra, that’s the exception). Try and catch a game against a Big East or Big 5 rival as I have during my visits. (note: The Palestra is Penn’s home court).
#2 Syracuse (ACC): Even though they play inside a domed football stadium, the atmosphere is killer. Caught the Orange play Georgetown on my last visit – awesome. I have never cared for the venue though, especially the lack of elevated seats behind the baskets, resulting in poor sight lines unless you are front row central – or tall like a center!
#1 Michigan State (Big 10): Representing the East bracket and playing in my Final Four? Sparty! I’ve been to the Breslin Center multiple times. Even enjoyed the Michigan High School Basketball State Championships here. The best game day atmosphere in the East!
EAST – 5 BURST BUBBLES! Vermont (American East): The Catamounts effort to build a new gym have been delayed – I say good because this place is unique. When I come here, it reminds me of covering high school hoops. Four other East burst bubbles: Wagner’s home court (Northeast) has a cage feel too but does not rock consistently; ditto for Iona (MAAC). Rutgers (Big 10) and Toledo (MAC) also burst bubbles.
ADDITIONAL FAVORITE EAST CRACKER BOXES: In the MAAC, Canisius, Niagara, and Rider; Boston University and Loyola Maryland in the Patriot; St. Francis Brooklyn and Stonehill in the Northeast; and American East schools, Bryant, UMass Lowell (on campus venue only) and Maine when they play on-campus at The Pit.
ADDITIONAL FAVORITE UNIQUELY DESIGNED VENUES: No. 1 is The Palestra (try to see a Big 5 game or when Penn hosts Princeton). Others include Rose Hill Gym at Fordham (Atlantic 10); Whitney Gym at Yale (Ivy); Holy Cross (Patriot); Alumni Hall at Providence (women’s venue and former men’s digs), and on-campus Walsh Gym at Seton Hall (Big East), home of the Pirates team (former men’s venue). The Georgetown (Big East) women play on campus at barn-style McDonough Arena (former men’s home). Western Michigan (MAC) is a throwback edifice. Basement ball? That would be on the upper west size of the NYC where you go down to Levien Gym at Columbia (Ivy).
Along one entire wall of Liberty’s (Atlantic Sun) arena is a gigantic image of the surrounding mountains. You want history? Visit Northeastern (Colonial Athletic). The men play at Matthews Arena, which opened in 1910 and it’s the oldest D-I hoops venue. The women play at Cabot Center, which opened in 1954. The first ever baseball World Series was played on Cabot’s grounds in 1903.
FAVORITE EAST COURT DESIGNS: Oakland (Horizon) bear-y-intimidating center court image and sweet mostly black court design; George Washington (Atlantic 10) because you got to love a design featuring landmarks of our democracy!
ONLY IN THE EAST, MY FRIENDS: Shortest distance between conference rivals in D-I college hoops? How about less than a mile stroll between the home court of LIU Brooklyn and their nemesis St. Francis Brooklyn (Northeast Conference).
FINALLY, SOME FAVORITE EAST REGIONAL RIVALRIES: Xavier-‘Nati (annual Battle of the ‘Nati); any Big 5 (e.g., Villanova-St. Joseph’s, Temple-La Salle, etc); Penn-Princeton; Iona-Manhattan and Canisius-Niagara (all MAAC rivalries); Norfolk State-Hampton (two HBCU rivals in the Hampton Roads “Battle of the Bay”); Coppin State-Morgan State (MEAC); Providence-UConn and St. John’s-Seton Hall (Big East rivals); and Syracuse-Georgetown (former Big East foes, sadly they play infrequently now).
MR. SPORTS TRAVEL’S SOUTH BRACKET – TOP 17 GAME DAY EXPERIENCES IN THE SOUTH!
For this bracket, “The South” is defined as the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas, as well as both North and South Carolina.
Kentucky, North Carolina, and Tennessee each have three teams in my bracket.
SOUTH – PLAY-IN GAME/FIRST FOUR IN:
#17 Mercer (SoCon): Spirited and entertaining student section here really amazed me. The venue is a little too big for the program but not so big that it takes away from the atmosphere.
SOUTH – ROUND OF 64:
#16 Florida Gulf Coast (Atlantic Sun): My favorite gym in the A-Sun is “Dunk City.” FYI: If the Bellarmine men (also in the Atlantic Sun) were still playing their home games on campus, it would be in my bracket (but since going D-I they’ve decided to play off-campus at much larger Freedom Hall. Boo. My first Bellarmine game was on-campus and it rocked!).
#15 College of Charleston (Colonial): This is by far the best game experience in the Colonial. Solid atmosphere and not a bad seat in the house. Feels like a mini-Auburn Arena without the second deck. Perfect sized venue for a school this size.
#14 Western Kentucky (Conference USA): Love the venue, the campus, and the people – last visit was for an NIT game against Boston College. There’s not a bad seat in the house. I always love coming here. WKU has a rich hoops tradition.
#13 LSU (SEC): This place can be electric for both men’s and women’s SEC games, but not so much for non-conference money collectors. Super history of the program showcased along the main concourse but check it out before or after the game, otherwise you miss the action!
#12 Vanderbilt (SEC): Home to one the sports’ most unique and historic venues, it’s a phenomenal place to enjoy hoops. You’ll find a stellar vibe here of which I’ve enjoyed multiple times because attendees know they’re in a special building!
#11 North Carolina State (ACC): The women play on-campus at refurbished Reynolds Coliseum while the men play at PNC Arena, which I have never been a fan of – and no, not because it doubles as the home arena of the NHL Hurricanes (formerly, Hartford Whalers – no bitterness meter!). For an ACC game, this place can jam. Non-conference whatchamacallit? Not so much.
#10 South Carolina (SEC): Of all the SEC schools in the bracket, this one has the most modern “feel” of newly-built-arena-sameness but the passion of Gamecocks Nation overrides all. Along with LSU, Tennessee, Florida, and Arkansas, this fan base displays its passion among the conferences’ top tier across multiple sports (not just basketball). My last visit was a men’s game between the Gamecocks and Clemson. Wow, what an experience! And the women’s is a stellar game day experience too.
#9 Memphis (American Athletic): One of my favorite basketball towns in America, the blues capital is home to a rowdy bunch of diehards, so much so the on-campus Roane Fieldhouse (exceptional old school venue home to the Lady Tigers) is simply not big enough for the men’s team who share the downtown FedEx Forum with the NBA’s Grizzlies.
SOUTH – ROUND OF 32:
#8 Florida (SEC): Bias alert: Although I grew in Connecticut and went to TCU, I have a little Gator love in my heart, having lived in Central Florida a couple of years before trekking west to create a homestead in California. This place jams for SEC games. My two most recent visits were against rival Tennessee.
#7 North Carolina (ACC): Like Kentucky, the men and women have separate venues. Frankly, I’ve never cared for The Dean Dome, as it feels gigantic and sterile, although you can’t go wrong for any game because, well, you’re watching among the best of the best! Banners of MJ and others are so high up on the roof, however, bring your binoculars! Now if the Tar Heel men still played at quaint Carmichael Arena (current home of the women’s)? I’d feel differently!
#6 Arkansas (SEC): Home of my favorite cheer in D-I college sports (Wooooooo, Pig! Sooie!), this is a smaller, more intimate atmosphere for a men’s game than North Carolina. Be sure to check out the Hall of Fame arena at street level before or after the game and the Hogs former digs, Barnhill Arena, which is used today for volleyball.
#5 Auburn (SEC): Love him or loathe him, no disputing “The Bruce Pearl Effect.” Dude knows how to recruit, coach, and win. He revamped Rocky Top and has done the same on The Plains, which not long ago was a hoops afterthought. Auburn Arena is the perfect size model for on-campus hoops in the 21st Century, with a short second deck that hovers right over the court. Makes for a great atmosphere during men’s games!
SOUTH – SWEET 16:
#4 Louisville (ACC): My friends in the ‘Ville are about to disown me now (we had a good run!). The best rivalry in D-I college hoops (after Duke-North Carolina) is Louisville-Kentucky, non-conference state rivals that play once annually in “The Super Bowl of the Commonwealth.” I was worried when the Cardinals vacated Freedom Hall for the downtown Yum! Center the atmosphere for men’s games would not be the same. The ‘Ville proved me wrong – and glad they did! The Cards also draw very well for women’s games.
#3 Tennessee (SEC): They love their Vols on dear ole “Rocky Top,” whether it’s a men’s or women’s game, especially an SEC tilt. The building design has a lot of similarities to North Carolina’s though – and not in a good way. Stale-feel construction! So, Thank God for the fans! Be sure to visit the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame when you’re in town.
#2 Kentucky (SEC): No fan base in D-I college basketball (for its men’s and women’s programs) is more passionate than the Wildcats (sorry, Louisville, Indiana, Tennessee, Duke, and North Carolina, but that’s just reality). Catching a game at Rupp (men’s home venue) is wonderful – but it feels like a big NBA arena, not college. The women play at Memorial Coliseum (where the men used to play). Now, if the men still played at Memorial? OMG, it would be my No. 1 if not for…
#1 Duke (ACC): There’s nothing like a men’s game at Cameron Indoor. Incredibly loud. Intense. Hot. Last game I enjoyed was Duke-Michigan State. Epic. I remember Tom Izzo during his post-game radio interview. Looked like he’d just been in a prize fight – and it did not fare well. He was sweating profusely and looked incredibly drained. He wasn’t even playing!
So, representing the South and playing in my Final Four? Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, the Dukies! The best game day atmosphere in the South my friends. Kentucky fans will likely disagree! But whatever!
SOUTH – 5 BURST BUBBLES! Alabama (SEC) just missed the cut – last time I was here they hosted Florida. Not electric buzz. Looking forward to a new arena down the road. Mississippi State (SEC) and the cowbell? More cowbell life at their baseball and football games. Virginia Tech (ACC) and Murray State (MVC) also missed out. The Bellarmine men (Atlantic Sun) inexplicably play off-campus at giant Freedom Hall (former University of Louisville home court) versus cracker box Knight Arena and Mr. Sports Travel asks – “why on earth would you surrender a home-court advantage?” Hopefully, the Knights come to their senses and return to campus soon – and when they do – will make one of my future South brackets! Love the ambition Bellarmine but you’re not Louisville or Kentucky! Snap out of it!
ADDITIONAL FAVORITE SOUTH CRACKER BOXES: They both may play in the “Big South” but the home courts of USC-Upstate and Charleston Southern are the very definition of cracker box! Stetson (Atlantic Sun) also fits the bill.
ADDITIONAL FAVORITE UNIQUELY DESIGNED VENUES: Devlin Fieldhouse at Tulane (American Athletic); Swisher Gym at Jacksonville (Atlantic Sun); and two SoCon gems’ – McAlister Fieldhouse at The Citadel and Brooks Gym at ETSU, the latter home for women’s games only.
FAVORITE SOUTH COURT DESIGNS: Louisiana-Lafayette (Sun Belt); New Orleans (Southland); FIU (Conference USA); and Memphis (both venues).
ONLY IN THE SOUTH, MY FRIENDS: If Florida State (ACC) and Florida A&M (SWAC) get together, it is a one mile walk between the teams’ gyms. It’s a two-mile jaunt between Lipscomb (Atlantic Sun) and Belmont (Ohio Valley) in the Music City “Battle of Belmont Boulevard.” These two Nashville rivals have been going at since 1953 when they were both in the NAIA.
SOME ADDITIONAL FAVORITE SOUTH REGIONAL RIVALRIES: Duke-North Carolina; Kentucky-Louisville; Jacksonville-North Florida (Battle of Jacksonville); and Wofford-Furman (Battle of Spartanburg).
MR. SPORTS TRAVEL’S MIDWEST BRACKET – TOP 17 GAME DAY EXPERIENCES IN THE MIDWEST!
For this bracket, the Midwest features the states of Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana.
Indiana leads the Midwest with four teams in my bracket.
MIDWEST – PLAY-IN GAME/FIRST FOUR IN:
#17 St. Louis (Atlantic 10): When the Billikens are rolling, this place can be stellar. Pretty solid game day atmosphere.
MIDWEST – ROUND OF 64:
#16 Southern Illinois (MVC): This part of the state is home to some great high school hoops venues and its primary university offers up a strong game day experience, especially at court level. The venue is a little too big for the Salukis but where else in America can you get your picture taken with a pair of actual Salukis on the main concourse?
#15 Loyola Chicago (Atlantic 10): My last visit here the Ramblers played one of the-cream-puffs-of-cream-puffs – and yet the place was packed quite solid. This isn’t a terribly big building and is the ideal size for the program. Great experience.
#14 Notre Dame (ACC): Bias alert: I am Irish, was raised Catholic, and am a fan – I was not smart enough to gain admittance, but, hey, look at me now! Growing up, UConn hoops (and its athletic program in general) was not remotely close to Notre Dame’s level (the closest in my neck of the woods was Boston College). While my affinity today is primarily with TCU – which did admit me! – I’ve still got some Notre Dame, Connecticut, and even a little Florida Gator in my heart. The Joyce Center can jump but isn’t top tier. That said, if the Irish played in the Big 10 (and one day I hope they will) against Indiana and Purdue? OMG, this place would be bananas!
#13 Nebraska (Big 10): Still to me the most unheralded fan base in college athletics – also the most respectful too – and they cheer loudly! Doubt it will happen but wish Nebraska would return to the Big 12; Big 10 just doesn’t seem like a fit.
#12 Marquette (Big East): Wish the Golden Eagles would play on-campus like the ladies do at the Al McGuire Center. So got lucky and caught a men’s NIT game against Oregon in 2018 at McGuire and it was a tremendous atmosphere! The game was an anomaly because the men usually play at FiServ Forum, which doubles as the home of the NBA’s Bucks. My experience at FiServ was against a no-name. Still, the atmosphere in the lower bowl at FiServ was noteworthy.
#11 Iowa (Big 10): This place can jolt. Love the fact all the seating is built below street level, creating a stellar noise factor. Not as consistently loud as its arch state rival though.
#10 Minnesota (Big 10): One of my favorite venues in all of college hoops, “The Barn” is an experience not to be missed! Although the Golden Gophers often play sub-par, the students and fans have not received this memo yet – good!
#9 Butler (Big East): If you’re a hoops fan, you know Hinkle Fieldhouse needs no introduction. Try to catch a day game when the natural light outside can creep in through the glass. But anytime is a great time to visit this crown jewel.
MIDWEST – ROUND OF 32:
#8 Iowa State (Big 12): Enjoyed multiple games here, with my last visit a loss to visiting Kansas. No “Hilton Magic” that night, and while this place can go bonkers on the noise Richter, is it not among the elite based on multiple trips here.
#7 Illinois (Big 10): When the Illini are jamming, the atmosphere can be off the charts! Always love visiting this throwback arena. Be sure to check out the Illini’s former crib from long ago, Huff Hall; saw a volleyball game there.
#6 Wichita State (American Athletic): After KU, the best D-I game experience in the Sunflower State (sorry, you know it’s true K-State fans). Perspective? First game here I saw was a few days before Christmas against North Dakota. Sold out. The buzz has only gotten better multiple visits since!
#5 Wisconsin (Big 10): It’s not hands-down my favorite college sports town by accident! There is nothing like game day is Madison – nothing. Last game I witnessed? The fans rushed the court after upsetting Purdue on the night the Badgers retired Frank Kaminsky’s No. 44. Only demerit is the building is huge and wish they’d play an exhibition game at their former home, Wisconsin Field House (now used for volleyball and wrestling).
MIDWEST – ELITE EIGHT:
#4 Indiana (Big 10): Fans inside this historic, old-school quirky building can go mental when the Hoosiers are humming but when IU is struggling it feels like “The Tense Factory.” Quite frankly, after Kentucky, to me, IU hoop fans are like Nebraska football fans – holding their breath on every play. Now that’s passion!
#3 Purdue (Big 10): One of my favorite student sections in America – The Purdue Paint Crew. Not just students – all fans often stand – and boisterously cheer! A wonderful place to enjoy a game in the Heartland and more electric than rival IU based on multiple visits to both.
#2 Creighton (Big East): Creighton’s team? No, make that Omaha’s team (for hoops, sorry Nebraska-Omaha, but you’ve got hockey and Creighton doesn’t)! How else do you explain a Jesuit school in Nebraska – way out in Nebraska – earning an invite to the Big East? Because this place goes berserk every game, regardless of the opponent, from cupcake to Big East foe!
#1 Kansas (Big 12): Welcome to College Basketball Heaven. The complete opposite feeling if you’re the opponent! Phog Allen is in a class by itself!
MIDWEST – 5 BURST BUBBLES! Kansas State (Big 12) and Missouri (SEC) each have good student support but not great; ditto from the alumni, plus the venues are too big and stale for both programs. South Dakota State (Summit) is the best experience in the conference with North Dakota State a close second. If Drake (MVC) can win consistently, they can have a distinct home court advantage.
FAVORITE MIDWEST CRACKER BOXES: The IUPUI (Horizon) women play on campus inside “The Jungle.” They should re-name it “The Jungle Cracker Box!” And IUPUI stands for Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis – longest name in D-I hoops! Whew!
ADDITIONAL FAVORITE UNIQUELY DESIGNED VENUES: The IUPUI men play off campus at the Fairgrounds Coliseum. Opening in 1939, the NBA Pacers won three ABA titles here. Opening four years earlier, while the UMKC men (Summit) no longer play at Municipal Auditorium, it is still home of the Big 12 women’s and NAIA tourneys. The UW-Milwaukee (Horizon) men play in downtown Milwaukee at the original home of the NBA Bucks. The building debuted in 1950. Meanwhile, the War Memorial in Fort Wayne, which opened in 1952, is the primary home gym of Indiana University Fort Wayne, aka IUFW (Horizon). These gyms all reek history – they don’t make ‘em like this anymore, kids!
BEST MIDWEST COURT DESIGNS: Swinney Center at UMKC; Northern Illinois (MAC) and Notre Dame (bias meter!).
ONLY IN THE MIDWEST, MY FRIENDS: Can you cross time zones and catch two hoops’ games in one day! One of my earliest memories was enjoying a Missouri Valley double-dip – game one at Indiana State in Eastern time and driving to gain an hour into Central time and catching a night cap at Illinois State. More recently, enjoyed a day game at Illinois and an evening tilt at Purdue – even driving central to eastern time, I made the tip!
FINALLY, SOME FAVORITE REGIONAL RIVALRIES: Indiana-Purdue; Indiana-Illinois; Wisconsin-Iowa; Kansas-Kansas State; North Dakota-North Dakota State; South Dakota-South Dakota State.
MR. SPORTS TRAVEL’S WEST BRACKET – TOP 17 GAME DAY EXPERIENCES IN THE WEST!
For this bracket, “The West” include the states of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, and Hawaii (Alaska does have a D-I basketball program).
The State of Utah leads the West with three schools in the bracket.
WEST – PLAY-IN GAME/FIRST FOUR IN:
#17 New Mexico State (WAC): East coast bias does not give “The Land of Enchantment” enough cred as genuine Hoopsville. While it is not “The Pit” like at New Mexico (more on them later), Aggies fans turn up the volume in Las Cruces!
WEST – ROUND OF 64:
#16 Utah (Pac-12): When the Utes are rolling, the Huntsman Center can rock. I like the old school feel of the place.
#15 Baylor (Big 12): Never been a big fan of The Ferrell Center. But when the Bears host conference rivals, this place can get humping for men’s and women’s tilts. Looking forward to the new arena!
#14 Oklahoma (Big 12): I always enjoy coming to this pit gym. Enjoyed men’s and women’s matches inside this simplistic bowl design and the fact you never miss the action. Spirited atmosphere too.
#13 Oklahoma State (Big 12): Love the arena design and the history of this place. The Hall of Fame is amazing.
#12 St. Mary’s (WCC): When the Gaels host Gonzaga or BYU, this cracker box is THE place to be! Beautiful campus and great place to see a game anytime – not a bad seat in the house.
#11 Oregon (Pac-12): The Ducks certainly have the most innovative court-design in college hoops but, man, I miss Mac Court. This place is a little too big and doesn’t capture the special gem that was their previous home. That said, both and the women have solid fan bases.
#10 Nevada (Mountain West): Place was rolling during my visit! Gym is a little too big for my druthers but a very cool place to catch a game. One day love to see a tilt at the old Virginia Street Gym (used for women’s volleyball today); they’ve occasionally played exhibition games there in the past.
#9 Washington (Pac-12): They don’t make arenas like this anymore. Opening in the late 1920s, always enjoy coming here. If the Huskies played more consistently, they’d draw better, and this place would be even louder.
WEST – ROUND OF 32:
#8 Grand Canyon (WAC): Among the top student sections in the West. They can be utter misery to opponents!
#7 Utah State (Mountain West): The Spectrum is like the indoor version of baseball’s Dodger Stadium, with multi-color chic seats. But the separator here is the student section – Off-The-Charts!
#6 New Mexico (Mountain West): One of my favorite venues in college hoops. When the Lobos are rolling, fans at men’s games ignite “The Pit.” Last game I covered, nearly a full-bore, post-game brawl against Boise State!
#5 San Diego State (Mountain West): The Aztecs sellout streak is history but “The Show” does not take days off! One of the most vibrant student sections and I have good base of comparison – San Diego has been my home for over 25 years!
WEST – SWEET 16:
#4 BYU (WCC): The building is awfully big but then the Cougars draw very well – and the student section is among the best in the West. Try and come for a game against Gonzaga, St. Mary’s, or like I did for “The Holy War” against Utah.
#3 Texas Tech (Big 12): Used to be a complete afterthought, a lifeless edifice with little buzz. Not anymore! Winning has turned this place into a Red Raider menace for visitors and one of the toughest places to play. Gets SUPER loud!
#2 Gonzaga (WCC): Exhibition Game? Sold out. Game against an also-ran? Sold out. Noise volume at court level All-The-Time in The Kennel? INSANE! Like Dayton and Omaha, Spokane is one of my Top 10 favorite non-big city sports towns. Fans also support the ladies’ program here very well.
#1 Arizona (Pac-12): Love The Kennel but there’s nothing like a game at Arizona – it is in a class by itself in the West. History oozes here. An exceptional pit gym and festive game day atmosphere well before tip. Bear Down!
WEST – 5 BURST BUBBLES! No UCLA (Pac-12)? For fan atmosphere, not terribly bubblicious – and sad for such an accomplished program. A new era begins this season in Austin as Texas (Big 12) opens its new arena; the Erwin Center was the KING of bleh. Houston (American Athletic) is now always in the men’s hunt – their fan base? Well, not so much. The last three burst bubbles: my boys at TCU (much to my chagrin!), Arizona State (Pac 12), and Montana (Big Sky).
ADDITIONAL FAVORITE WEST CRACKER BOXES: Women’s venue at Texas A&M Corpus Christi (Southland); Sacramento State (Big Sky); Pepperdine (WCC); and on-campus gym at Seattle (WAC).
ADDITIONAL FAVORITE UNIQUELY DESIGNED VENUE: Barn-style Gil Coliseum at Oregon State (Pac-12) is a gem.
Can’t visit The Pyramids in Egypt? Long Beach State (Big West), aka “The Beach,” has got you covered – and with a stellar beach-themed court design too. Tudor Fieldhouse at Rice (Conference USA) and San Francisco (WCC) are sweet too.
ADDITIONAL BEST OF THE WEST COURT DESIGNS: Oregon put court design on the map in 2011 when Knight Arena debuted. Besides “The Beach,” UNLV (Mountain West) has The Strip landmarks and Washington, the Emerald City skyline. Cal State Bakersfield (Big West) is all blue baby! Also love the looks at Cal-State Fullerton and Cal-State Northridge in the Big West, plus San Jose State (Mountain West) and Cal (Pac-12) – all very cool Cali court designs!
ONLY IN THE WEST, MY FRIENDS: At more than two miles above sea level, Wyoming’s (Mountain West) jumbotron asks opponents, “How’s your Oxygen?” You can ask yourself the same question at Air Force (Mountain West) where the cadets won’t move a morsel during the National Anthem. Discipline!<