Honest Coaches: Which arenas have the best local court environments in college basketball?

Gary Parish and Matt Norlander of CBS Sports polled nearly 100 coaches in the annual Candid Coaches Series. They surveyed everyone from head coaches in elite programs to assistants at small Division 1 schools. In exchange for complete anonymity, these instructors offered complete honesty on a number of topics. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be publishing the results of our summer survey on the state of college basketball.

If you compile a list of the best things about college basketball—the features, quirks, and ingredients that make the sport great—the obvious transition at the top of this list is the majesty and spectacle that the NCAA Championship represents. But number 2, in my view, is the frenzied and intoxicating environments in many places dear to sports. The experience inside the arena, but also how that excitement translates to television, is one of the NBA’s applicable college basketball selling points.

There are over 100 barns with characteristics, intimidations, and histories that make them unique. Of all these charming hoops theaters, which one is the best of all? There is no better group to demand than people who have experienced the ups and downs of being in these buildings for years, and some for more than half their lives: the coaches.

Let’s see what they have to say. Every coach surveyed was asked to provide their top three coaches when we asked…

Which arenas have the best environments in college hoops?

Level 1

Allen Fieldhouse (kansas): 67.3% of all votes
Cameron Indoor Stadium (duke) 50.5%
McCarthy Sports Center, also known as The Kennel (Gonzaga) 27.4%

Level 2

Maki Arena (Bordeaux) 15.8% of all votes
McKale Center (Arizona) 15.8%
meeting hall (Indiana) 10.5%
Rob Arena (Kentucky) 10.5%

Level 3

Priceline Center (Michigan State) 8.4% of all votes
Koch Arena, also known as The Roundhouse (Wichita) 8.4%
Neville Arena (Auburn) 7.4%
United Supermarkets Arena (Texas Tech) 7.4%

Schools that appeared on at least four ballot papers: Grand CanyonAnd the ArkansasAnd the butlerAnd the Virginia Commonwealth UniversityAnd the TennesseeAnd the Dayton
Schools that appeared on at least three ballot papers: BYUAnd the IllinoisAnd the IowaAnd the ProvidenceAnd the San Diego State

Quotes that popped

At Allen Fieldhouse

  • “I know a lot of mid-tier coaches who have nightmares about this place.”
  • “History gives you goosebumps and the officials always find a way to screw you up.”
  • “We played there, we kept the game, we were in the game, and then it turned around and the fans took over KS. They had a huge impact on the outcome of that game and I was like, Holy s–, that’s it. We went to the gym. Sports and we got there an hour and a half ago, and it’s cold, icy, snow on the ground. And they’re all there, a mile long line to get to the yard. And we’re like, “Oh, and—.”
  • “Allen Fieldhouse is a treasure. You walk past the Hall of Fame, you walk through the fans on your way from the locker room to the floor, and then something is when you step on that floor and think about the history of a game. Then at some point the hymn ‘Rock Chalk’ reverberates in Arena. You know that’s what basketball is supposed to be.”

At Cameron Indoor Stadium

  • “The size of this building, and the students, really make it difficult. It seems like everyone is totally on your head. And they always have a great team to get help too.”
  • “I would say the noise level is a bit higher. Co-ordinated cheers, people right above you, you feel cramped and cramped up there compared to the big, big arenas, like Yum! Center. So inviting that it can be intensely loud.”

in the dog house

  • “They built this thing right. The perfect size. The students are wild. I don’t blame[Kentucky coach John Calipari]for not wanting to play there. It’s a crazy house.”
  • “When you travel that far to play it, it’s a really long way to play it. The fans feel like they’re above you.”
  • “When they play Zombie Nation before the hint, it’s one of the best noise songs I’ve seen in the student section. It gets so loud and the arena really rocks.”

At Maki Arena

  • “When the Mackey Arena swings, I think it’s the best atmosphere in the country. Freshmen press their legs in that place when it swings.”
  • “Loyal and family atmosphere. It really has that basketball nostalgia vibe that comes from that state. And they pack a lot of people into a small space. One of the top gyms in the country. It’s scary.”
  • “Love the old time feel. The setting is weird and the students behind your seat at weird angles. I’ve always loved this place.”

At the McKale Center

  • “The fact that they stand until you score makes it a game within a game. Gotta get the old timers up their ass ASAP.”
  • “Basketball fans are really good in that they’re tough with your team behind the bench, they’re boisterous, and they have a good mix of old and younger. And the way their arena is built is a great place.”

In the assembly hall

  • “When Indiana is at its best, you can’t beat over 17,000 people above you. I was there when the building really started shaking.”

At Rob Arena

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

At the Pricelin Center

  • “You can’t hear yourself thinking. The noise from the crowd, specifically the student section behind you, is annoying. Their coaches are so passionate and their crowd is an extension of him and his team.”

At the Arena Cottage:

  • “Win, lose or draw there will be 10,000. The fans are loud. The playing cards must be used, the players don’t hear. And they are very familiar with the game.”

The best of the rest

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

Auburn: “Small, but very difficult to get into their facility and win. The fans are very interactive, and Bruce (Pearl) does as good a job as any coach in the country bringing excitement to their show by bluffing with student participation.”

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

Dayton: “They love college basketball. They played there without students and still packed the spot. The ‘Go Dayton Flyers’ chants rang in your head for weeks afterward.”

butler: “I think the history of Hinkle, when you step in and feel like you’ve been thrown back in the good old days of basketball. The fans know the game, they respect the game and it’s a really great arena, man. I get goosebumps every time I step in for training. The fans are always there, They are courteous, and the other great thing about it is that it is an old school yard that will still be a great place to train them in 30 years or play a game in.”

Rutgers: “It’s a gap but there’s 8,500 people and it’s a vertical wall. We walked there, 10 in the country, and I’ve never been in a circuit like this. Like, ‘Get an F— out here.'”

Providence: “When the weather rolls around it’s ridiculous. They have DJs, the fans talk to your players. I’ve been there a few times when it’s ridiculous.”

Saint Bonaventure: “The fans and the students are there early and on the night of the game it’s the biggest party in town. The noises of the little plaza will rise and the students will sit right on the field. The Franciscan friar will have to walk on the sidelines a few times at each game to calm any student throwing profanity. It’s an experience.”

The McKale Center in Arizona has long been on the shortlist of the scariest places in college hoops.

Getty Images

Takeaway

For the sake of transparency, the full question was rendered with “From what I’ve seen and/or experienced…” which means coaches were allowed to answer based on where they were, if they wanted, or go through other influences. Some of the coaches surveyed chose to pick two places they had been to, then cast their third vote on a place they had seen on TV dozens of times or heard about from coaching contemporaries. (This is how Gonzaga got some extra votes, actually.) Some of the coaches voted meticulously on the places they were only. (This prevented Kansas from getting more votes.)

The coaches were also not allowed to choose their own field. (However, they were allowed to vote for the schools they had previously worked in.) At least 37 schools received 1 of the approximately 300 votes we received, and although coaches were not explicitly asked to rank 1-2-3, KS was the first choice for about half of coaches surveyed. This building is private, and while the general public may consider Cameron Indore to be the most popular spot in men’s college hoops, those into sports consider KU’s 67-year-old home the best. Whether it’s history, frenzied fans, the endless success of the show, any and all, Kansas is home to the best place in the sport.

Heading indoors, Allen Fieldhouse was a little favored over the Cameron Indoor, and it was no surprise that these two basically separated from the field. But credit to The Kennel, as Gonzaga is an obvious No. 3. It is yet another testament to the unprecedented work that Mark Few did there. Having been in all three of these places, I can unequivocally say that they make sense as the top three in the sport now. If I were to make a list of my five favorite environments at home, they all vie for first place, with the McKale Center, Gampel Pavilion (UConn), The Dunk (Providence) and Hinkle all at the table.

In fact, I’ve been to over 30 really cool college basketball courts. Out of my head, I can remember the sweet experiences in Rhode IslandAnd the BaylorAnd the MarylandAnd the SyracuseKentucky and Yale – And that’s just the beginning.

The great thing about college hoops is how many must-see places there are and how they vary in size, shape, and appeal. Phog holds 16,300 people. Cameron’s size is barely more than half that (9300). The kennel is nearly a third smaller than Cameron’s: 6000. Rob Arena is lavish: encroaching on 22,000, and Syracuse’s soccer dome-turned-basketball home (which gets a vote) overtakes it by 11,000! In the meantime, the Mackey Arena is the most comfortable 14,000-seat venue ever, and I don’t know if there is a more modest hangar in the country than The Palestra in Philly (Capacity: 8700).

The architecture of these yards is very different, too: The Indiana Assembly Hall doesn’t look like Illinois Assembly Hall (now known as the State Farm Center). The McKale Center in Arizona is built deep in the ground, while TTU’s United Supermarkets Arena (that name, the woof) is an almost entirely above-ground structure. TexasThe sparkling new Moody Center just opened…and then there’s Matthews Arena, with a capacity of just over 5,000 people, going strong since 1910 and still home Northeast Basketball.

It all comes down to the fans. Buildings carry ghosts in their halls and stories in their walls – but it’s the fans and students who manage to move bricks, concrete, and hardwood, elevating the athletic experience into something spiritual. When you have the fans and the history, this is where you get the truly special sacred homes.

This question, more than any other question in this year’s survey, has made me feel good this season. I can’t wait to get started so we can go back again, under a roof, watching these buildings come to life, and with it the college basketball spirit.

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