While passing through east-central Illinois Sunday on the way home from Bloomington, Ind., I picked up a copy of the Champaign News-Gazette.
That newspaper's sports section knows where it is and what it is. It's located in the home of the University of Illinois, and acts like it. Its Sunday section was Illini-heavy, as it should be.
On Sunday, the paper had a special feature ranking the top 25 gyms in college basketball, and took two full pages to list details about all 347 Division I basketball arenas, with facts about all of them. The package, assembled by a fine college sportswriter named Bob Asmussen, ranks the best gyms for every D-I conference. Here are Bob's top 25 overall:
1. Kansas Allen Fieldhouse
2. Butler Hinkle Fieldhouse
3. Duke Cameron Indoor Stadium
4. New Mexico The Pit
5. Kentucky Rupp Arena
6. Indiana Assembly Hall
7. Vanderbilt Memorial Gym
8. Louisville KFC Yum! Center
9. Oklahoma State Gallagher-Iba Arena
10. Syracuse Carrier Dome
11. Wisconsin Kohl Center
12. Gonzaga McCarthey Athletic Center
13. Pittsburgh Petersen Events Center
14. St. John’s Madison Square Garden
15. Michigan State Breslin Center
16. UCLA Pauley Pavilion
17. Utah State Smith Spectrum
18. Iowa State Hilton Coliseum
19. Arizona McKale Center
20. North Carolina Smith Center
21. Old Dominion Ted Constant Convocation Center
22. Illinois Assembly Hall
23. San Diego State Viejas Arena
24. Wichita State Koch Arena
25. UNLV Thomas & Mack Center
There's a reason why we put together lists like this. They get disagreement, another term for discussion. There's no way in the world you could have a list like this and have someone say "You're completely right."
I'll tell you what, though. I've seen games at Kansas, Butler and Duke, and it's hard to top those three.
Thanks to Asmussen and the News-Gazette for giving me something to play off:
I think Iowa State at 18 is a little too low. I'd certainly take it over Wisconsin's Kohl Center. I've never been to the Carrier Dome, but c'mon, it's a dome. And Louisville's KFC Yum! Center should lose points just because of its name. But it's a new, sleek, $238 million downtown NBA-type arena that isn't what I think of when I think of "college gyms."
But you wouldn't agree with my list, either, no matter what it was.
In conference rankings, Bob has Iowa's Carver-Hawkeye Arena ninth-best out of the Big Ten's 12 venues. He ranks them from best to worst as Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Purdue, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio State, Iowa, Nebraska, Northwestern and Penn State.
I'd take Carver over Michigan's Crisler Center or Ohio State's Value City Arena, for starters. Crisler just got a major makeover, but it's never had the atmosphere you see at Indiana, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Purdue, and Iowa on a good night. Unless the Wolverines are playing Michigan State, that is.
Ohio State's arena leaves me cold. It's like the Big Ten's version of the United Center. Intimate, it ain't.
Asmussen placed Iowa State as the third-best venue in the Big 12, behind only Kansas and Oklahoma State. All three of those buildings are snake pits for visiting teams, that's for sure.
I've only been to two of the Big 12's 10 gyms, so I can't rank them, but I've been to 11 of the 12 in the Big Ten, never having had the pleasure of seeing a basketball game at Nebraska. Here are my Big Ten rankings:
1. Assembly Hall, Indiana. It's different. It has a totally different shape than any arena I've seen, and it has a unique feel to it. This is where good basketball is respected and revered. I was there last Saturday night, and was surprised to see gimmicks have invaded Assembly Hall. T-shirts getting fired into the crowd? Those giant cardboard heads being waved behind the basket where a visiting team's player is shooting free throws? Here? It seemed wrong.
2. Breslin Center, Michigan State: It has the Izzone. Students have the best seats, ringing the lower bowl. Over 3,000 students have tickets. They reward the team for it by creating a full-blown homecourt atmosphere with their hearty cheering. There are strict requirements for Izzone members. You can't just drop in to only the good games.
3. Williams Arena, Minnesota: It's a barn. It's The Barn. I usually leave there with a headache because of the reverberation of the pep band's loud music bouncing off the walls and into my cranium. The court is elevated, which is kind of bizarre. But it's 85 years old, which makes it 70 years older than the arenas at Ohio State and Wisconsin. I like that.
4. Assembly Hall, Illinois. It looks like a flying saucer. It's basketball-in-the-round. And there's a farm just a short walk away. Which makes it just weird enough to distinguish itself from several others in the conference.
Now here's where I have to tread carefully. Actually, I should have started at No. 1. More Iowa fans will see this than fans of other Big Ten teams, by far. And some will feel outraged and disrespected that I don't have Iowa in the top four. Or the top one.
But there really isn't a No. 5 on my list. I think Purdue's Mackey Arena and Wisconsin's Kohl Center and Iowa's Carver-Hawkeye Arena are all perfectly good venues, especially when they have capacity crowds that are rocking. But none would be on my must-visit list nationally. Put them in a 3-way tie for 5th.
8. Welsh-Ryan Arena, Northwestern: It has seating for 4,600 less than the next-biggest Big Ten arena. It's 61 years old. It has never been the home of an NCAA tournament team. It's so un-Big Ten that I like it. I like it better than just about every arena in the league, really, but I don't think any gym should have seating for more than 8,000 people. For anything.
9. Crisler Center, Michigan: It's a clean, well-lighted, renovated arena that now features an excellent team. But it just never seemed to have a lot of character, even though some unforgettable players and teams have passed through it.
10. Bryce Jordan Center, Penn State: This is a big, attractive, functional arena that hots lots of big-names for concerts, has a great campus location, and would be a fine addition to nearly all universities. But with basketball that has often been crummy, it has never had an inviting atmosphere.
11. Value City Arena, Ohio State: To me, it's an NBA arena on a college campus. I find it devoid of charm, and a bit on the sterile side.
12. Nebraska. I haven't been to the soon-to-be ditched Devaney Sports Center. Next year, the Cornhuskers open Pinnacle Bank Arena. Just the name of it gives me concern. Like Value City Arena.
Now, for my 10 favorite arena names in D-I basketball (in no particular order(:
1. Hinkle Fieldhouse, Butler: One, there aren't many fieldhouses left in captivity. Two, it's fun to say "Hinkle."
2. Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke: An indoor stadium that seats 9,314? That's great.
3. John Paul Jones Arena, Virginia: This is the only arena named for a Led Zeppelin member. Yes, I know it wasn't that John Paul Jones.
4. Madison Square Garden, St. John's: No explanation required.
5. Pauley Pavilion, UCLA: It just has one of those magical arena names.
6. Maravich Assembly Center, LSU: In an era of naming rights, honoring your all-time best player is a nice move.
7. The Matadome, Cal State-Northridge: The Matadors play in a 1,200-seat gym that is called a dome. I love it.
8. The Palestra, Penn: It's 86 years old, and is one of those places I've never seen and would love to visit for a battle of two Philadelphia teams.
9. The Pit, New Mexico: That is the name of the arena. The Pit. That's beautiful.
10. Super Pit, North Texas: The previous gym there was widely known as the Snake Pit.
Mott Gym, Cal Poly
Draddy Gymnasium, Manhattan
IUPUI Gymnasium, IUPUI. It's better-known in Indianapolis as "The Jungle." It seats 1,215.
Here are 10 that have some answering to do to James Naismith when they meet in the great beyond, for their names alone:
1. Value City Arena, Ohio State.
2. KFC Yum! Center, Louisville
3. Taco Bell Arena, Boise State
4. Dunkin' Donuts Center, Providence
5. Alaska Airlines Arena, Washington
6. Coors Events Center, Colorado
7. Jenny Craig Pavilion, San Diego. The students call it the "Slim Gym."
8. Save Mart Center, Fresno State
9. FedExForum, Memphis
10. Every arena named after a bank or insurance company, and there are several.