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It is a no-brainer to include Cameron Indoor Stadium among the best venues in college basketball. I played for four years in that venerable, gothic pit and was an assistant coach there for three more years. I have never been in a place quite like it. Does it make me biased to include Cameron in this listing? Or does it simply give me specialized knowledge? To avoid any hint of bias and to get another venue some deserved credit, let's take it as a given that Cameron would be on my list. For this, we are going old school -- there will be only one venue per conference on this list.
Kansas: The Phog is the St. Andrews of college basketball, and it goes back to the very roots of the game. From Naismith to Allen to Rupp to Smith, the giants of the game have been cradled at Kansas. From Wilt to Lovellette to Manning, some of the greatest players in college basketball history have graced the Phog floor. That building has character, and you can really hear echoes and whispers when you are alone in the stands. When you have company, bring earplugs.
Kentucky: I love Rupp Arena. It oozes history and tradition, and while it may lack the on-campus feel of some of the others outside of the building, on the inside, it has the feel of a basketball cathedral. Rupp is big, it is loud, and it is intimidating. Kentucky wins at Rupp because the Wildcats are really good, but also because of Rupp.
Indiana: When you see the red and white on the floor at Assembly Hall, and then look up in the stands that seem to go straight up on either side, you feel like you are in a special place. The fight songs and the candy-stripe warm-up pants are evocative of tradition and winning. McCracken and Knight won championships on that floor, and for two straight years in the '70s, nobody but the Hoosiers could even sniff a victory. Assembly Hall rocks when the Hoosiers roll, and the atmosphere is pure college basketball.
Big 5: There is no place like the Palestra, and I would crawl on my hands and knees to get in there and play a game. I played there in college, and it was dingy, smoky in places, and the locker rooms were suitable for brooms and mops. We loved it. That is how you know the importance of tradition and history, when you pine to be in a place most would find uncomfortable. We were honored to play at the Palestra. If Cameron is the Wrigley Field of college basketball, the Palestra is its Fenway Park.
Butler: They filmed the movie "Hoosiers" at Hinkle Fieldhouse, for crying out loud. Coaches all over the country should schedule a road game at Butler -- not to give a break to a really good mid-major, but to give their players the experience of playing at Hinkle. That is the way basketball should be.
Duke: The Cameron Crazies aren't as clever as they once were, but the gym remains a classic in an era of increased homogeneity.
Indiana: Another place with great old-school feel -- and until they moved the students out from behind the north goal this season, it got as loud as anywhere when the home team was on a roll.
Michigan State: Combines great spirit with a great modern facility -- not as easy a combination as you might think.
Arkansas: When the Hogs are good (and it's been a while), Bud Walton is an absolute cauldron. The pep band ranks among the very best in the country.
Kentucky: Walk in here and the immensity of Kentucky basketball beats you over the head. From the seven national title banners to the 24,000 fans, you know you're someplace special.
Kansas: I'm spoiled covering the Big 12 because I get to go to Allen Fieldhouse so much. It's the St. Patrick's Cathedral of college basketball -- a sacred hoops sanctuary. While the fans are great, one must remember that much of the game's great tradition emanates from here, too.
Iowa State: Anyone who's a true college basketball fan needs to see a game at Hilton Coliseum. Nice is in the DNA of Iowans and the fans here are particularly gracious -- even when the home team loses but gives a great effort, they are appreciative.
Oklahoma State: The capacity at Gallagher-Iba has doubled since the renovation, but there's no loss of intensity here, particularly when the hated Sooners come to town. If orange is not your favorite color, stay away.
Big 5: While the Palestra is the home court of Penn's Quakers, it's also a second home for the storied Big 5 City Series games. When St. Joe's plays Villanova here, the venom flows like an open spigot.
New Mexico: The storied Pit is a place in which I was fortunate enough to coach. When the hometown Lobos are on a roll, the decibels reach 747 levels.
Oklahoma State: Gallagher-Iba Arena -- the rowdiest arena in the country -- gives me chills just thinking about it. Whereas many of the great venues in college hoops give away same color T-shirts in order to generate school spirit, Oklahoma State fans believe that "real fans wear orange." Period. No freebies needed here. With 13,000 fans right on top of you, the "Hey" song ends right before tip-off with, "We're gonna beat the hell out of you!" and the screaming begins. The noise is unlike any place I have ever played or broadcast, and the passion for the Pokes truly energizes the game. In fact, many players and coaches have told me that they play better at Gallagher-Iba because the building has such great energy. The horn sounds and Toby Keith's "Should have been a Cowboy" comes on. I still have chills.
Illinois: The Orange Krush at Assembly Hall is without question the undisputed king of student spirit groups. In addition to donating $50K to the Jimmy V Foundation and planning events outside of the games, they bring it like no other every game day. The Orange-clad lunatics are not only loyal, they are creative with their singing, chanting and dancing during timeouts! When the game is in progress the Krush is the will behind Bruce Weber's unreal home record. While the team may be a bit down this year, the Krush's spirit never seems to drop.
Kansas: There is no more perfect setting for college basketball than Phog Allen. Just an old-time fieldhouse, too big to be a gym, to quaint to be called an arena, and, oh yeah, maybe the most adoring, knowledgeable fans in college hoops. For it was at the Phog that I played with my shorts on backwards for the first 6 minutes or so, only to have that fact pointed out to me as the students cheered, "Shorts on backwards" until I noticed, called timeout and turned them around. Thanks.
From the Roses strewn all over the floor during Senior Night festivities to "Rock Chalk" being sung to signify a win, The Phog truly is magical.
Southern Illinois: While Carbondale is not the easiest town to get to (it is over two hours from St. Louis) and there is an early-'70s decor in the arena, make no mistake about it -- SIU's students are as loud as their team's defense is stingy. While calling a BracketBusters game that began at 11 p.m. two years ago, there was literally a party going under each basket in the student sections for the entire game. After turning down several invitations to join the party, I watched as the yelling, screaming, berating and cheering lasted from tip to finish. The best part of the Valley is the trash talk between the players and the Dawg Pound -- classic.
Oklahoma: OK, so they only pack the Lloyd Noble Center two or three times a year, but when Texas, Kansas (they come every other year) and Oklahoma State come to town, out comes the student spirit. Walking into my first Bedlam game (OU vs. OSU) two hours before tipoff and seeing every student seat filled, gazing up at the Gottlieb "Brick-O-Meter," and listening to the entire crowd serenading my team with Willie Nelson's "Mommas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys" during the first timeout, was enough to win me over. The LNC is nothing particularly special as far as layout or proximity to the court for students, but their participation in big games makes it a great atmosphere.
Duke: As much as this may seem too predictable, the students at Duke are the most creative and loyal in the country. The time they put into getting tickets and preparing themselves for each game as if it were a test puts them atop the list. The blue paint and sweat that sprays off of the body of some of these folks isn't pleasurable, but it shows how much this crew cares and is invested in the outcome of every result.
Kansas: The temperature doesn't matter. Students will still line up outside to get into Phog Allen, and once they're in the building, they don't keep quiet. Head there on a day when these students have the white rally-balloon bats and the sound is deafening. Everyone seems to be outfitted in blue, with face paint seemingly a priority. I'm sure I've lost a bit of hearing in this building.
Wisconsin: The Grateful Red, which came after the Bleacher Creatures, rocks to the best band in the country either on the field or the court, and seems to be unison during every cheer. They've created one of the best home courts in the country. Look at the Kohl Center record for proof that the students matter in Madison.
Florida: The fans drape over the railing at the O Dome, dripping in enthusiasm and usually rocking throughout the entire 40 minutes. This group doesn't hesitate to line up no matter the weather (I remember them sticking through a driving rain storm last season). Florida is the "it" school for sports these days and their fans certainly revel in their success. And the warm weather means flip-flops are common footwear, making these some of the most rabid, casual fans around.
Gonzaga: The passion in Spokane rivals any in the country. These fans treated Adam Morrison like Bono for two years. Now, they don't discriminate. They love anyone who wears the Gonzaga blue and white (and sometimes red). The sound and fury of their noise makes Spokane the toughest stop in the West (just check the record).
Duke: Nothing like sitting courtside at Cameron Indoor Stadium with a Duke student's knees in your back. The Cameron Crazies are as creative and energetic -- and often as nasty -- as any fans in the country.
Kansas: The entire atmosphere -- the bleachers on the floor, seats above, banners hanging from the rafters, ancient windows, limestone exterior and, of course, Rock Chalk chants -- at Allen Fieldhouse is like no other in college basketball. It takes you back 50 years.
Kentucky: Despite its mammoth size, Rupp Arena feels as intimate as any court in the country. Plus, chances are you'll catch a glimpse of Ashley Judd at big home games.
Syracuse: The noise at the Carrier Dome can be defeaning. I nearly deflated it during an NCAA Tournament regional by walking out the wrong door; the suction nearly blew me to nearby Albany, N.Y. At least they don't play basketball games in July; for whatever reason, the Carrier Dome doesn't have air conditioning.
Florida: The home of the defending national champions gets better each time I visit. Florida's students at the O Dome are nearly as good as their counterparts at Duke; now the Gators have even more reason to be as arrogant as the Dookies.
North Carolina A&T: At most schools, four straight 20-loss seasons would make the fans bring pitchforks and torches to the gym, but NCA&T fans are loud, proud, true-blue and devoted. The Aggies fans pack the Corbett Center with 4,000-plus crowds each and every game, regularly clocking in at double the next-closest MEAC school in average attendance. And when you have a band as good as the Blue and Gold Marching Machine, there's no way you can miss a game.
Missouri State: Creighton and Wichita can get plenty loud and crazy, but neither can match the throaty two-hour consistency of a crowd at the Hammons Student Center. Missouri State leads the Valley in many categories, including field-goal percentage, hypno-wheels behind the basket during opponents' free throws, and costume creativity -- the student section is full of more crazy characters than in all the stage shows in nearby Branson put together.
Western Kentucky: In a town where neither UK nor Louisville exist, a full house at Bowling Green's E.A. Diddle Arena produces a hollow roar that can scare the shorts off the stingiest of Sun Belt opponent. Giant goofball Big Red fires up the crowd with a wide array of mascot antics, and don't miss "Red Towel Time" late in the second half, when fans wave red towels to honor former coach Diddle (who dyed the locker room towels red to dissuade players from stealing them).
Valparaiso: Whether the team is an overachieving giant-killer or a plain old underdog, Valpo students and locals jam into the tightly packed 5,000-seat ARC to sit shoulder-to-shoulder and cheer on their beloved Crusaders. The crowd can be so intense it can be both a sixth and a seventh man (as in a heroic near-miss versus ranked Marquette in November). And after the final buzzer, hundreds of folks stick around to congregate on the hardcourt, discuss the game or just catch up.
Penn: Rollouts, bursts of confetti, soft pretzels and a loyal Red and Blue Crew to uphold and maintain the traditions in America's greatest college basketball venue. Sound is three-dimensional here; the curved roof collects cheers and boos into a great cloud of charged static electricity that hangs just about 20 feet above the court. And no matter what the announced attendance, there are so many ghosts in the building that a sellout is always guaranteed.