- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- For as much as the phrase gets thrown around in sports, "home-court advantage" in basketball usually has very little to do with the second part of the sequence. If you've seen one court, you've seen them all.
Unless that court is inside Vanderbilt's Memorial Gym, a stage unique in college basketball.
No. 2 seed Duke will try to conquer it Tuesday night, when it faces 7-seed Vanderbilt in the second round of the NCAA tournament (ESPN2/ESPN2, 9:35 p.m. ET). The stronger seed won't merely concede home-court advantage to the weaker seed; it will do so in a venue that makes the concession a hurdle of some significance.
The Blue Devils face variations of the same concerns tournament favorites share in trying to avoid an upset and earn a place in the Sweet 16. But if X's and O's are familiar variables for any team this time of year, Duke must deal with a third found only here. Call it the "M" factor.
The Commodores are 18-1 at home this season, compared with just 4-7 on the road and 1-1 on neutral courts. The first number is anything but an aberration. The Vanderbilt women's basketball team owns a 414-93 overall record at home. People around here like to talk about "Memorial Magic," the phenomenon that season after season allows the home team to rise above its station and make this place a fortress. Whether or not it's fair to ask a team like Duke, which earned its seed over the course of the season, to play a postseason road game in such a setting is an issue for another day. On Tuesday, the only issue is how the Blue Devils deal with all their opponents, the animate and inanimate.
Sure, the court here is the same length as the court everywhere else. But the benches are on the baselines, leaving coaches who are used to controlling every aspect of a game helplessly yelling at the backs of players unable to hear them 90 feet away. Should any visiting team choose to act out a scene from "Hoosiers" and break out a tape measure, the baskets are still 10 feet from the floor. But rather than resting on a traditional basket support that blocks out some portion of the stands in the background, the baskets here rest on what look a little like inverted football uprights, the shot clock at eye level off to one side and the backboard itself hanging with only empty space above and below.
And while it is just the middle of March, a late-winter heat wave sent temperatures into the mid-80s in Nashville this week, offering a sweaty, stuffy reminder that Memorial Gym remains as devoid of air conditioning in 2012 as it was when it opened in 1952.
"It's a very unique place," Vanderbilt assistant coach Vicky Picott said. "It looks very traditional. I love the benches on the end line; I think that is just the neatest thing, mainly because it really messes with players' and coaches' psyches. A coach is so used to being on the sideline, where they always have constant communication with their team. When you come into this gym, you can't get that. You have to have communication on one end because they can't hear you down at the other end."
Fortunately for Vanderbilt coach Melanie Balcomb, the court layout fits her perfectly.
"I have to have point guards that I trust, that watch film with me, that I meet with every week, and then I have to let them play," Balcomb said. "Jasmine Lister is my quarterback. I've had Dee Davis, I had Jence Rhoads and now I have Jas Lister, and she's my quarterback. I'm not the type of head coach that has the headset on and calls every play for them. They have to know what I want and make calls. I have to be able to let them make calls on their own, on the other end of the floor, especially. I teach them what to call and what plays to make, but then I let them make the decisions."
The current floor general, Lister readily admits that the surroundings took some getting used to when she arrived as a freshman last season. But as she has adjusted to playing as essentially the full-time point guard, she has learned to savor the solitude at the far end of the court. When Vanderbilt made its run to turn a tie game into a blowout in the first round against Middle Tennessee State, it came with Lister and the Commodores going away from their own bench.
"I feel like it gives me a little more freedom to call certain plays, or just for us to look at each other, rather than looking at Coach every time we need something," Lister said. "It kind of gives us the independence and coming-together feeling."
That leaves the bulk of the responsibility for adjusting to the environment in the hands of Duke sophomore point guard Chelsea Gray. All things considered, that's probably right where the Blue Devils want it. Despite her relative youth, and she's hardly alone on a team with just two seniors and one junior seeing regular minutes, Gray has the same confidence and charisma that another point guard showcased to the basketball world last March. Duke doesn't necessarily need Gray to be Skylar Diggins, but there's no better stage on which to show she's ready for the big games still ahead than flying solo in Nashville. Duke credits her with a hand in 36.9 percent of its scoring, whether by point, assist, steal or block.
"She has that ability to just control the tempo of the game, when she's really on her game," Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie said. "[She] uses the dribble, but yet uses her passing skills so well. I just think she's one of the neatest guards to be watching, given her age and given the experience that she has gained this year. ... She seems a year ahead to me, relative to her [basketball] IQ and her decision-making."
The Blue Devils talked down most of the differences on Monday's day off, and it was hard to find much evidence to the contrary in an 82-47 first-round win against Samford. The one part of the Memorial experience they admitted played a negative role was the heat in the gym. The late start time for Tuesday's game should help ameliorate some of the sauna-like effects of the heat, but with the forecast calling for a high around 86 degrees, it isn't going to be comfortable. It is, on the other hand, going to be familiar for one of the teams.
"We're really used to the gym being hot," Vanderbilt's Stephanie Holzer said. "I think we're the only team in the SEC that doesn't have air conditioning in our main gym. But we play pickup here in the summer, and it's Nashville heat, and we do conditioning in here. So when it comes down to it, we are ready to play in any environment that we need to pull out a win."
It's an environment unlike any other.
When the architect Edwin Keeble, a Nashville product trained amidst the great buildings of Europe, designed Memorial Gym, it was with an eye toward that continent's great halls and his own city's tradition of music and spectacle. The court is raised like a stage on purpose, fans in the first few rows looking up at the action unfolding above them. As explained by Vanderbilt assistant communication director Ryan Schulz, knee deep in Memorial history fresh off compiling the top 60 moments in its history, it's why the benches are where they are, a vestige of a time when there were no stands at either end of the court and putting the teams on the sideline would have obstructed the views of fans sitting below court level.
There is, it seems, logic behind every oddity and every quirk. Yet it's more enjoyable to soak it all in for what it is, a relic of another era whose very anachronisms ensure it lives on vibrantly.
If you're inclined toward such things, it might even seem a little magical.
"Every time I walk in here, when there's no one in here, I'm like 'God, this is such a nice gym.' I feel like we're lucky," senior Jordan Coleman said before what will be her final game in Memorial, win or lose. "Yeah, a lot of people may not think it's fair -- the benches are on the baseline, we don't have any AC. I'm sure a lot of the fans aren't thrilled about that right now. But that's Memorial, and we love it.
"We embrace its uniqueness."
Duke will try to conquer it Tuesday night.
13dBonnie D. Ford