Coaches Candid: Which arenas boast the best home court environment in college basketball?

CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander polled approximately 100 coaches for our annual Candid Coaches series. They polled everyone from head coaches at elite programs to assistants at small Division I schools. In exchange for complete anonymity, these coaches provided unfiltered honesty on a range of topics. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be releasing the results of our summer State of College Basketball survey.

If you were to compile a list of the best things about college basketball—the features, quirks, and ingredients that make the sport great—the obvious one at the top of such a list would be the grandeur and spectacle that is the NCAA Tournament. But No. 2, as far as I’m concerned, is the crazy, intoxicating environment in so many of the sport’s treasured venues. The arena experience, but also how that excitement carries over to television, is one of college basketball’s viable selling points to the NBA.

There are over 100 barns that have characteristics, threats and stories that set them apart. Among all these charming hoop theaters, which are the best? There’s no better group to ask than the people who have experienced the highs and lows of being in these buildings for years, some for more than half their lives: the coaches.

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

Which arenas have the best environments in college hoops?

Level 1

Alan Fieldhouse (Kansas): 67.3% of all ballots
Cameron Indoor Stadium (Duke) 50.5%
McCarthey Athletic Center, aka The Kennel (Gonzaga) 27.4%

Level 2

Maki Arena (Purdue) 15.8% of all ballots
McKale Center (Arizona) 15.8%
Assembly hall (Indiana) 10.5%
Rupp Arena (Kentucky) 10.5%

Level 3

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

Schools that appeared in at least four newsletters: Grand Canyon, Arkansas, Butler, VCU, Tennessee, Dayton
Schools appearing in at least three newsletters: BYU, Illinois, Iowa State, Providence, San Diego State

Quotes that stood out

To Allen Fieldhouse

  • “I know a lot of middle school head coaches who have nightmares about this place.”
  • “The story gives you chills and the officers always find a way to screw you up.”
  • “We played out there, we kept the game, we were in the game and then it turned around at halftime and the crowd took over more of Kansas. They had a big impact on the outcome of that game and I was like, ‘God — this is all to hell.’ We went to the gym and got there an hour and a half early and it’s cold, freezing, snow on the ground. And they’re all there, a mile long line to get into the arena. And we’re like, “Oh shit.”
  • “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 there’s something when you step on that floor and you think about the history of And then at one point, the chant “Rock Chalk” echoes through the arena. You know that’s what basketball should be.”

At Cameron Indoor Stadium

  • “The size of this building and the students just make it really difficult. It feels like everyone is right on top of you. That they always have a great team to root for also helps.”
  • “I would say the noise level is a bit over the top. Coordinated chants, people are right on top of you, it feels so closed and tight in there compared to big big arenas like the Yum! Center. So weird it can be really strong.”

At the kennel

  • “They did this thing right. Perfect size. The students are wild. I don’t blame (Kentucky coach John Calipari) for not wanting to play there. This is a madhouse.”
  • “When you travel that far to play them, it’s a really long way to get your ass kicked. The fans feel like they’re on top of you.”
  • “When they play ‘Zombie Nation’ before the buzzer, it’s one of the best student section songs I’ve ever seen. It gets loud and the arena really shakes.”

At Mackie Arena

  • “When Mackey Arena rocks, I think it’s the best atmosphere in the country. Freshmen usually pee on that spot when it shakes.”
  • “Loyal, family-type atmosphere. There really is that air of basketball nostalgia that comes from this state. And they packed a lot of people into a small space. One of the loudest gyms in the country. It’s scary.”
  • “I love the old time feel. The setting is odd and the students behind the bench are at odd angles. I’ve always liked this place.”

At the McKale Center

  • “The fact that they hang around until you score makes it a game within the game.
  • “Basketball fans are really good in the sense that they’re brutal on your team behind the bench, they’re loud, they’ve got a good mix of older and younger. And the way their arena is built, it’s a cool place.”

In the meeting room

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

At Rupp Arena

  • “20,000 no matter who the opponent is. Strong and passionate.”

In the center of Breslin

  • “You can’t hear yourself thinking. The noise from the crowd, specifically the student section behind you, is jarring. Their coach trains with great passion and their crowd is an extension of him and his team.”

At Koch Arena:

  • “Win, lose or draw, there will be 10K there. The fans are loud. You must use playing cards, players cannot hear. And very knowledgeable about the game.”

The best of the rest

Texas Tech: “Fans are passionate and angry. Great home environment, not so great away experience. Most underrated place in college basketball.”

chestnut: “Small but so hard to get into their facility and win. The fans are super engaged, and Bruce (Pearl) does as good a job as any coach in the country, bringing excitement to their program with his student engagement tricks.”

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

Dayton: “They love college basketball. They’ve played there without students and they’re still packed. “Go Dayton Flyers” chants blared in your head for weeks afterwards.’

Housekeeper: “I think the Hinkle story, when you walk in and you feel like you’ve been taken back to the good old days of basketball. The fans know the game, they respect it, and it’s a really cool arena, man. I get chills every time I go in there to practice. The fans are always there, they’re polite, they love them. The other great thing about it is that it’s an old-school arena that in 30 years will still be a great place to coach or play a game in.”

Rutgers: “It’s a hole, but it holds 8,500 people and it’s a vertical wall. We went in there, 10th in the country and I’ve never been in an arena like that. like, “Get me the f— OUT OF HERE.”

Providence: “When they play, the atmosphere is absurd. They make the DJ work, the fans talk to your players. I’ve been there a few times where it’s absurd.’

Saint Bonaventure: “Fans and students are there early and on game night it’s the biggest party in town. The small arena will get loud and the students will be sitting right on the court. A Franciscan friar will have to walk the sideline several times a game to calm down any student who is hurling profanities. It’s an experience.”

Arizona’s McKale Center has long been on the short list of the scariest places in college.

Getty Images

The taking

For greater transparency, the full question was prefaced with “From what you have seen and/or experienced…” meaning that coaches were allowed to answer based on where they were if they wanted, or influenced by other influences. Some coaches polled chose to pick two spots they’ve been to, then cast their third vote for a spot they’ve seen on TV dozens of times or heard about from coaching contemporaries. (Actually, that’s how Gonzaga got a few extra votes.) Some coaches voted strictly for places they’ve been. (This prevented Kansas from getting even more votes.)

Trainers were also not allowed to choose their own arena. (They were, however, allowed to vote for schools they had previously worked at.) Thirty-seven schools received at least one vote out of the ~300 votes we received, and although coaches were not specifically asked to rank 1-2-3, Kansas was the first option for almost half of the coaches surveyed. This building is special, and while the general public may think of Cameron Indoor as the most famous place in men’s college, those in sports comfortably hold KU’s 67-year-old hallowed home as the best. Whether it’s because of the history, the rabid fans, the endless success of the program, anything and everything, Kansas is home to the best place in sports.

Allen Fieldhouse was a slight favorite over Cameron Indoor early on, and to no surprise those two split the field. But kudos to The Kennel, as Gonzaga is a definite No. 3. It’s yet another testament to the unparalleled work Mark Few has done there. Having been to all three of these places, I can unequivocally say that they make logical sense as the three best in the sport right now. If I had to make a list of my five favorite home environments, they’re all vying for #1, with McKale Center, Gampel Pavilion (UConn), The Dunk (Providence) and Hinkle all at the table.

In reality, though, I’ve been on more than 30 really great college basketball courts. Off the top of my head, I can recall sweet experiences at Rhode Island, Baylor, Maryland, Syracuse, Kentucky and Yale — and that’s just the beginning.

The great thing about college is how many of these must-see places there are, and how they vary in size, shape, and appeal. Phog holds 16,300 people. Cameron is barely more than half that (9,300). The kennel is almost a third smaller than Cameron: 6000. Rupp Arena is magnificent: coming in at 22,000, and Syracuse’s football-dome-turned-basketball-home (which did get a vote) tops it at 11,000! Meanwhile, Mackey Arena is the coziest 14,000-seat venue you’ll ever find, and I don’t know if there’s a more modest barn in the country than Philly’s The Palestra (capacity: 8,700).

The architecture of these arenas also differs so much: The Indiana Convention Center looks nothing like the Illinois Convention Center (now known as the State Farm Center). Arizona’s McKale Center is built deep into the ground, while TTU’s United Supermarkets Arena (that name, ugh) is almost entirely an above-ground structure. The sparkling new Moody Center in Texas just opened … and then there’s Matthews Arena, with a capacity of just over 5,000, dating back to 1910 and still the home of Northeastern basketball.

However, it all comes back to the fans. Buildings carry ghosts in their halls and stories in their walls – but it’s the fans and students who manage to animate the bricks, concrete and hardwood, elevating the sporting experience to something spiritual. When you have the fans and the history, that’s where you get the truly special House of Saints.

This question more than any other in this year’s survey has me excited for the season. I can’t wait for it to start so we can be back there, under a roof, watching these buildings come back to life, and with it the soul of college basketball.

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