ESPN’s Toughest Arenas Survey: Analyzing Coaches’ ResponsesPosted by rtmsf on September 7th, 2011
ESPN.com had an interesting series of stories that went up today regarding various folks’ favorite college basketball arenas to visit and the toughest ones to play in. As always when you read blurbs of primary source information, it’s enlightening to see the reasoning behind their choices. For example, we never knew that NC State’s old home was such an ACC snake pit, but ESPN commentators Jay Bilas and Hubert Davis both independently cited Reynolds Coliseum as the toughest arena they ever played in. Davis even claimed that he never scored “on the opposite basket away from our bench in the first half” due to the flustered situation he found himself in all four years he visited Raleigh.
A number of media types also weighed in with their favorite places to experience a game, and several of the old faithfuls represent well here — Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium (3 votes), Kansas’ Allen Fieldhouse (2 votes) and the world’s most famous arena, Madison Square Garden (2 votes) — along with a few other tried-and-trues including Oklahoma State’s Gallagher-Iba Arena, Stanford’s Maples Pavilion, Penn’s Palestra, and UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion (1 vote each). But it was the list provided by Dana O’Neil (excellent usage of “sepia,” by the way) from her interviews of several head coaches back in July on the recruiting trail that really caught our eye. First, here’s her list:
Fifteen prominent coaches chose nine different arenas between them. Three of those are already retired to the dustbin of history, and three others are clearly a personal house of horrors to specific coaches. Not many people in this business will choose a place like Murray State Arena over somewhere like the Kohl Center or Breslin Arena, but Big Ten coach Bruce Weber did. The remaining joints are again places we’re all familiar with as incredibly difficult to walk out with a win, but we quickly noticed that there was something peculiar about the responses among O’Neil’s interviewees. Take a closer look — of the 15 coaches, only one of them gave an answer that includes a site where his team must regularly play games.
Recognizing that every one of the nine venues above are tough places for visiting teams, we still have to wonder if this is merely a coincidence or is something more sinister at work here? Tom Izzo chose two places where he doesn’t regularly play — a Big 12 and an ACC venue. Bob Huggins, Jay Wright and Rick Pitino will tell you all day long that the Big East is the toughest conference, but all three went outside the Big East family with their choices. Darrin Horn and Mark Fox bemoan the difficulty of the SEC East, but both failed to mention an SEC East school. Roy Williams plays every season eight miles away from Cameron Indoor Stadium, and yet he chose Oklahoma State as his toughest road trip — same with new Maryland coach Mark Turgeon. Fran McCaffery and Weber, as mentioned above, picked schools well outside of the Big Ten bubble. Ben Howland went within the Pac-10/12 in choosing McArthur Court at Oregon, but he also chose a place that no longer exists. Even the coaches from mid-major conferences ventured beyond their familiar haunts with their choices. Santa Clara’s Kerry Keating didn’t choose Gonzaga’s Kennel or St. Mary’s McKeon Pavilion. St. Joseph’s Phil Martelli didn’t bother to pick from any number of pits within the Atlantic 10 (past and present). Even Memphis wunderkind Josh Pastner took the road less traveled and chose a school (Oregon) he’s unlikely to play against in an arena that no longer exists.
In fact, the only coach among O’Neil’s survey who chose a venue that he regularly sees as the toughest place he’s played was Texas’ Rick Barnes, who selected Gallagher-Iba Arena (where he’s won three of the last four). Coaches are incredibly competitive people, and it makes perfect sense that a person like UNC’s Williams isn’t about to give his biggest rival the satisfaction of hearing his thoughts on how difficult its venue is any more than it is for Barack Obama to come out and publicly state that Rick Perry is his biggest competitor in 2012. Such statements only serve to validate the rival school and provide bulletin-board fodder for its fans the next time your team visits. But you’ll forgive us if we find it rather amusing that only one of the 15 coaches queried chose a place where his team will have to continue to play a game next season and in future years. Call us cynical, but we’re guessing that if we heard what these same coaches are telling their teams behind closed doors during the season, we’d see a considerably different list.