#rushthetrip Day 16: Marriott Center Experience Uniquely AmazingPosted by Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) on February 22nd, 2014
RTC columnist Bennet Hayes (@hoopstraveler) is looking for the spirit of college basketball as he works his way on a two-week tour of various venues around the West. For more about his trip, including his itinerary and previous stops on his journey, check out the complete series here.
With Thursday night’s visit to Provo for Gonzaga vs. BYU, the trip was poised to wrap up much like it had started 16 days ago in The Pit – in one of college basketball’s loudest and greatest gymnasiums. BYU’s Marriott Center is the sixth largest home arena in the country and is oft-described as one of the toughest places to play out West. Still, though, I was unsure of what to expect. My curiosity/ignorance extended beyond the Marriott Center to both the university and Provo; the Mormon presence in town (98% LDS) would obviously be influential, but where exactly would the manifestations of faith appear in this college town – and college basketball atmosphere?
Everyone was extremely nice in town. Provo is not the first place I’ve made this observation about, but the kindness here is ubiquitous enough to disarm someone unused to it (me). It didn’t matter if they were pumping gas or cleaning hotel rooms — everyone seemed legitimately happy with whatever it was they were doing at the time I ran across them. While it did feel a bit contrived at times, the friendliness was refreshing and welcomed by a weary traveler nearing the end of his journey.
After a day of familiarizing myself with the affable denizens of Provo, I entered the Marriott Center expecting 20,000 of the most genteel college basketball fans you could find. Boy, was I wrong. I don’t want to say that the BYU faithful offered the most aggressive display of ref-riding I’ve ever seen, but they didn’t miss the mark by much. There were a couple of shaky pro-Gonzaga calls early, but the Cougars wound up +5 in free throw attempts, and Gonzaga bigs Sam Dower and Przemek Karnowski managed only 20 and 19 minutes, respectively, due to foul trouble. So while I didn’t find significant merit in the boisterous shouts of the fans, their relentlessness was both admirable and effective. More than anything else, home court advantage is for shifting close decisions from the referees in favor of your team; I cannot imagine an official being unaffected in the environment I witnessed there. I’m no Mormon, but I’m now pretty confident that LDS doctrines must not include any prohibition relating to the verbal treatment of basketball referees.
Overall, the atmosphere was amazing. BYU earned a much-needed and hard-fought victory over new-nemesis Gonzaga, so I definitely didn’t pick the wrong night to visit. Without a doubt, the Marriott Center has jumped on to my short list of must-see college basketball venues, despite the absence of anything special or flashy about the building itself, and next to nothing that makes Provo a college town worth visiting. I would never recommend a trip to Provo without BYU athletics attached, but the town’s insular nature deserves much of the credit for creating the feverish intensity that defined the mood at the game. College alumni are always proud of the school from which they graduated, but BYU students and graduates share an alma mater more personally defining than most universities, and that self-identification spills into an overflowing amount of school spirit. No frills are necessary at the Marriott Center (although I did enjoy the snazzy pregame introductions) – just jam a lot of people with a lot of passion for BYU basketball into one building, and voila – out comes a home court advantage capable of raising jealousy in even the most fervent of college basketball hotbeds.
There were other distinguishing features to the game experience – I’d never seen a pregame prayer, for example, and press row completely chucked neutrality out the door in actively rooting for the Cougars, especially down the stretch. The latter dynamic can be a slippery slope, but I actually found some measure of appreciation for it on this night – further evidence that, for Provo residents, supporting BYU athletics may arrive from nature more than it does choice. It’s an interesting town for sure, and while I wouldn’t offer it to anyone seeking a new residence, college hoops fans could do far worse than to swing by on a night where the Cougars are taking to the Marriott Center floor. At the very least, you will find one of college athletics’ most unique devotions, and on a night like last night, potentially much, much more.
Next Stop: My Bed