NCAA Tournament Travel Guide & Venue Review
While 65 teams initially take part in the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, aka March Madness, only one will be crowned 2008-2009 national champions on April 6 in downtown Detroit – at Ford Field.
That’s right – at “a field.” And in April.
Ah, yes, while most of the Madness still takes place in March, gone are the days when the tournament took place in basketball-only venues. This year, some teams on “The Road to the Final Four” will play at the usual confines of a baseball domed-stadium (the Metrodome in Minneapolis) while others will partake in a gigantic, almost monolith edifice you could fit multiple 747 airplanes inside (Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis and University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona).
A total of seven sites make their March Madness debuts, and, of course, only one is within walking distance of the heart of a college campus! All told, of the 13 sites for this year’s Madness, there are three “Arenas,” plus two each of the “Garden,” “Center,” and “Stadium” variety, and one each of a “Coliseum,” “Forum,” “Dome” and, ahem, “Field.” As in a cozy “Fieldhouse?” Well, not exactly.
This year’s epic Final Four site? A field that witnessed zero wins in 2008 by its regular tenant, the NFL’s hapless Detroit Lions. Well, at least zero fans this April will be wearing brown bags over their heads in this humungous place.
But given the down economy and the largesse of some of these venues, just how many Fannies will we see in the seats, and could you take advantage of this buyers market and be one of them?
Airlines, rental car companies, hotels and restaurants all want your business, and are offering great deals. And while “sold out” may be advertised for games, from the Opening Game in Dayton, Ohio, March 17, to the championship game, April 6, a different “market” may be prevalent out front of the venues this year. In short, given the current buyers market, there may never be a better year to plan a March Madness travel adventure than this one.
And what a journey you could have. For starters, six of the 13 venues are true hoops sites with some great history, plus offering terrific atmosphere, sight lines and more. My top six (in no particular order) include Dayton, Philadelphia, Greensboro and Boise, all of which host first and second round games, while Boston and Memphis host regionals.
Dayton’s Blackburn Court might just be the most intimate and historic venue in this year’s tournament, and this place can get rocking. The likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Baseball Hall-of-Famer Tony Gwynn (while playing hoops for San Diego State) have been here, not to mention Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Another great basketball town is Philly, home of “The Big 5,” and while the Wachovia Center isn’t the Palestra, it’s still a great venue for college hoops. This will be the first Men’s Madness in the City of Brotherly Love since the famous Grant Hill pass to Christian Laettner for the buzzer beater over Kentucky in the 1992 East Regionals. The 104-103 win sent to the Blue Devils to the Final Four and they eventually ran home with the national title and the hardwood.
Greensboro’s historic Coliseum, not far from the heart of Tobacco Road, also is a first and second round host this year, as is Boise, the site of Tyus Edney’s memorable length of the court run in 1995 that helped the UCLA Bruins stun Missouri in the second round en route to the national title. Boise is also the only on-campus venue in this year’s tourney.
It’s not the original Boston Garden, but TD Banknorth Garden will be the place to be for the East Regional and is a great setting for college basketball, largely because of the fans, and the same holds true for Memphis. Home of this year’s South Regional, the FedEx Forum makes its March Madness debut, replacing The Pyramid which last had the tourney back in 2001.
More newbie’s join the March Madness fray in 2009, creating their own photo albums, with Miami, Kansas City and Portland, Oregon boasting some of the latest, state-of-the-art technology inside their venues, all of which will serve as first and second round hosts.
And then, of course, lastly, there are the four “super-size me” venues of this year’s Madness. The Metrodome in Minneapolis and Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis will make nostalgic basketball fans cringe, as there not exactly in the same, intimate throwback class as Williams Arena and Hinkle Fieldhouse, both still in use in Minneapolis and Indianapolis, respectively. Ditto for super-size venues known as the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona and Ford Field in Motown.
Fortunately, Ford Field’s upper deck is a lot lower than most facilities of its size. And unlike its current tenant, the Lions, your attendance will surely result in a quality product being displayed before you and the winning team will take the floor home. As for you, you’ll come home with memories. So start planning your trip and let the Madness begin.
Joe Connor is a freelance writer and super fan, who’s been to every major college hoops venue. He’s the author of “A Fan’s Guide To The Ultimate March Madness Travel Experience,” an online travel planning guide, which is available for purchase exclusively at www.mrsportstravel.com.