America doesn’t completely focus on college basketball until March but you’re missing out on great excitement if you don’t see a game in a campus environment. Unlike college football, college basketball is more about the in-game experience. The focus is on the atmosphere in the building and less on the pre-game buildup because tailgating isn’t as prevalent. The noise in the legendary arenas, however, makes you realize why you enjoy the sport so much during the NCAA Tournament and why seeing games on campus are such a treat. Plus each college town still has its own unique feel and sites. After much research and experience, here's my list of the best destinations in college basketball.
You probably wouldn't expect to find Dayton on this list if you're a casual basketball, but there's a reason the NCAA keeps coming back to Dayton for its first four games to start the 68-team tournament. Dayton Flyers basketball is the focus of the town since there are no major sports to see and professional allegiances are split across the state. Games are always sold out because the fans are loyal and the recent success with coach Archie Miller has only compounded the excitement. UD Arena is one of only 45 Division I college basketball arenas that serve beer so that helps keep the fan base loud. The student section may not be able to take part in the beer drinking, but they're still one of the more boisterous collections in the game. Settle in for the 20oz bone-in ribeye and onion rings at the Pine Club for dinner near the arena and end the night at with the college crowd at Timothy’s Bar to fully cement your experience.
Shaka Smart brought havoc to Virginia Commonwealth University and the success of the program has continued now that he’s gone. Five straight NCAA Tournament appearances and a trip to the Final Four in 2011 have elevated VCU to a mid-major powerhouse in college basketball. Fans come in droves to the Siegel Center to watch their VCU Rams with the biggest boost of energy coming from the “Rowdy Rams,” who won the 2012-13 Naismith Student Section of the year award given to the most passionate student section. Only just over 7,500 fans fill the arena, but the seating design has them right on top of the players. VCU’s band is one of, if not the best band in college basketball. Load up with some battleship sandwiches at The Black Sheep and head over to the closed-off area of West Marshall Street before the game for public tailgating activities.
University of Pittsburgh
The Oakland Zoo, the Pittsburgh Panthers student section for basketball games, didn’t get its name for being a quiet environment. Located in the courtside sections across from the team benches, the Oakland Zoo is the main reason why the Peterson Events Center is seen as one of the toughest places to play in college basketball. The opening of the Pete in 2002 has coincided with a great run of success for the University of Pittsburgh basketball program, which has helped keep interest from the fans going. Visitors have a few great options to hit for food between breakfast (most likely pancakes) at Pamela’s, lunch at Uncle Sam’s Sandwich bar, and dessert at Dave & Andy’s Homemade Ice Cream. You’ll surely enjoy some $6 Yuengling pitchers and karaoke at Hemingway’s Café at some point during your visit.
Since 1998-99, no team has made more Final Fours than Michigan State. Just think about that for a second when comparing Michigan State against more well-recognized basketball programs. The success is due in large part to Tom Izzo and what he has brought to Michigan State University. How many schools have their student section named after their head coach? Known as the “Izzone,” 4,000 strong gather in the lower and upper bowls of the Breslin Center to create a considerable home-court advantage. The Breslin Center is constantly being updated to keep up with the team’s success. A larger HD center-hung scoreboard was the newest addition back in 2011. You’ll likely grab the best burgers around at Crunchy’s and survive the line at Rick’s American Café (yes, the same Rick’s as the one in Ann Arbor) at some point during the visit to East Lansing.
University of North Carolina
The combination of a great college town and great basketball history is what brings you to the University of North Carolina. You’ll start your Chapel Hill adventure with southern food at Mama Dip or a chicken and cheddar biscuit at Time Out Chicken. Then you’ll make your way to the legendary bars on Franklin Street like He’s Not Here or Top of the Hill Restaurant & Brewery. Eventually, you’ll make your way down to the Dean Smith Center (aka the Dean Dome) to see the basketball program that has made a record 19 Final Fours. Tar Heels fans come from all across the state to witness their team, so it’s a good thing the Dean Dome can hold 21,750, the fourth largest capacity in all of college basketball. It’s not as raucous as some of the other venues in college basketball because the lower bowl is mostly alumni, but the fans are still extremely passionate about their Tar Heels and will talk your ear off about the positives and negatives of the program.
Iowa State University
When people talk about the venue for Iowa State basketball, the word "magic" or "magical" is always used in conjunction with saying "Hilton Coliseum." There's just something about games at Hilton Coliseum that brings an extra level to the performance of the Iowa State Cyclones basketball team, which produces unexpected victories. The Iowa State Cyclones have won approximately 80% of their home games since the arena was built, so their resume certainly holds up. A recent run of success has certainly helped matters. The building was designed with loud noise in mind. Steel doors, a solid concrete structure and seating design that keeps the crowd close to the action definitely produce that. Head to Hickory Park for burgers or Battle’s BBQ for barbecue before the game. Celebrate at Mickey’s Irish Pub after the game and top off your evening with a Superdog (a hot dog with Monterrey Jack cheese, bacon, crushed chips, pineapple sauce, cilantro garlic sauce, ketchup, and mustard) from the hot dog stand on the corner of Welch Avenue and Chamberlain Street.
University of Arizona
You may think life in the desert is all sun and fun, but the McKale Center draws people inside for two full hours of entertainment when the Arizona Wildcats basketball team takes the floor. There's good reason for the fans to show up too because of Arizona's last 30 years of basketball history and home-court dominance. (The Wildcats have put together two streaks of 46+ home victories in the building’s existence.) The fans clearly care about their team as Arizona has led attendance in the Pac-12 in every season since 1984-85. The warm weather in Tucson is also an incentive for you to make the journey since most of her country endures the cold during the months of college basketball season. As you’d expect in Arizona, there’s plenty of good Mexican food to enjoy when in town between B Line, Café Poca Cosa, and El Charro Café. (The burgers at Lindy’s on 4th are worth it too.) Those looking for cheap drinks and the college crowd will surely enjoy some beverages at Dirtbags. There's also the legendary Harry Potter shots at the Auld Dubliner (aka "the Dub").
There's one thing sports fan think of when they think of Butler University and that's the movie Hoosiers. Arguably the best basketball movie of all time and one of the best sports movies of all time, Hoosiers was filmed at Hinkle Fieldhouse. That history oozes from the home of Butler Bulldogs home games or else it wouldn’t be referred to as “Indiana’s Basketball Cathedral.” Renovations in 2011 improved the fan experience and kept the historic feel, but shrunk the capacity to only 9,100.
The recent success of the school, including back-to-back Final Four appearances with coach Brad Stevens and star Gordon Hayward, and the switch over to the Big East Conference have increased the exposure of the program and the quality of the games. Grab the Barking Lard BLT at Barking Dog Café before or after tip-off and head to bars in Broad Ripple for the nightlife.
In no state is the sport of basketball more important than throughout all levels than Indiana and no school represents that in the state more than Indiana University. The passion for basketball comes from the aforementioned movie Hoosiers, being the home state of the legendary Larry Bird, and years of successful Indiana Pacers basketball with Reggie Miller.
But the heart of Indiana basketball is with the faithful who fill Assembly Hall in Bloomington. They’ve watched legendary names like Calbert Cheney, Isiah Thomas, Steve Alford, and Quinn Buckner take the floor while Bobby Knight roamed the sidelines. They’ve also seen an undefeated season and five national championship teams. The building has a special design to enhance the viewing experience with barely any seating at each end and sound cannoning across the large sideline seating areas. The party will take you to Kilroy’s on Kirkwood at some point for drink deals and stuffed breadsticks, but hopefully, you filled up on a sandwich from Dagwood’s before you started drinking.
You know you're a great college basketball experience when you switch conferences and immediately get noticed as having the most electric home-court atmosphere in the conference. Maryland Terrapins basketball may have jumped from the ACC to the Big Ten not too long ago, but they still bring just as great of an atmosphere at the Xfinity Center. It's still a basketball school and not a football one, which means the student body continues to embrace Maryland Terrapins basketball with open arms. The home-court is largely due to the student body filling the first ten rows on all sides of the arena. 2,600 students also create what’s known as “The Wall” on the west end of the building, which intimidates opposing teams shooting free throws in the second half. There’s also the great tradition of unrolling the flag and the newer institution of one flash mob event each season. You’ll likely be celebrating the Terps victory with the college crowd at R.J. Bentley’s Filling Station or Cornerstone Grill & Loft.
University of Kentucky
Kentucky is the only state in the south that cares more about basketball than it does football, which is what raises Kentucky near the top of our list. Big Blue Nation cares about their Kentucky Wildcats so much that the conversation permeates through talk radio and bar chatter on a 24/7 basis. Rupp Arena holds 23,500, which is largest college basketball venue that’s not a football stadium. (Syracuse’s Carrier Dome holds 33,000 for college basketball games.) We all know what UK offers in terms of basketball history. It’s hard to match up with 17 Final Fours and eight national championships. The double burger at Parkette Drive-In is a local delicacy and the live music at Two Keys Tavern will have you loving your trip. The added benefit of sneaking away for some time on the Bourbon Trail is the cherry on top of your Kentucky sundae experience.
Most people will tell you it’s a toss-up between taking in a game at Allen Fieldhouse (aka the Phog) and our next choice when discussing college basketball’s best venue. Kansas has won approximately 87% of its games at the legendary venue, so the home-court advantage is clearly one of the nation’s best. The court is named after the guy who created basketball, James Naismith, so you can tell history runs deep in this building. Its design creates one of, if not the loudest experiences in college basketball – 6,000 students are generally the reason for that. The celebration begins as the Kansas Jayhawk faithful chant “Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk…” before every game. There’s a reason the slogan for Allen Fieldhouse is: “Pay heed, all who enter. Beware of the Phog.” The burger at the Wagon Wheel Café is a must while you’re there. If you can work in dollar night at the Hawk, even better.
Sometimes sports experiences projected as being great don't live up to the hype. Cameron Indoor Stadium is not one of those things. Watching a Duke Basketball game in Durham, NC against anyone is a memory that you'll never forget. There are many factors that make Blue Devils games the best college basketball experience in the country including the Cameron Crazies, the small capacity of Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the success of the program since Coach Mike Krzyzewski took over. Tickers won’t be cheap, but you’ll realize when you leave that it was worth every penny. Grab lunch at Bullock’s Bar-B-Cue because you can’t leave the area without some pulled pork, fried chicken, and hush puppies. Duke Athletes usually show up at Shooters II (or just Shooters for short) after a big win, so make sure you’re there with a beer in hand when they walk in. And if you can make it to a game against North Carolina then you’re at the peak of college basketball excitement.