By Joe Connor
The 2012-13 SEC men's college basketball slate is here. I've been lucky to visit all of the premiere venues in college hoops, including all the SEC venues. Who has the best game day atmosphere? Glad you asked. Here are my favorites, broken down into four unique divisions I call my own – "Tales of the Delightfully Lame Division," "The Hit or Miss Division," "The 'I Want to Love You But…' Division" and "The Cream of the Crop Division." A new conference season is here, so let's tip off...
"Tales of the Delightfully Lame Division"
These are the bottom feeders when it comes to men's basketball atmosphere in the SEC. These schools just don't have a solid following at their home courts, which is sad.
The Rebels are hoping to move out of this dreary, antiquated edifice by 2015 by christening a new arena. I wish them all the luck. But whether a new crib will result in a more passionate fan base? Don't count on it (read: Auburn below). It's pretty simple, you have to consistently win at Ole Miss – and at Auburn – to bring the hoops fans out in droves and that hasn't happened often in recent years.
Yeah, Auburn opened a splendid new arena in 2010, and I can attest, it's a great venue and very well-designed. I particular enjoy the Hall of Fame area as you enter the building on the north side – very well done. But there's just one major problem: more fans need to show up! Auburn just doesn't draw for basketball. Last season, it ranked 81st – 81st! – in the nation in attendance. C'mon Auburn! If they start winning on one of these days, the Tigers could definitely use this joint to their advantage. Until then? Delightfully lame.
There's nothing worse than when the opposition fan base makes more noise – and with less numbers! – then the home teams' fans. Well, welcome to Georgia basketball. Florida fans displayed a lot more passion – and for a weeknight game! – than the Bulldogs faithful in a game I witnessed. Now that's just pathetic, especially since this is great building (second oldest in the conference) when it's packed (key word: when).
"The Hit or Miss Division"
The atmosphere at these college hoops courts can be great or a can be shrug your shoulders (to me), depending on how the home team's faring in the standings and who they're playing.
This place just feels too damn corporate to me to be a college basketball arena. Yes, I really don't like it – so there you go. Thankfully, the Carolina faithful can usually more than make up for it – I say, usually. But I still hate this arena. Expectations are high in the South Carolina state capitol with first-year head coach Frank Martin taking over the reigns. Maybe that'll change my view of this place. On second thought, I doubt it.
I really like this venue. It's not too big, corporate or ugly like the goliath buildings at Kentucky, Tennessee, South Carolina and Arkansas. And back in the Shaq Days, this place would constantly jump. But game day here is totally hit or miss, depending on how the Tigers are doing in the win or loss column so it's not among the conference elite for game day atmosphere. Another cool part of the arena is the tribute to LSU hoops history on the concourse.
"The 'I Really Want to Love You Division' But..."
I really like the arenas in this group, but as the 'division title' suggests, there's something about them that I really don't like. In short, they just aren't cream of the crop material.
College Station, TX, USA; A general view of the court before the Texas A&M Aggies host the Kansas State Wildcats at the Reed Arena. Photo Courtesy By Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports.
In their Big 12 days, the buzz in Reed Arena could be hit or miss – usually a hit though. Now that they’re in the SEC, I’m betting they’ll be pretty amped for every tilt, but only time will tell. Sometimes when the Aggies resemble the Gaggies, fans don’t show in numbers. The student section can be quite raging though, and A&M is such a unique college experience that it’s worth a trip alone. But Aggie faithful don’t disappoint us!
Walk into "The Hump" and to me it really feels a lot like Ole Miss' current hoops venue – from the Stone Age! The major difference though in ranking? Much better atmosphere for an SEC hoops game in Starkville than Oxford, although still not in the top echelon of the conference. But the Bulldogs are rising, so stay tuned. There attendance numbers spiked last year pretty good and were among the tops nationally from the year prior.
Really enjoy this venue and the atmosphere is pretty solid, but when they built this crib, they didn't take in the importance of cramming more fans behind the baskets to freak the daylights out of the opposition. That's a major demerit. Also, the concourses – while zestfully clean – need some personality. Create some artifacts, add some pizzazz, do something.
"Cream of the Crop Division"
These are the best of the SEC rest. They are the cream of the crop. You want to be assured of one of the best game day atmospheres in the conference? Plan your trips here.
SEC fans will thoroughly enjoy their pilgrimage to Columbia, especially the ‘Zou Crew, one of the most raucous student fan bases in the country. Right under the basket, they make life a living nightmare for visitors two hours every game. But it's not just that. This is one of the better designed venues in the last 10 years, opening in 2004. It reminds me a little of historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, site of Hoosiers, only bigger and more reflective of 2012 versus 1950 something.
One of the bigger capacity arenas in the conference, this is my favorite from a grossly big building standpoint, as it doesn't feel too corporate or like a ridiculously-sized NBA arena (not that I endorse big cribs as I prefer the quainter joints). And when the Hogs are rolling, the atmosphere can be pretty intense. The Hall of Fame section at street level on the south side of the arena is among the best Hall of Fame sections I've enjoyed inside a college hoops venue. Woo pig sooie!
From a venue-specific standpoint, this is by far my favorite in the conference because of its uniqueness and rich tradition. It's the oldest arena in the conference, debuting in 1952. And it's the only one in the conference with a raised court – and other unique, throwback quirks. What's more, when this place is packed to the brim – which is more often than not – it rocks!
The O'Dome really isn't much architecturally. In fact, it's quite dull. Thankfully, the tenant and its fans have plenty of character and resolve! And the simplicity of this place makes it one of the better pads to catch an SEC hoops game with the "Rowdy Reptiles" student section on top of the action raising swamp-ish hell. Caught a Tennessee-Florida tilt here and the place was boisterous.
From a building-specific standpoint, this place is still a total dungeon to me. So the Volunteers very high place on this list is indeed a tribute to their loyal fan base, which always impresses me. I always enjoy coming to Rocky Top because the joint just jams no matter who the SEC opponent is.
Love 'em or loathe 'em, it's hard to argue where the best place is to catch the best hoops and the best atmosphere in the SEC – it's Lexington. Now, I don't care for the entrance to this place and or the gigantic size of this edifice, which also lowers the atmosphere meter when the Wildcats blitz a non-conference cream puff in November. But it's a great place to enjoy an SEC tilt, which is what this list is about. And the pre-game intro is awesome.
Dec 4, 2012; Lexington, KY, USA; An overview of Rupp Arena during the game between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Samford Bulldogs. Kentucky defeated Samford 88-56. Photo Courtesy By Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports.
About the Author: Joe Connor is a freelance sports writer who's caught a game at every SEC basketball arena. You can buy his online travel guide, "A Fan's Guide To The Ultimate SEC Basketball Travel Experience" here.
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