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Below you will find the definitive, be-all, end-all ranking of Big Ten basketball venues, based mostly on how difficult it is to win at the arena. I also consider the quality of facilities, atmosphere, fan enthusiasm and "cool" factor.
Actually this is going to be a pretty biased list, as it has been influenced by my specific games and experiences at these arenas over my five-year career. It was an awesome experience getting to play (or at least get courtside seats) in such historic arenas.
I didn't include the Kohl Center because if I included it in this list, my love for the KC would overshadow commenting on any other arena. I also didn't speak on Nebraska's Bob Devaney Sports Center because I've never been there, it's getting replaced next year and the Cornhuskers' mascot creeps me out.
1, Assembly Hall, Indiana
Ironically, the No.1 ranked arena on my list is one where the Badgers found victory in their best game of the year. This place sticks out in my mind as the clear number one, most of all because of the atmosphere we faced, when Indiana was at the bottom of the conference. In Tom Crean's early years at Indiana, the team was very young and not very good. I remember us having a 30-point lead in the second half, and the fans were still going bonkers on every play. Crean got ejected late in the blowout, and the crowd acted like they had just won on a buzzer beater. It was extremely bizarre, but it shows the tremendously loyal fan base they have. Add that to the history and talent that building has seen, and it's a clear choice for No.1. It's pretty cool standing right where Bob Knight's tossed chair landed.
From the outside, Assembly Hall reminds me of the castle from the Wizard of Oz. Inside, everything about it is old school. Because the walls seem to go up for a mile on either side, it has an eerie, cavernous feeling. The outfits of the cheerleaders and vintage sweater vests of the first-row fans make you feel like it's 1970. When we won there in 2008 on Brian Butch's late bank-three, as we celebrated at half-court, the cheerleaders ran to half court and began shoving us away from the half-court circle. Apparently they do this after every game because of an incident years ago in which opposing players defamed the IU symbol at half court postgame. The place is a bizarre in a few different ways, but it is still tops in my book.
2, Mackey Arena, Purdue
Wisconsin's incredibly poor record at Purdue over the last 30 years is a huge part of why Mackey is so high on my list. Although several of these arenas can have moments of piercing decibel levels, Mackey Arena is the most consistently loud arena. The train whistle sounds and "Boiler up!" chants (which sound like a conductor's call, "All aboard!") make it feel like 14,000 people are packed into Grand Central Station as a train is going by. Mackey also has the hardest rims in the Big Ten. There is no such thing as a "friendly bounce" at Mackey Arena. Next time you're watching a game at Purdue, pay attention to how little the rim moves on missed shots.
Mackey also has a raised floor a-la Minnesota. Because of the limited below-floor-level space, there are a limited number of chairs that can fit on each side of the scorer's table. My freshmen year, I was the 15th guy (last guy on bench). I didn't have a seat, so my choices were: sit in the second row, or sprawl out on the floor level. I didn't want to be sitting next to fans enjoying popcorn and hot dogs, so I laid out on the floor level next to one of Purdue's managers manning the water cooler. It was a little hard on the back, but quite spacious.
3, Breslin Center, Michigan State
I think Michigan State has the best fans of any team on this list. They are loud, creative and engaged. Their chants and antics are choreographed and clever. One year, they somehow got a hold of large photos of some of us in our Halloween costumes and held them up while we shot around before the game. They know every player's name and shriek every time you miss a shot in warm-ups. For the record, when I say that they know my name, I mean that they just screamed "WALK-ON!" at me.
One year, when we came out for warm-ups, while MSU was still in the locker room, they played "Lady in Red" over the loud speakers. Try getting fired up to do anything while that's playing. To satisfy the "cool" factor criteria, they have Magic Johnson's jersey hanging in the rafters. The Breslin Center also has a wall back by the locker rooms autographed by all the celebrities who have stopped by, like Garth Brooks, Cher and Milli Vanilli. Not upset that I missed those concerts.
4, Assembly Hall, Illinois
Most of the reason Illinois' version of Assembly Hall (can't we get any more creative with the names?) is so high on this list is the repetitive, tomahawk chop-inducing, Illini fight song that seems to start playing from the moment the bus enters Champaign city borders. It is impossible to get out of your head. The Orange Crush, Illinois' student section, always brings the energy. I have developed a fondness for the Orange Crush for one particular reason. We were getting blown out late at Illinois early on in my career, when a couple members of the Orange Crush near our bench decided to start hassling Coach Ryan to put me into the game. Think these guys honestly pick out the scrawniest, most unathletic guy in the bench and see if they can coerce opposing coaches to put them in. Well, it worked. Thanks Orange Crush.
My only gripe against Assembly Hall is that they carry the basketballs out for warm-ups in large duffel bags, and only allow us approximately eight balls to warm up with. All this means is that I didn't get to launch non-stop rapid-fire threes before the games, and that didn't make me happy.
5, Value City Arena/Schottenstein Center, Ohio State
I honestly have no idea what this place is called. I thought it was called Value City Arena for several years, until I saw Schottenstein Center plastered everywhere inside. It is called by both names by broadcasters. Even after researching it online, I still can't decide what to call it. This dilemma cost it the fourth-place spot on this list.
However, the atmosphere of the arena has greatly improved ever since part of the student section was moved to the side of the court behind the benches. Having a fan scream foul things right over your shoulder is a lot more audible than this fan trying to yell this things from behind the hoop (this is under the wild assumption that I'm on the bench). The quality of facilities at Ohio State is without a doubt the best of the places on this list. It has the feeling of an NBA arena. They just need to stop playing "Seven Nation Army" by the White Stripes so much.
6, Williams Arena, Minnesota
"The Barn" is the most unique arena in the Big Ten. The aforementioned raised floor, combined with the old barn style is unmatched in college hoops. The raised floor definitely gives you a serious quasi-squat workout getting up and down during timeouts. I normally relied on pushing off of teammate J.P. Gavinski to get a boost up onto the floor. The student section "Barnyard animals" are pretty lively, and I think they get a little more geeked up to play their neighboring state to the southeast. Minnesota had a chance to be higher on this list, but the visiting locker room is about a quarter of the size of any other Big Ten visiting locker room. The locker room is as wide as Evan Anderson's wingspan. Evan actually has to walk sideways to get his size-20 feet to fit on the floor.
7, Welsh-Ryan Arena, Northwestern
Welsh-Ryan Arena has the feeling of a larger high school court. I actually really like that. The smell of concession stand popcorn wafts into the gym pregame. Even the basketball Northwestern uses is the Spalding TF-1000 that most Wisconsin high school programs use (Big Ten home teams supply the game ball). The students are in the bleachers right next to the court, and I think they are some of the wildest, most hyper fans in the Big Ten.
One unique thing about Northwestern is the lack of a loading dock. At most Big Ten arenas, our bus drops us off at the back loading docks where we go right into the locker room. At Welsh-Ryan, we get dropped off at the front door. You walk right through the main concourse, right past the concession stand and through hordes of fans.
When we were ranked among the top-five teams in the country my freshmen year, fans were very eager to get our autographs after the game (and sell them on eBay). After our win, Kevin Gullikson and I were being hounded by a couple autograph-seekers (middle-aged men wearing Northwestern gear, not young Badger fans) on our way to the bus. Because of the attention we were getting that year, we were told to get right on the bus and not stop for autographs. These guys relentlessly asked us the entire walk to the bus, before eventually giving up and shouting obscenities at us. Normally when I would just tell them I was an equipment manager, they would go away, but it didn't work that time.
8, Crisler Arena, Michigan
For the games at Michigan while I was on the team, there was a wide range of game atmospheres. We played during a snowstorm in a half-full arena (or half-empty for you pessimists). We also had a phenomenal crowd for Josh Gasser's buzzer-beating bank-three in 2011. What is always entertaining is viewing the memos on each seat of the student section before the game. Members of the student section, Maize Rage (seriously), create these memos and disclose any tidbit of personal information on any players from opposing teams for heckling fodder. I was honored to be mentioned in this publication one year, but it was merely to make fun of me for being a nerd, after the author of this memo saw a Facebook picture of me studying for finals. You could have come with more heat than that, student section leader.
9, Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa
From the outside, Carver-Hawkeye Arena looks like a massive underground bomb shelter. I know this place was pretty raucous in the 80's and early 90's, and Coach McCaffrey has been attracting some great crowds of late, but my game atmosphere experiences at Carver-Hawkeye were pretty tame. Because of Jason Bohannon being from Iowa, he did receive an onslaught of boos and jeers. And I did appreciate that they had a crew of about 20 ball boys to rebound for us before the games, so I was able to get plenty of rapid-fire shots up pregame. However, overall I couldn't rate it any higher than nine.
10, Bryce Jordan Center, Penn State
Penn State has my favorite band of any Big Ten school on this list. It just wasn't enough to uproot the Bryce Jordan Center from the bottom spot. Their band plays all modern pop or hip-hop songs, some of which debut on the radio just weeks prior. They are the only band on this list that will play a Ludacris song with trumpets and trombones during timeouts. However, the Penn State crowds were quite sparse and mild during my games there. The upper deck of the arena has no one sitting in it, and the lights are turned off up there to disguise this fact. I do love how they allow students to sit courtside. Nonetheless, further bringing the Bryce Jordan to the bottom of this list, albeit unfairly, is the notoriously turbulent plane ride to Happy Valley, the creepy hotel we stay in for this trip (think, The Shining) and the burst water pipe that set off a fire alarm at 3 AM in this hotel in 2007.
It was an incredible experience getting to see all of these historic arenas that I had seen on TV for so many years growing up. The Big Ten has the best facilities in the country, and I was spoiled getting to play in the Kohl Center every day.