“Coming into this building, to them it’s just another venue,” Larranaga said of his players. “But to me and my staff, it’s not, because we have the memories. They don’t. They want to create those memories for themselves.”
Memories are created each March in the NCAA tournament. But who among even the most ardent fans could remember where a seminal victory such as George Mason’s took place? College basketball is steeped in history and tradition. Its best venues — Kansas’s Allen Fieldhouse, Indiana’s Assembly Hall, Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium — are cathedrals of the game, with revered jerseys and championship banners hanging from the rafters, fans packed close to the court dressed in school colors.
Verizon Center, by contrast, is multipurpose, and by comparison — well, bland.
It hosted the circus last weekend, the Washington Capitals’ game Tuesday night, the Wizards next week.
During college basketball’s regular season, it is home to the Georgetown Hoyas. But even one coach who has competed here annually, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, felt as if he could have been at almost any one of the countless facilities at which he’d coached in a 37-year career.
“I don’t think about where it is, honestly,” Boeheim said Wednesday, a day before his Orange face top-seeded Indiana at Verizon Center. “It doesn’t matter. We’re happy to be here and happy to be playing. If we were playing in San Jose we would be happy to be playing there. If you’re in this tournament and playing, you’re happy.”
Not that there aren’t memories. The East Region on Thursday and Saturday is the fourth time the NCAA tournament has played in Washington since Verizon Center opened in 1997. Eleven years ago, Maryland began its march to its only national championship here. Four years later, George Mason made its history, dropping U-Conn. in an exhilarating 86-84 decision. Just two years ago, Butler, a mid-size school from Indianapolis, began a run to its second straight national championship game by beating Old Dominion on a last-second tip-in and then felling Pittsburgh, the top seed.
But rare is the person who could place those games.
“This is where we’re at now,” said Gary Williams, the coach of that Maryland national title team. “The NCAA tournament got to this, where they play in these metropolitan areas in these kinds of arenas.”
Williams remembers sneaking into the 1966 Final Four, when it was held at Cole Field House on Maryland’s campus in College Park. But no on-campus arena has hosted college basketball’s final games since 1985. “The feel is different,” Williams said.