NCAA tournament’s embrace of multipurpose arenas comes at a price

When Jim Larranaga takes to the court Thursday night at Verizon Center, he will be markedly aware of the magic he helped create there seven years ago, when as coach of little George Mason he slayed mighty Connecticut to lead his team to the most unlikely Final Four appearance in the 75-year history of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Yet as his University of Miami players went through a light workout in front of a smattering of fans Wednesday afternoon, there was little sense of that history. To them, it was another day, another game, another arena that could be just about anywhere.

“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.

Each spring, the tournament prods people with no knowledge of or interest in college basketball to dutifully fill out brackets predicting the winners of more than 60 games. It brands it all as “March Madness.” But with schools sent to sites far and wide — Syracuse, for instance, opened its tournament San Jose, more than 2,800 miles from home — the very atmosphere the sport boasts about can be sucked out of arenas like Verizon Center.

Two of the other region sites this weekend — Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis and Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Tex. – are the regular homes to NFL teams. The other, Los Angeles’s Staples Center, is home to the Lakers and Clippers of the NBA and Kings of the NHL. The Final Four will be held in Atlanta’s Georgia Dome, the 17th straight year it will be staged in a domed arena of that seats more than 40,000 fans.

To the television viewer, none of these venues will look different from the other. Georgetown’s court won’t host the tournament, nor will that of the Wizards. The NCAA has its own court for each arena — natural wood for the floor, black paint on the sidelines, a blue NCAA logo at center court. Washington? Los Angeles? Indianapolis? How to tell?

Larranaga is the one guy who smiles at the mere thought of playing here. He left George Mason for Miami two years ago, but he remembers all the games he watched here involving Georgetown or the Wizards, the games he coached in the annual December BB&T Classic, and those two games in March 2006.

“It’s not just any other arena,” he said Wednesday, smiling. “This is the Verizon Center.”

But he didn’t venture to use that sense of place as motivation for his players. “He didn’t tell us that specific story,” said Miami senior Julian Gamble.

It is a story that is well-known in the lore of the NCAA tournament.

But only those who were there have a true appreciation for where it happened. The next weekend, while George Mason played on in 2006, Verizon Center welcomed back the circus, and returned to its regular life on F Street.

Barry Svrluga is the national baseball writer for The Washington Post.
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