Arena rundown: Ranking the ACC's homecourts

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It usually comes up over the course of conversation a couple times a year what football stadiums and basketball arenas are the best to watch a game at.

“Best,” of course, entails all sorts of possibilities. As a writer, the perspective is a little different. Fans almost certainly don’t care which places grant courtside seats and have easy access between the press room and the locker rooms.

So this list of ACC arenas is set up in a way that accounts for atmosphere, crowd volume and involvement, fan loyalty (i.e. does the place routinely sell out or come close) and just the setup of the building.

This, of course, leads to an easy No. 1 now that Cole Field House is an indoor intramural field and Reynolds Coliseum is used only a couple times a year:

1. Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke (times visited for men’s basketball: 6) – For the hundreth time in this space, the Crazies are vastly overrated. But the building itself a gem, simply a cathedral to basketball. The crowd is always into it, and I’m pretty sure the sellout streak is approaching two decades.

Whether it’s the wooden bleachers in the lower level or the creaky metal chairs up top, there are few comforts. It’s just an intimate arena, and every time I’m scrunched over the tiny press table it feels like a big game is about to tip off. Having watched Duke play Florida State and Georgia Tech there the last two seasons, that simply doesn’t come from hearing the Crazies’ glee at mocking who they consider to be their faux rivals.

2. Cassell Coliseum, Virginia Tech (visits: 2) – It’s a Cole-era building (with a similar roof), which is a huge bonus here. Cassell lacks modern amenities, and it’s a pit, but it’s the Hokies’ pit. So long as the place keeps attracting fans (as it has for the last few years) and Virginia Tech remains competitive, this will be one of the most unpleasant places for visiting teams to play.

A favorite facet – the stands are elevated about five feet above floor level, giving those in the front row a fantastic view rather than being stuck behind a bench or scorer’s table.

Is the ranking high? Maybe. Certainly a big influence was watching a snow game in 2007 when students were invited to take over most of the seating when a winter storm paralyzed area roads. If the sellouts suddenly came to a halt, you could drop Cassell four spots and not fret all that much. But for now, it remains an underrated place to see a game.

3. Comcast Center, Maryland (visits: 63): Barely – just barely – takes the third spot. The students can be vile and home attendance is down this season, but it’s also defeafening when the games are good. That goes for whether the opponent is Duke, another brand name or a mid-major; the crowd at the Vermont game earlier this season was superb.

It isn’t anywhere near as much fun as Cole was, it can sometimes feel more like a pro arena than it should and the student wall does not work well when the students don’t pick up all their tickets (as has been the case of late). But all those years of sellouts do matter, and the fact Maryland built its arena on campus is important as well.

4. Joel Coliseum, Wake Forest (visits: 3): Pretty much the equal to Comcast, with a less coarse student section but a spot a couple miles down University Parkway from the Demon Deacons’ gorgeous campus.

For a school with such a small alumni base, Wake does a fine job filling an arena that seats 14,000+. The fans remain into it from beginning to end, galvanizing a fairly modern civic center (which is basically what Joel is) into a formidable home court. With a top-five team in town, there’s little doubt it would be a blast to watch a game in Winston-Salem this season.

5. Dean E. Smith Center, North Carolina (visits: 5) – Right there in the Comcast/Joel category and close enough where one visit could change my mind, but sometimes bigger isn’t always better. There can be a sense of distance in the Dean Dome between the upper level and the court below, and Sam Cassell did coin the term “wine and cheese crowd” to describe the Chapel Hill patrons.

That said, it’s better than it once was, with more students in the lower level than the early part of the building’s history. The scores of banners (and Carolina sure loves its banners) are a nice touch, and you know you’ll always see at least one superb team when you walk in for a game. The fans are cognizant of Carolina’s place in the basketball universe, but it doesn’t come off as smugness.

While the ginormity of it all gives me pause, all those extra seats pay a lot of bills for the Tar Heels, so it’s a more than fair tradeoff.

6. John Paul Jones Arena, Virginia (visits: 2) – Like pretty much everything associated with Thomas Jefferson’s university, it is a gorgeous architectural marvel. The crowds can be good, even if the team hasn’t been terribly great in two of the last three seasons.

The place was electric the last two seasons when Maryland visited – first for an upset of a ranked Terps team, the second Sean Singletary’s senior day. There are still legitimate concerns it’s a wee bit too big, but it’s nevertheless an upgrade over University Hall.

7. Littlejohn Coliseum, Clemson (visits: 3) – An underrated bandbox that usually wasn’t all that easy a place to play when Clemson stunk. Now the Tigers are pretty good, and they usually have a rather boisterous crowd behind them.

The roof seems lower at Littlejohn than at most of the ACC’s arenas, which only amplifies the noise. It’s true basketball season is idle time between football and spring football for some Clemson fans, but an on-campus gym coupled with a good team and perhaps the most vocal anti-referee supporters in the league warrant this spot.

8. RBC Center, N.C. State (visits: 4) – The good: Rabid fans, great history, a well-kept facility and generally pretty big crowds.

The bad – Insanely rabid fans, an off-campus facility and too many seats to fill.

At the end of the day, it’s a pro arena several miles from campus. A couple down years have dimmed excitement for the Wolfpack. I saw a State-Miami game (when Miami was ranked) there last January and was stunned by the announced crowd of 12,400.

Granted, there was some freezing drizzle, rarely the scourge of the Triangle, to deal with. But it was a fabulous game (that went to overtime), and there were still 7,000 empty seats.

9. Alexander Memorial Coliseum, Georgia Tech (visits: 3) – Basketball in the round (rather than a square) is kind of fun, and the setting is fairly intimate. I’ve just found the place to be relatively sedate on my trips in. Of course, all three ended in Maryland victories (2002, ‘06 and ‘08), so maybe it was just not the best time to do an evaluation. It certainly isn’t an awful place to watch a game, though it probably isn’t top-five for this list, either.

10. Conte Forum, Boston College (visits: 2) –If only this was a ranking of hockey arenas. Just from having passed through Conte for basketball and football games, it’s clear the roof probably comes close to blowing off the place during an intracity rivalry game. But for basketball, it was unbelievably dead during a trip last season.

Still, it is a smaller, on-campus gym that usually produces good crowds for league games. That creates some separation over the last two arenas.

11. BankUnited Center, Miami (visits: 1) – A 7,000-seat convocation center, it would rate as one of the ACC’s nastiest places to play if people would consistently care. Instead, the Hurricanes can barely fill half the place on a regular basis.

Architecturally, it fits in quite nicely in South Florida, and it certainly isn’t an eyesore. But while the crowd when Maryland was in town last year was impressive, it’s clear that’s more of an exception than the rule. The layout and location are great, but the fan support leaves something to be desired.

12. Donald Tucker Center/Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center, Florida State (visits: 3) – Even fervent fan support might not be able to make up for a poorly lit civic center with a 1970s-inspired seat color theme as a home court. It’s off-campus, which is another serious demerit.

Then, of course, there is the fan support. Florida State is drawing a little better than 50 percent capacity this season, and that’s including visits from Duke, Florida and Pittsburgh. North Carolina will come calling later this month, but it might be the only game the rest of the way the Seminoles come anywhere near selling out.

Patrick Stevens

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