Ninety-four feet from baseline to baseline. Fifty feet from sideline to sideline. Norman Dale taught us that all hoops are 10 feet from the floor and all free-throw lines are 15 feet from the hoop. Save for various color schemes, the playing court from college arena to college arena remains a constant. Each new arena should be somewhat similar to the last but that is simply not the case. Backdrops play a role. Elevated courts provide a different perspective. The atmosphere, noise levels, and home-team fans create an environment unique to that specific university.
The new trend among the biggest universities is using new arena construction to eliminate the atmosphere altogether, via the construction of multipurpose arenas that host basketball games, hockey games, concerts, and whatever else the consumer will fork over hard earned cash to witness live. The Ohio State Buckeyes did this 20 years ago, swapping out the iconic St. John Arena, featuring rattling bleachers inside an epic echo chamber, for the corporate Value City Arena at the Jerome Schottenstein Center, featuring Luke Bryan and Disney On Ice. The functionality of the Schottenstein Center is easily identified — why wouldn’t you expect a public university to pursue every available profit route? — but the identity of college basketball is lost somewhere in between.
When the No. 14 Buckeyes roll into West Lafayette to take on the No. 3 Purdue Boilermakers on Wednesday night (8:37 ET tip), there will be a lot on the line. The Boilermakers are unbeaten in conference play, while the Buckeyes are the main roadblock in their pursuit of a conference title. Chris Holtmann’s squad needs a victory to keep their conference hopes alive. Mackey Arena has other plans.
Purdue’s home gym, Mackey Arena, opened in 1967 when college basketball arenas were being built the right way. Seating nearly 15,000 Indiana basketball fans, the aluminum domed roof permits the reverberation of noise like few other gyms. The proximity of the derelict student sections to the court is another issue. Our future brightest engineers of America are right on top of opposing teams, hurling expletives and harassing the visitor’s team appropriately. While the team sits a hair below court level, the bleachers feel like they couldn’t possibly be any closer, especially for a team that plays its home games at the spacious Schottenstein Center.
After Holtmann delivers his final pregame address, the team will exit the locker room and make way to the court. Pacing the corridors of Mackey, with less than five minutes until tip-off, the team will hear it. The Purdue fight song blaring from inside the arena. Loud anticipation from fans about ready to jump out of their seats. As they turn the corner to descend the ramp to the action, a sea of black will greet them. The sea of black is swaying synchronously with all arms locked together. This charade does its job, as it assuringly diverts the focus of the opposing team, if only for a minute. It’s a jaw-dropping display of the beauty of college sports fandom.
Familiarity with Indiana basketball might help Holtmann. As Butler’s head coach, he coached his home games at another staple of the state: Hinkle Fieldhouse. Mackey is a whole different pill, however. The spacious airplane hangar that is Hinkle is no match on the intensity spectrum for the claustrophobic Mackey. If the task of beating this loaded Purdue team without glaring weaknesses weren’t difficult enough, the basketball Buckeyes will have to do so in the most intimidating basketball venue in the conference.