An event too large for a small setting

Venue: Players and fans may complain, but with a seating requirement of 30,000, college basketball's biggest show is staged in a dome a fifth straight year.

Ncaa Tournament

The Final Four

March 31, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS - Basketball was not meant to be viewed through binoculars, but that's the only way some far-flung fans will be able to follow the Final Four.

College basketball's climactic weekend will be held in a dome for the fifth straight year, and the NCAA has no interest in taking it back to a smaller venue where the game feels more comfortable. There is too much interest - and ticket revenue at stake - so Duke and Maryland will tip it off tonight at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome, the home of the NFL's Vikings and the Twins of Major League Baseball.

"This event's magnitude dictates a large facility," said Mike Tranghese, the Big East commissioner who is also the chairman of the NCAA men's basketball committee. "Basketball purists want to play in an arena that seats 18,000 or 19,000, but the people who say that's what we ought to do are the people who have the pull to get into a facility that size in the first place. Going to a small facility is not an option anymore."

It's been 30 years since the NCAA first awarded its title in a dome.

A year after UCLA stopped Jacksonville in the title game at Cole Field House, the Bruins beat Villanova at the Astrodome in 1971. A few years earlier, the "Eighth Wonder of the World" had been the setting for the first made-for-TV college game, a match between UCLA, which revolved around Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and a Houston team that countered with Elvin Hayes.

Since 1990, only two Final Fours have been held outside domes, as the NCAA went to Charlotte in 1994 and the Meadowlands in New Jersey in 1996. The NCAA has adopted a minimum seating requirement of 30,000, and the qualified facilities closest to the Eastern seaboard are the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, where it was held last year, and Atlanta's Georgia Dome, next year's site.

New Orleans, San Antonio and St. Louis are other cities in the Final Four rotation. Baltimore could have been if the Maryland Stadium Authority had decided to put a roof on PSINet Stadium.

Fans will be closer to the floor than they were here in 1992, and have superior sightlines compared to the ones they will have in Atlanta next year.

The permanent seats on the west side of the Metrodome that serve as the backdrop behind the benches have a more severe pitch than those at the Georgia Dome, and the floor was laid closer to them than nine years ago. The biggest temporary construction project in the Metrodome's 20-year history expanded the portable seating, but closed off the view from the east stands, so only 44,000 tickets were sold, compared to nearly 50,000 in 1992.

"This is the most intimate seating configuration we've ever had in a dome," said Bill Hancock, the NCAA official who oversees the tournament. "Most certainly, we've never had this many good, traditional basketball seats. Probably 30,000 are what could be called excellent basketball seats."

That's relative.

"Domes are probably not as bad for the players as they are for the fans," Maryland coach Gary Williams said. "I've been up there in some domes. When you're up there pretty good, you can't hear the whistle blow. In basketball, hearing the ball [bounce] on the floor is important too. You can't hear that a lot of times in a dome, but that's the way it is now. There's nothing you can do to change it."

Michigan State's Charlie Bell will play in his 18th NCAA tournament game tonight. He struggled with his shot in the semifinals in Indianapolis last year, but that had as much to do with Wisconsin's defense as it did with any problems he might have had with the wide-open spaces of the RCA Dome. He made five of his 15 three-pointers in the South Regional championship in the Georgia Dome last weekend.

"We're so used to playing in domes," Bell said, "it doesn't affect us. As much time as we put into our shooting, we just go out there and knock 'em down."

Arizona beat Illinois in the Midwest at the Alamodome. Duke and Maryland advanced in smaller NBA arenas, but did battle at the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament at the Georgia Dome. Williams said that experience should help the Terps, but his leading scorer is wary of domes. Since Maryland came out of its February tailspin, Juan Dixon's two worst shooting games came at the ACC tournament, where he was a combined 13-for-37 from the field.

"I dislike them," Dixon said of domes. "I think the depth perception screws me up a little bit. Everything is so far away. Hopefully, I'll have a good shooting game against Duke."

Future sites

Upcoming Final Four sites:

Yr.........City......................Arena

2002....Atlanta................Georgia Dome

2003....New Orleans.....Superdome

2004....San Antonio..... Alamodome

2005....St. Louis.............Trans World Dome

2006.....Indianapolis...... RCA Dome

2007.... Atlanta................ Georgia Dome

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