Coastal Carolina and its fans are used to small arenas. They play at Kimbel Arena, which seats 1,039 and sells out every game. It is hard to imagine the Chanticleers going to an arena and being in a smaller facility than their own.
But that would be the case this afternoon. The Chanticleers were traveling to North Charleston to face the Charleston Southern Buccaneers in an important conference battle. And while Coastal has the second-smallest arena in Division I, 100 miles down the coast Charleston Southern has the smallest. According to the seating chart posted in the ticket window at CSU Field House, there are 417 seats in the bleachers opposite the benches and scorers' table. Behind the benches and scorers' table are 204 reserved chair back seats. And behind the basket on one side the bleachers hold 174 seats, with 86 seats in the bleachers behind the other basket. This comes to a total of 881 seats, about 150 fewer than those of Coastal's Kimbel Arena. While in most Division I arenas the ninth row is pretty close to the court, at CSU Field House it is as far away from the court as it gets.
In February of 2003 I went to my first Division I basketball game in over eight years to see my future school, High Point, play at Charleston Southern. The Sporting News college basketball preview listed the arena capacity on each team capsule, and back then CSU claimed a capacity of 1,500 (Coastal also claimed an exaggerated capacity of 1,800 back then as well). So I expected a small facility when I came, but was blown away at CSU Field House. My high school's gym seats three times as much as that of CSU, and there are some middle schools that have a higher capacity than what CSU does.
As I pointed out in my recap at Coastal Carolina back in December, there are problems with arenas of this size. Coastal has to rank in the top 25 in difficulty in getting tickets, and maybe even the top 10. And that is at a school that cares just as much if not more about football and baseball. But Charleston Southern is a very different school with a much smaller fanbase. CSU is a small private school about a third of the size of Coastal, and Charleston Southern is the third option for college sports in the Charleston area behind College of Charleston and the Citadel. Meanwhile, Coastal is the only Division I school in a 60-mile radius from Myrtle Beach, one of the fastest-growing small markets in the country. Coastal, as a result, could fill an arena much bigger than Kimbel, but Charleston Southern rarely ever sells out CSU Field House despite its tiny size.
So in some aspects I like CSU Field House better than that of Kimbel and even the Millis Center at High Point, where I went to school. Charleston Southern basketball fits the stereotypical image of what one might have of small college basketball, as CSU does not try to pretend to be a big-time basketball place. The arena is a very low-frills place compared to even most other mid-majors. Most seats are bleachers without backs and every seat is close to the court (fans on the front row are practically right in the action). The Buccaneers installed an image board above their locker room entrance, but it does not work unlike with the four video monitors at High Point. Reserved seats cost seven dollars, while those in the bleachers cost just five. That is a pretty good deal, considering all high schools in South Carolina charge at least that. I went to a Division II game Wednesday night where the admission was eight dollars for a game that only had 175 fans. The Bucs did try to create a hyped entrance from the locker room by inflating a tunnel with smoke that left the arena looking hazy at tip-off. Yet the arena seems, for the most part, to be a throwback to mid-major basketball years ago. Concessions are cheap (although very limited, as Matt Cayuela reported in his recap Thursday) and the Bucs do not try to imitate high-majors for the most part. That is something that is nice to see after having been to many arenas that try to be artificially modern.
The biggest problem with small arenas in the Big South is that the bulk of the conference tournament will be played at the home of the regular-season champion. The last two years in the Big South that has been Coastal, and Kimbel has come nowhere near close to meeting the demand of Big South basketball fans. For this reason I would like to see a new regular-season champion, and a good host for the tournament so that I can see the games. But of course the dilemma tonight was that if Coastal lost, that would mean that a school with an even smaller arena would have a chance to host. What would happen if somehow CSU won the right to host the tournament? One of my friends from high school who works at CSU and has served as the Bucs' ticket manager has said that she does not know how successfully hosting the conference finals could be pulled off. At Coastal, only season-ticket holders and a small number of students can gain admittance to the tournament aside from team passes from the opposing teams. CSU has a lot fewer season ticket holders, but would likely encounter the same problems as well. CSU would also have a problem with providing space for the media, as even Kimbel Arena has far greater capacity for the press than CSU Field House. There is a small camera stand atop the bleachers that broadcasts games for the Big South Network, the conference's premium online video feed (which has managed to be featured on Pixelvision before). But would that space be suitable for ESPN? Considering that no regional sports network has ever broadcasted from the arena while most other arenas in the conference have played host, it seems that this could be a potential problem should the Big South Championship come to CSU.
An alternative venue could be the 14,000-seat North Charleston Coliseum, located about ten miles south of campus halfway to downtown Charleston. I saw CSU host Virginia Tech there three years ago, and the arena (normally used for minor-league hockey) just did not work for basketball. In addition to the seats behind the basket being far removed from the court, there was no basketball buzzer and the horn used for hockey was used, which sounded awful especially when used to notify of players subbing in and out. Despite Wikipedia listing it as one of two arenas for the Bucs, aside from when it is CSU's turn to host the Citadel or College of Charleston all home games are typically played at CSU Field House, with the occasional exception as noted above. So it is not likely that CSU would be able to move the tourney to the Coliseum, especially with the Barnum & Bailey Circus in town that weekend.
So CSU must deal with the arena they presently have on campus, which is given the ironic nickname of the "Buc Dome" despite being less spacious than most regular campus buildings. Like at Coastal, CSU Field House was built when Charleston Southern (then known as Baptist College) basketball was a new thing that had no aspiration of at the time of joining Division I. And while there are very few facilities worse than CSU Field House at any level of basketball, I have encountered some. Division II Coker College plays in a gym with half the seating of CSU. USC Sumter, a junior college that I have done internship and volunteer work at, plays on what is practically a concrete floor. But those are schools that would not even think about joining Division I. And unlike Coastal, CSU has no plans to replace the Buc Dome in the near future. But part of me wanted to see the home team win tonight, and get it closer to hosting the Big South tournament even if I could not go. It would turn the campus sites tournament format upside down and be an interesting spectacle to observe, even if only from outside.
In his recap Thursday, Matt Cayuela worried about seeing another game today with a reduced atmosphere nearing the end of winter break. But tonight CSU Field House had a packed house, with the official attendance of 978 being nearly 100 more than the actual seating capacity of the arena (On the wall at the entrance, the Fire Marshall Limit is posted as 1,688. I thought this was pretty funny, as did Matt, as there is zero chance CSU could near that number). Coastal had a high number of fans there. I am sure some of them were season-ticket holders like Matt, but perhaps a few were Coastal fans who could not see their Chants play at Kimbel. I know that many Boston Red Sox fans vacation to opposing stadiums since tickets are hard to come by at Fenway Park, and I would not be surprised if by now that is the case with CCU's growing fanbase as well. Many in the Charleston area were also eager to see two of the best teams so far in early Big South play, and the two schools have developed a rivalry in all sports that mostly originates from American-style football. Finally, today was student move-in day at CSU for the upcoming spring semester. Real college basketball was finally back!
And the CSU students made their presence known. One problem with a tiny arena is that CSU students have to share space with regular fans in the bleachers. About 20 students stood up on the left side of midcourt over the front two rows, consisting of the "Dome Crew." While it is college basketball tradition for students to stand up and be rowdy, there were Coastal fans sitting down in the seats behind them. The back of their T-shirts had a slogan to remedy this problem, "If you can't see, then stand up!" But this did not sit well with Coastal's fans, some of whom are too old to be standing for an entire game. After complaining about the lack of students Thursday, Matt had to move from my left to my right to be able to see the game. I had to stand when the action was to my left, and after standing in student sections at both High Point and South Carolina I didn't mind standing for half the game. And the proximity of the students to the court may make for an exciting atmosphere, but it can cause problems as well. When the Bucs played NAIA Morris College a few years ago, a Morris player nearly got in an altercation with students heckling him from just a few feet away before a teammate restrained him. But this is how it goes when there is limited space in the area. At least Coastal fans got a seat in the arena. A CSU fan trying to visit Coastal would likely not be as lucky.
Despite the tiny gym, the 800 Games Project was well represented at CSU Field House, an arena that Kyle never got around to visiting. A few days ago, it appeared that literally 0.5 percent of the arena's capacity would be occupied by 800 Gamers. But College of Charleston student Joe Wright decided Friday to attend the Citadel's game against Samford instead, in order to clear Samford on the Team Coverage Checklist. So instead we would just have three participants at the game: the two participants with the most games recapped (myself and Matt) as well as Ross Lancaster who was visiting his hometown coming from Texas. I spotted Matt just before the game, but did not get a chance to talk with him until halftime where we discussed the experience of the arena and our upcoming travel plans. I spotted Ross sitting a few rows behind the CSU bench in the reserved seats at the start of the game in his bright green North Texas t-shirt. He stood out, and didn't seem to quite fit in with the rest of the crowd. At halftime, he came over to the bleachers and sat between me and Matt, and we had our very own 800 Games Project section!
One of my previous hobbies was geocaching, a game where you use GPS devices to find boxes of treasure hidden in the woods. Explaining this to outsiders was never easy, and geocaching events were fun because everybody knew the concepts of the game and its terminology. And this is what made sitting with Matt and Ross fun. I started to explain some of my experiences to Matt before realizing he knew all of them from reading my recaps and my Twitter feed. Early in the second half, Ross saw me writing on my notebook and asked if I was tracking fouls, and I replied that I was only using my notebook as a possession chart. Usually when I explain this to other fans, it blows their mind and they usually think I am a weird and mysterious scout. But Ross knew about the importance of possessions and we had a discussion on points per possession and the formula used to estimate it from official box scores. He even asked midway through the half if the game was being played faster than in the first half, which it was slightly. These are concepts that most basketball fans just do not grasp. He even noted that the Charleston Southern cheerleaders were not Title R-compliant, and we joked how the penalty of that might be fitting for CSU Field House (banishment to NAIA). So hopefully we can have more 800 Games Project meet-ups in the future.
The first half was fairly slow tempo, with CSU starting to break the game open midway through the first half with an eight-point lead. But the visiting Chanticleers steadily got back in the game and only trailed by one at halftime. The small arena gave an intimate atmosphere in the second half as the lead kept going back and forth. As the game entered its final minutes, it seemed that the physical nature of the game was taking a toll on the smaller Buccaneers. Coastal had a six-point lead with a minute to play, and it seemed as if they were about to cruise to the finish. But a few bad breaks gave the Bucs a chance, down three with the ball as the clock was ticking down. Ross thought CCU should foul CSU to prevent a game-tying superhoop. I thought that strategy was too risky, having seen it backfire before in high school games I have attended in the past. But perhaps Ross was right, as Arlon Harper somehow got his shot off with five seconds left to score a big superhoop to force the first overtime in any basketball game I have been to this season.
It seemed as if the Bucs had the momentum now at home, and it would be CSU that would finish down the stretch. After Coastal scored the first basket of OT, CSU then took a three-point lead with less than three minutes to go. But Coastal would come back and take the lead again, shaking off any disappointment that resulted from letting the game slip away in regulation. Mathiang Muo could not deliver the heroics Harper did at the end of regulation, and Coastal would hang on for an 80-77 overtime win to move into a tie for second place in the Big South with Campbell and behind UNC Asheville. The tiny gym somehow provided a great atmosphere for a big mid-major game.
So unless CSU finishes strong, the conference will not have to worry about the logistics of having the conference finals in Division I's smallest arena. But it could be once again in Division I's second-smallest arena. And with apologies to Matt, who could better attend the tournament if it were at Coastal, it is probably not in the best interests of the Big South to have the tournament at Kimbel Arena again. If my High Point Panthers can't have a strong finish, then I hope that either Campbell or UNC Asheville wins the right to host. Those are two schools that also had tiny gyms until very recently that now play in nice 3,000-seat arenas. They are showing what can be done when you upgrade your facilities, as Coastal is in the process of doing for next season. But CSU Field House is an interesting place to watch a game in the regular season, and is an experience I would recommend to anybody visiting Charleston especially if you want to save money and watch pretty decent Division I basketball as well.
COASTAL CAROLINA 80, at CHARLESTON SOUTHERN 77 01/07/2012
COASTAL CAROLINA 11-4 (4-1) -- D. Nieman 3-5 0-1 8; K. Greenwood 6-14 3-5 16; S. McLaurin 6-11 0-0 12; A. Raffa 8-13 5-6 23; C. Gradnigo 8-13 0-0 17; J. Pack 1-3 2-2 4; D. Moore 0-0 0-0 0; W. Gillis 0-0 0-0 0; J. Griffin 0-1 0-0 0; C. Ashford 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 32-60 10-14 80. CHARLESTON SOUTHERN 10-6 (4-2) -- K. Martin 3-10 1-2 7; A. Harper 7-11 3-4 22; S. Nimley 2-12 2-2 6; M. Muo 8-14 2-2 20; P. Gombwer 4-6 1-3 9; J. Sexton 2-4 3-5 7; S. Strickland 0-8 0-0 0; C. Bowen 1-3 2-3 4; C. Grier 1-1 0-1 2. Totals 28-69 14-22 77.
Three-point goals: CCU 6-12 (C. Gradnigo 1-3; A. Raffa 2-3; D. Nieman 2-4; J. Griffin 0-1; K. Greenwood 1-1), CHSO 7-24 (J. Sexton 0-1; M. Muo 2-7; S. Strickland 0-2; A. Harper 5-8; S. Nimley 0-6); Rebounds: CCU 36 (S. McLaurin 12), CHSO 35 (K. Martin 9); Assists: CCU 8 (K. Greenwood 2), CHSO 8 (A. Harper 3); Total Fouls -- CCU 18, CHSO 18; Fouled Out: CCU-None; CHSO-None.