For the first time in 17 years, the Southern Conference Tournament would be held at the Asheville Civic Center. Or at least that is the historic name of the building. In order to get the tournament back, the City of Asheville had to upgrade the building and sold the naming rights of a city-owned facility to U.S. Cellular. The building is now the U.S. Cellular Center, with the arena being called the ExploreAsheville.com Arena. No matter how hard you try, naming something after a website always ends up looking silly. For historical purposes, many still call the complex the Asheville Civic Center, so like Matt Cayuela did, I will refer to it by that name as well.
Since 1995, the SoCon Tournament has played their tournament in five different locations: the Greensboro Coliseum, Greenville's Bi-Lo Center, the North Charleston Coliseum, Chattanooga's McKenzie Arena, and Charlotte's Time Warner Cable Arena. All of these arenas had some issues with them. Greensboro was a bit too far to the east and north for some schools, and conflicted with the ACC schedule as well. Greenville and North Charleston both had large multi-purpose venues that would not fit mid-major basketball very well. McKenzie Arena gave Chattanooga too much of a home-court advantage, and was too far for everybody else in the conference.
The only time I have previously been to the Southern Conference Tournament was in Charlotte two years ago. Many in the conference had been wanting the tournament in Charlotte, and jumped at the chance to put the tournament there when a time slot became open in the arena's schedule. They even accommodated it by pushing back the second year of Chattanooga's contract to host the tournament. But a NBA arena and mid-major basketball do not go well together. Parking was $10, and over two blocks away from the arena. The upper deck of the arena was too far away from the court, as a NBA arena has to have its luxury suites between the lower and upper deck. So the upper deck was curtained off, and most fans without VIP tournament passes were stuck behind the baseline for most sessions, far away from the court with the view obstructed by the basket support. Only during the final, when the SoCon saw how bad this looked on TV, was more of the arena opened up for fans to sit towards midcourt. Not to mention that the arena staff in Charlotte had the warmth and friendliness of what you would expect from the DMV. The Wofford fans were surrounded by security when their team won its first automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, which Kyle and Marco Askis of Storming the Floor, viewing from afar, referred to as the "Floor Stormstapo". When taking the pictures of the awards ceremony, an overzealous usher approached me with a dollar bill to measure my camera (the camera was approved, although some Charlotte staff members have rejected it before).
So with all these considerations, the Asheville Civic Center was a better fit for the Southern Conference Tournament than the previous hosts. It is not a big-time arena that kills the atmosphere like in Charlotte, and is also less than two hours from a third of the conference. Only geographical outlier Samford is more than five hours away from Asheville, whereas most schools were traveling long distances to go to Chattanooga. As Matt Cayuela mentioned, the arena has a drab interior that does not give off a feeling of life in the arena. It is hard to picture the arena looking less modern than it does today after the renovations. But unlike other multi-purpose venues, the arena seems to fit basketball well. Most seats are close to the action, and the balcony provides excellent sightlines for seeing the game. The Asheville Civic Center works well enough for hosting the SoCon.
But the problem with any "neutral" site is that one group of fans will have an advantage over the other. I suppose that you could make the tournament completely neutral, and hold it in Wyoming. But if you want fans, you hold it near your member institutions. Chattanooga has hosted before, having the nicest on-campus facility of any in the SoCon. But when the Mocs have hosted, they have played at home over the advantage of everybody else. In 2005 and 2009, Chattanooga won the tournament at the expense of regular-season champion Davidson. The Mocs did not have particularly great teams those years, but by playing at home they were able to step up and take the conference's automatic bid. These are the most important games of the year, so the location is very important. You want a location that will serve all teams well but will not favor one group of fans, and that location can be hard to find. I know Kyle hates campus-site tournaments, feeling that they are a cop-out for conferences trying to save money. But this is a rare case where I will have to disagree with him here. You have to give a reward for winning the regular season and enhance the atmosphere of your tournament. This can be best done through campus-site tournaments.
The team with the edge from having the tournament in Asheville is Western Carolina. To get to tonight's semifinal game with UNC Greensboro, the Catamounts routed the Citadel and upset Wofford in the quarterfinals. Western Carolina and Wofford are both just over an hour from Asheville, but with very different fan bases. Wofford has a small alumni group scattered across the country, while Western Carolina has a large alumni base throughout western North Carolina. And many Catamount fans also live closer to Asheville than the rural mountain town of Cullowhee where WCU is located. So despite finishing third out of six in the weaker of the two SoCon divisions, Western Carolina had a geographical edge and would be a threat in the tournament.
WCU would face UNC Greensboro tonight, a school three hours away, with most of its students and alumni base commuting from the Greensboro area. Aside from the school VIPs behind their bench, a group of female students sitting in front of me, most of the Civic Center was pulling for the Catamounts. This was the first time in four years I had seen UNCG play, the longest of any of the SoCon schools. And what is ironic about that is that when I attended High Point 15 miles southwest of Greensboro, I usually made it to close to half of the Spartans' home games. But this would be the first time I would have seen UNCG's basketball team play since I graduated from High Point. A lot has changed over the years with UNCG basketball. I only saw the Spartans once in the Greensboro Coliseum, when they hosted Virginia Tech. Today they play almost all of their men's games there, with the Greensboro Coliseum desperate for dates and UNCG wanting to use the Coliseum to lure better opponents at home. UNCG's dance team, the Spartan Gs, still had the same outfit they had when I was at HPU, but the fight song the pep band played appears to have been changed. Gone are all of the Spartan players from when I was at HPU, although Kevin Oleksiak is now on the UNCG bench as an assistant coach. Head coach Mike Dement resigned after a bad start, and the interim coach was 29-year-old Wes Miler, a former Tar Heel walk-on I saw play against High Point. A couple of years ago, Miller served as an assistant for one year under HPU coach Scott Cherry, and he is now Division I's youngest head coach. Miller has engineered a remarkable turnaround, where the Spartans recovered from their bad start to win the SoCon North Division.
But tonight they would face a tough test against their division's third-place team in WCU. The Catamounts consistently played better in the first half, and led by as much as nine to start the game. The Spartans frequently came back throughout the game, only for Western Carolina to get on a run again to separate the two teams again. Trevis Simpson delivered on offense for UNCG with 24 points, and UNCG never went away. Western Carolina led by as much as 12 midway through the second half before UNCG made it a one-possession game in the final minute. But the Catamounts did not panic, and made their free throws to hold on for an 82-77 win. Western Carolina would reach the SoCon title game, ensuring a good crowd for the final.
In addition to playing close to home, the Catamounts had an explosive offense that could score quickly when needed. Western Carolina scored 141 points in one game this season, impressive even if against a tiny bible college from northeastern Georgia. This factor combined with great crowd support made the Catamounts a force in the tournament. The Asheville Civic Center may have not been the greatest basketball arena out there, but it would host a much better atmosphere than other SoCon tournaments of late.
WESTERN CAROLINA 82, NORTH CAROLINA-GREENSBORO 77 03/04/2012
WESTERN CAROLINA 17-17 (8-10) -- T. Sumler 5-13 4-5 16; K. Cole 5-12 2-3 17; T. King 4-6 0-0 8; H. Mutombo 5-10 5-6 17; B. Boggs 4-8 0-2 9; P. Ross 4-7 2-2 10; K. Hall 2-2 1-1 5; J. Sinclair 0-4 0-0 0. Totals 29-62 14-19 82. NORTH CAROLINA-GREENSBORO 13-19 (10-8) -- T. Simpson 8-19 5-5 24; D. Williams 5-6 0-1 10; D. Armstrong 4-9 6-6 14; D. Parker 4-7 0-0 11; K. Van Dussen 1-6 0-0 3; A. Henry 2-3 2-2 6; A. Brackett 2-4 0-0 4; K. Randall 0-2 0-0 0; N. Paulos 2-4 0-0 5; T. Hoffer 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 28-60 13-14 77.
Three-point goals: WCU 10-21 (K. Cole 5-8; H. Mutombo 2-4; T. Sumler 2-5; B. Boggs 1-3; J. Sinclair 0-1), UNCG 8-19 (K. Van Dussen 1-4; A. Henry 0-1; D. Parker 3-5; T. Simpson 3-7; D. Armstrong 0-1; N. Paulos 1-1); Rebounds: WCU 32 (T. Sumler 8), UNCG 25 (D. Armstrong 7); Assists: WCU 9 (T. Sumler 5), UNCG 9 (D. Armstrong 4); Total Fouls -- WCU 15, UNCG 16; Fouled Out: WCU-None; UNCG-None.