Drive past the University Arena on the campus of New Mexico, aka The Pit, and it doesn't look so fearsome. The low-slung, one-story structure sits on a plateau overlooking the valley south of Albuquerque. Make your way past the ticket-taker, however, and you are immediately greeted with this view:
The court is sunk more than 35 feet below ground level. There are no girders blocking views, no levels or walkways below, and on one side, no seatbacks, just benches. There is nothing to lessen the volume of the vortex of noise that comes from fans who are perched on seats that sharply decline towards the court and bounces off the low ceiling, reverberating to the floor. Louder than hell, indeed.
I walked into The Pit on a warm New Mexico morning around 11:30 am, and walked out into the air of a cool desert night almost 12 hours later. In the interim, I saw four First Round NCAA Tournament games of varying excitement and quality. If I'm honest, the nightcap between Colorado and UNLV, two above the Red Line teams, was the loudest and most exciting.
Up first, however, was the game between Montana and Wisconsin. The Grizzlies were making their second trip to the Big Dance in three seasons, and are an experienced team. Senior point guard Will Cherry and small forward Art Steward appeared to be the leaders of the team, while sophomore guard Kareem Jamar was the sparkplug.
The Grizzlies were facing Wisconsin, a program from well above the Red Line. Despite this fact, it is very hard to dislike Wisconsin basketball. Badgers coach Bo Ryan runs his team with unalterable principles: take care of the ball, rebound well, and play exceptional man-to-man defense. Players like Mike Brusewitz, Ben Brust, and Ryan Evans seem never to make unforced mistakes.
The Grizzlies came out in zone defense, a 2-3 that morphed into a 1-3-1. This look initially confused Wisconsin, and combined with Steward's hot start, Montana took an early lead. Soon, however, Wisconsin began to exploit the holes in the zone. Evans hit four straight jumpers from the short corners of the zone, and Grizzlies coach Wayne Tinkle exasperatedly called a timeout.
As the half wore on, the differences in depth between the two teams became increasingly apparent. Montana played only 7 players in the first half, and Cherry and Jamar looked very tired by the end of it. The Badgers entered the locker room up 14 points.
I wish I could say the Grizzlies came out of halftime and made a substantive run at the Badgers, but they didn't. Aside from cutting the lead to 11 at one point, the Grizzlies were unable to make much progress. Much of the defensive credit should go to Wisconsin point guard Jordan Taylor who defended Cherry very well all game.
The Montana seniors got a big ovation when they came out of the game with a minute remaining. They have presided over a very successful four years for Grizzlies hoops, including two conference titles and three straight trips to the Big Sky Tournament final. Unfortunately, they found themselves matched up against a very good Wisconsin squad and their season ended at The Pit on Thursday.
My first game at The Pit was not the most exciting affair, but it was great to finally experience one of the best venues for basketball in the country.
WISCONSIN 73, MONTANA 49 03/15/2012
MONTANA 25-7 (15-1) -- A. Steward 6-10 6-7 18; K. Jamar 3-8 0-0 6; W. Cherry 3-14 2-4 9; D. Selvig 3-7 0-0 7; M. Ward 1-5 2-2 5; S. Stockton 1-1 0-0 2; K. Henderson 1-1 0-0 2; M. Weisner 0-0 0-0 0; E. Hutchison 0-0 0-0 0; K. DeShields 0-1 0-0 0; J. Gregory 0-0 0-0 0; J. Wood 0-0 0-2 0. Totals 18-47 10-15 49. WISCONSIN 25-9 (12-6) -- J. Gasser 3-6 4-4 12; J. Taylor 6-10 2-2 17; R. Evans 6-8 5-6 18; R. Wilson 2-5 5-5 10; J. Berggren 2-9 1-2 5; M. Bruesewitz 3-5 0-0 8; B. Brust 1-3 0-0 3; D. Dukan 0-0 0-0 0; T. Jackson 0-1 0-0 0; F. Kaminsky 0-0 0-0 0; E. Anderson 0-1 0-0 0; D. Fahey 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-48 17-19 73.
Three-point goals: UMT 3-9 (D. Selvig 1-2; M. Ward 1-1; W. Cherry 1-3; K. Jamar 0-1; A. Steward 0-1; K. DeShields 0-1), WISC 10-19 (R. Evans 1-1; J. Taylor 3-5; R. Wilson 1-3; J. Berggren 0-1; M. Bruesewitz 2-3; E. Anderson 0-1; B. Brust 1-2; J. Gasser 2-3); Rebounds: UMT 19 (D. Selvig 4), WISC 32 (R. Evans 8); Assists: UMT 8 (D. Selvig 4), WISC 15 (J. Taylor 6); Total Fouls -- UMT 16, WISC 15; Fouled Out: UMT-None; WISC-None.