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Official Review by Drew Cieszynski, Stadium Journey Regional Correspondent
The 37th edition of the Big West Conference took place on the dates of March 8-10, 2012 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, CA. Opened in 1993 after a construction cost of $123 million, the Honda Center is most commonly known as the home of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks. Previous tournaments in Anaheim have been held at the Convention Center, but the 2012 edition seized its largest attendance ever by moving to the 17,000+ seat Honda Center. The venue is no stranger to the NCAA tournament, having hosted tournament games five times to date.
The Big West tournament is the longest running Men’s Basketball tournament on the west coast after 37 years. Notable former NBA players such as Cedric Ceballos, Michael Olowokandi, Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, and Brian Shaw all had notable performances in the Big West tournament.
This year’s participants included defending champion UC Santa Barbara, number one seed Long Beach State, UC Irvine, Cal State Fullerton, Pacific UC Riverside, Cal Poly, and UC Davis. Finishing in last place, Cal State Northridge was the only team in the conference that did not make the postseason tournament.
The All-Tournament Team consisted of David Hanson of Cal Poly, Chris McNealy of UC Irvine, Casper Ware and James Ennis of Long Beach, Orlando Johnson and James Nunnally of Santa Barbara. With the selections of Ware and Ennis, Long Beach State passed UNLV for most players on the All-Tournament team.
Unlike other tournaments, the Big West uses a re-seeding system that rewards the highest seed by always playing the lowest seed, therefore rewarding success in the regular season. Long Beach State would end up winning both the regular season title and the tournament championship. By winning their fifth Big West title, they inched closer to the record of seven championships, currently held by UNLV of the Mountain West Conference. With the win, Long Beach secured a seed in the NCAA tournament.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Having visited many of the schools in the Big West, I know that the fans will be pleased with all of the additional options that the Honda Center offers. While not all stands were open during the tournament, one could argue that the Honda Center offers more food variety than all of the Big West venues combined. The prices are on the higher end, so Big West fans may experience some sticker shock at first glance of the menu.
Some of the more appetizing options I noticed included the smoked brisket sandwich ($10), pulled pork sandwich ($10), smoked kielbasa sandwich ($9.50), loaded baked potato with brisket and cheese ($8), Italian chopped salad ($8), chicken tender salad ($8), or garlic fries ($5.75).
Of course the venue also offered the more traditional options, but some with a twist. The standard hamburger/cheeseburger ($7.50) was available, but also the BBQ bacon burger, spicy burger, mushroom and swiss, pineapple teriyaki burger, and portabello mushroom sandwich.
The Honda Center take on the hot dog is known as the "Top shelf dog "($5.25 with pretzel roll), and also offered a spicy hot dog ($5.25), Hormel chili cheese dog ($6.75), bratwurst ($8), and mild Italian sausage ($8).
Other standard items included super nachos ($7), Sweet potato fries ($5.75), french fries ($4.50), pretzels ($4.50), peanuts ($5.50), three piece honey fried chicken meal ($9.50), chicken tenders and fries ($9.50), or fried chicken sandwich ($10).
A local pizza chain known as Oggi's offers a personal pizza ($10.25), hummus, vegetable pita plate ($7.50), Italian chopped salad or chicken Caesar salad ($8).
The beverage options included Pepsi products (reg $4.25, large $5.25, or souvenir $6.25), Aquafina water ($4.25), coffee ($4.25), milk ($1.25), or Gatorade ($4.25). An interesting option not found at most arenas was a milkshake ($7 for chocolate, vanilla or strawberry).
The alcoholic options were pricey, but it did not seem to deter most fans. The regular domestic draft beer went for $7 and the larger size for $10.50. The regular bomber draft went for $10.50, while the premium bomber draft carried a price of $12. Wine and mixed drinks were also available for $7-$10.
The great thing about the Big West Conference is that most teams are in close proximity, so the tournament allows all fans to attend with a simple road trip.
The interesting thing however is that the crowds seem to grow as the event goes on and teams are eliminated. One could attribute this to many fans still having their careers or school to tend to on Thursday. The games on Thursday are certainly a more casual atmosphere and the noise in the arena seems to be mostly produced by the bands.
The final game was certainly more memorable than the six games that preceded it. The rivalry that has developed from these local schools really had everyone in Long Beach and Santa Barbara itching to see one defeat the other. On the final evening, even the upper sections, which had been empty the first two nights, was filling up.
At the end of the tournament, the best part of it all was witnessing the players celebrate. To see their joy after such a long season is a great thing that any fan can appreciate.
Anaheim is just 28 miles south of downtown LA and is located in one of the larger population centers in the country. With so many people, there is certain to be plenty of hotels, food, and entertainment for all.
While March is still part of the Southern California rainy season, the average rainfall for the month is less than two inches, so fans are likely to have good weather.
Of course, Anaheim is most popularly known for being the home to Disneyland, but also has many other attractions including the Crystal Cathedral, the birthplace of Richard Nixon, and the numerous attractions of the nearby beach cities (Newport, Huntington, Laguna).
If fans are looking for food near the arena, the easiest choice is JT Schmid's, which offers an extensive menu and its own onsite brewery. Located just across from the front of the arena, it's one establishment that can't be missed. If you have the ability to drive slightly down the street, I would also recommend Danny K's Billiards, Lazy Dog Café or Auld Irisher Pub before the game.
Just as with the atmosphere, the fan interaction certainly gets better as the tournament goes on. If I were to try and rationalize this, I would guess that the higher seeded fans expect to win, and therefore it is not worth attending until the semi-finals. The lower seeded fans expect to lose, and therefore need a spark of hope before starting to show up.
The showing from Long Beach was rather impressive and easily the largest contingent of the weekend. They had their yellow shirts on, Walter Pyramid hats, large cutouts of their player's faces, and even a "Casper the ghost" sign in honor of their most notable player.
UCSB also bussed a large contingent down for the championship game, but were also clad in mostly yellow, creating little distinction from the Long Beach fans in the championship game.
The local Cal State Fullerton and UC Irvine had good showings, but I was mostly impressed by the aggressiveness of the Cal Poly fans and those of UC Davis. The Aggies were severely outmatched in their opening round matchup, yet their fans were resilient until the very end.
In the final game, there were even two fans in the crowd that were drawing quite a bit of fanfare. On the UCSB side, radio talk show host Jim Rome (UCSB graduate) sat behind the Gauchos bench. On the Long Beach side, Darrell Bailey (more commonly known as Clipper Darrell) was clad in a yellow and black suit, and posed for countless photos with the 49er students.
Fans really have to applaud the Big West on the choice of Anaheim. The schools in Fullerton, Irvine, Long Beach, and Riverside are all less than a hour from the arena. Santa Barbara and Northridge are less than 2 hours while Cal Poly probably has the longest driving distance in four hours. UC Davis and Pacific are probably the only schools that truly need an airplane to get to the venue in a reasonable time as they are located in Northern California.
Though a common complaint of Southern California is in regards to its traffic congestion, the facility is in close proximity to five major freeways (57, 22, 5, 91, 55), and is located across the freeway from Angel Stadium.
Just like the food, the parking seems a bit overpriced. Despite 4,500 parking spaces and lots of available spaces in the surrounding area, the charge for the tournament was $15.00. I would really recommend bringing your walking shoes and trying to find a less expensive option nearby.
If you are not driving to the stadium, other transportation options include the Metrolink Orange Line or Amtrak. These railways drop you off at the edge of the Angel Stadium parking lot, so this allows for easy access to the Honda Center. This is a large benefit for fans from Cal Poly, UCSB, or Cal State Northridge as they can now easily get to the arena without fighting traffic.
With the size of this venue and the small crowd, the restrooms were easily accessed from every seat. There were absolutely no lines and the restrooms here are some of the nicest in all of professional sports, so it was a win-win for all fans in attendance.
What I found most interesting was that the facility does not contain escalators. Instead, fans making their way to the upper levels can take one of the elevators or the marble-clad stairwells. Even if you are going to the highest level, the hike up the stairs is not all that intimidating as the ice is several rows below the ground level.
The Honda Center offers three levels of seating. The Plaza Level is the closest, surrounding the court with roughly a capacity of 5,600. 21 rows up is the Club Level and the highest section is known as the Terrace Level.
The scoreboard above center court will very likely be the largest many of the players have played below. To avoid any neck cramps looking up at the scoreboard, there are also LED ribbons surrounding the arena that provide updates on the score/time remaining.
The Big West tournament is likely one of the best values in all of Division I basketball. Most fans could purchase a reserved seat for the first day at $27, while the semi-finals and championship went for $34 per seat. If you anticipated being in Anaheim for the weekend, or felt strongly that your team would make the championship, an all-session ticket could be purchased for $64 ($31 savings). Another interesting offer was $144 for all sessions that guaranteed fans a spot in the first four rows. Students clearly had the best value at just $10 per session.
As previously stated, I did feel that parking fees were a bit exorbitant considering the size of the crowd, but luckily many fans arrived via bus from their school or could utilize a shuttle from the hotel. The food prices are on the higher end, but hopefully the students enjoyed the vast selection that is not available to them at their home arena.
While all of the current Big West teams are from California, the Honda Center seems to be one of the best venues to personify the state. The San Gabriel Mountains can be seen in the distance and the property has over 130 palm trees covering it.
The inside offers nearly as much beauty as the exterior as roughly 200,000 feet of marble line the concourses and stairwells. The four different colors of marble that line the inside of the arena were imported from Spain, Taiwan, and the Philippines. The main entrances have large glass archways and three of the entrances have displays known as the "Anaheim Arts in Public Places." The themes of these artworks include video arch, musical gateway, and anamorph.
While not related to the basketball, fans will find a bronze statue of the team's mascot Wild Wing. A true throwback to the days of the Disney ownership, his paddle and the plaque still read the name "Mighty Ducks." The piece of art is known as "Defending the Pond" and is considered by many to be Stephen T. Landis' best sculpture.
Setting the all-time conference tournament attendance had to be a great sign of the tournament returning to the Honda Center in the future. With Anaheim being rather accessible for most teams and a destination spot that fans of all ages can enjoy, it seems primed to continue hosting the tournament.
While the Big West is currently the only Division I conference with all teams in a single state, that will change next year as Hawai'i joins the conference in basketball. The addition of the Rainbow Warriors may add an extra two teams to the 2013 tournament, but additional consideration will again need to be made for the 2014 tournament when San Diego State joins the conference.
Regardless of the landscape of teams in the coming years, this proves to be one of the more affordable Division I tournaments to attend, provides great local rivalries, and excitement any basketball fan can enjoy.
Follow Drew's Travels through Southern California on Twitter @Big10Drew.
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