The Big South Conference was born a modest group in 1983, including just seven schools. Five of those schools (Campbell, Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina, Radford and Winthrop) are still conference members 30 years later. The conference has enjoyed considerable growth since that initial group of seven, fielding 12 teams for the 2012-13 season. With four schools each in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, the conference has established an impressive footprint throughout the region and mid-major college basketball.
The Big South basketball tournament has been played at sites throughout Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia since it began in 1986. Coastal Carolina University got its first chance to host the tournament in 2010, a year in which Winthrop University won its fifth tournament title in six seasons. The school's previous facility, Kimbel Arena, played host to the festivities in 2010 and 2011, and after a year at Kimmel Arena in Asheville, North Carolina, the brand-new HTC Center at Coastal Carolina welcomed the conference tournament in 2013.
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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".
Concession stands can be found in the main lobby, near the arena entrances. The stands offer standard fare, with Chick-fil-A chicken sandwiches ($4.25) as the main meal item. Candy bars ($2), popcorn ($3) and chips ($1) are the main food items, with other options, including pretzels, available at some of the stands at various intervals. Coca-Cola serves as the bottler for the facility, with bottled sodas and water selling for $3 and souvenir cups for $4. These stands are reasonably small, so lines may be a concern during high-traffic periods.
The main attraction in the HTC Center, though, is located in the lobby between Gates 1 and 2, directly across from the Student Recreation Center entrance. The Rowdy Rooster essentially serves as a full restaurant, offering considerably more than the standard concession fare. The appetizer choices are numerous, including battered french fries ($1.99), potato skins ($3.99), mozzarella sticks ($7.59), fried pickles ($2.99), onion rings ($2.59), loaded potato skins ($4.99) and chicken tenders ($7.19 for classic or buffalo-style). Greek salads ($4.49 or $5.99 with chicken), tomato mozzarella sandwiches ($5.19) and Cajun blackened salmon sandwiches ($6.99) serve as lighter fare. The Red Rooster signature wrap ($5.49), chicken burgers and black bean burgers round out the sandwich options. Wings (buffalo-style, teriyaki or honey barbecue) are available by the dozen for $8.99. Smoothies (strawberry banana, mango, blueberry and three berry) are $3.99, with yogurt parfaits for $2.89.
It seems unusual to describe a new arena as "intimate", but the HTC Center fits that bill. The seats on the sidelines only extend ten rows off the floor, making the sideline seats very close to the action. The bleachers behind each basket extend a bit further, but no seat in the arena feels all that far removed from the action. The angle of the lights is a bit unusual, creating some glare spots in some sections of the floor. There are also a few sight line concerns in the far upper corners of the arena, as railings may obstruct the view of the row of seats nearest them. It is important to note, though, that all seats are accessed from the arena floor. This setup makes locating and accessing your seat considerably easier than most arenas.
The scoreboard setup at the HTC Center is somewhat unusual, when compared to many other arenas. There is a center-hung scoreboard that displays the basics of the game (score, fouls and the like), while video boards on the wall behind each basket display a feed of the game and a running score, along with many of the same in-game basics. The video boards and the LED ribbon board at center court display in-game statistics from time to time, including teams' shooting percentage, three-point percentage and free throw percentage. A running count of points and fouls for the players currently on the floor would be a nice addition, but this information does display at random intervals.
Almost all of the participating conference schools bring bands and/or cheerleaders (VMI and Longwood being notable exceptions), and the bands play a large role in the event. When they are not playing during a break, the bands often participate in chants or other activities that still help maintain the feel of a home game, despite the arena being a neutral site for 11 of the 12 teams. It may have even been nice for the bands to play a bit more than they did, as some of the in-game music got a bit repetitive, though this is to be expected over the course of a four-day tournament.
The HTC Center is located in Conway, South Carolina, which is a rather small town. As such, there is not a lot to be had within an easy walking distance of the arena. There is a strip mall across from the US Highway 501 entrance to the Coastal Carolina campus, and Rotelli Pizza and Pasta can be found in this strip mall. Rotelli features a wide variety of offerings, including the aforementioned main courses, salads, chicken, veal, fine wines and a selection of imported and domestic beers. This is likely the best non-chain choice if you wish to grab a quick bite between tournament sessions and get back to the arena with plenty of time remaining.
There is additional choice along 501 northbound in Conway and southbound in Carolina Forest, which are both within 10-15 minutes of the arena. The star of the Grand Strand region, of course, is Myrtle Beach, which is approximately ten miles south on US 501. Myrtle Beach offers hundreds of restaurants, bars and attractions, with everything from coastal cuisine to breakfast options at your disposal. Broadway at the Beach and Barefoot Landing are famous for shopping, musical theaters and nightlife, offering plenty to do when your team is not playing.
Considering the circumstances, the attendance at the 2013 Big South Tournament was truly impressive. Host Coastal Carolina was defeated by eventual champion Liberty in the final game of the opening night of play, leading many to silently wonder about the crowds in the days to come. The fans did not disappoint, though, as each session featured a reported crowd of considerably larger than 2,000. The arena was quite noisy through each remaining round, making for a tremendous atmosphere for each game. A number of close calls and close games kept the crowds cheering.
Mid-major basketball offers a closeness to the players and programs that is rare in college sports, and the fans took advantage of their proximity to the benches and player entrances to urge their teams on to victory. Many of Liberty's fans rushed the floor after the Flames won the championship, and to the event staff and conference's credit, the fans were not immediately removed from the playing surface. This made for an awesome shared moment between the Liberty players and those who made the six-plus hour drive from Lynchburg to see their team. The only thing that could make the fan experience better at the Big South Tournament is for more fans to fill the stands at the HTC Center, and this will hopefully be the case for the remaining two years in which Coastal Carolina is scheduled to host the tournament.
The Big South deserves a lot of credit for making a somewhat confusing situation as workable as possible for fans traveling to games. As the HTC Center is a new facility, the parking situation is still somewhat evolving. The conference placed signs throughout the campus and along South Carolina Highway 544 guiding fans to general parking, VIP parking and other services, which was tremendously helpful. Most GPS systems will have concerns with locating the HTC Center, so it may be a better idea to locate the Ace University Bookstore. There is a wide area of open parking in gravel lots behind the bookstore, along with other surface lots near the arena. There are guides at the entrance to each parking area, and if you follow the signs, there should be no concern with finding a place to park. All parking is free, which is a nice touch.
Conway does not feature interstate access, so if you are driving, US Highway 501 and South Carolina Highway 544 are the major roads which service the immediate area. US Highways 17, 378 and 701 are nearby, as are South Carolina Highways 9, 22, 31, 90 and 905. If your hotel stay will be in Myrtle Beach, be aware that traffic will be an issue. This is the case with most tourist destinations, and it is especially the case along the Grand Strand. You may be better served to stay in the North Beach section, between 38th Avenue North and 82nd Parkway. This will allow you to bypass much of the traffic in the central and southern portions of the beach. It should also be noted that traffic may be heavier as you try to navigate to early games, as hotel check-out traffic makes its way along 501 to destinations north and west of coastal South Carolina. Taking SC 544 the entire way to Conway may be a viable alternate.
Fans arriving by air will likely wish to book travel through Myrtle Beach International Airport (MYR). The airport is located in the south end of the beach, and a number of large carriers serve the airport. Wilmington (ILM) and Charleston (CHS) serve the outer reaches of the market, but both airports are 75-90 minutes from Myrtle Beach along US 17 to the north (Wilmington) and south (Charleston).
Once inside the arena, the lobby area offers plenty of room to move, even during the busiest times of each session. Restrooms are located just steps from the arena entrances off the lobby, and the facilities are clean, ample and well-stocked.
There are several seating levels for the Big South Tournament, and these levels bear some explanation before we get into how far your dollar will stretch at the HTC Center.
The seating levels are marked as Teal, Bronze and End Zone. Teal is the grouping of chair-back seats behind both benches and the scorer's table (sections 104-108), and these seats sell for $10 for opening round games, $15 for the quarterfinals and $20 for the semifinals and finals. Bronze seats are located behind press row and are bench-back seats. These seats sell for $10 for the opening round, $12 for the quarterfinals and $15 for the semifinals and finals. The End Zone seats are bleacher seats, but are a tremendous value at $10 for each individual round. You may find it beneficial to purchase a book of tickets to the entire championship tournament, which can be had for $60 if purchased by October 15, $70 before January 31 and $85 from February 1 until the allotment expires. It should also be noted that the arena is cleared between sessions, which is between the opening two games and the final two games in the opening round and quarterfinals.
If you choose the End Zone seats, a Chick-fil-A sandwich and a bottled soda, you can get into a session for $17.25, which is great value for a championship event. Parking is free, as are the game programs (we will address this in the next section), adding value to your purchase.
The conference offers free t-shirts at different times throughout each game. The cheerleaders from one of the participating teams will come out to lob free t-shirts into the crowd, and these were a hot item throughout. Game programs are also free, as you just saw, and the programs are quite helpful and informative. These glossy publications feature rosters, team photos, conference records, results of past tournaments and other notes. These programs are located on tables just inside Gates 1 and 2, with helpful employees offering a copy to fans as they walk into the arena.
While we are speaking of helpful employees, the Big South Conference, Coastal Carolina University and the event staff deserve mention in this space for their can-do attitudes throughout the tournament. Many of these staff members worked tremendously long days, serving both the men's and women's tournaments, and they always had a smile on their face and a willingness to help. It is always nice to feel appreciated as a fan, and this is certainly the case at the Big South Tournament.
Coastal Carolina's gameday operation also set up a Twitter feed (@CCUGamedayOps) to take fans behind the scenes as they set up, conducted and deconstructed the tournament site. This helped build the hype among fans making the trek to Conway for the tournament, and allowed a glimpse into all the planning that takes place with an event of this magnitude. More conferences could benefit from providing this type of service to their fans, and I am frankly surprised that it is not common among tournament hosts.
Coastal Carolina's Chanticleer Store remains open throughout the tournament's afternoon sessions, and this is a nice place to go pick up a drink, some candy or some headache medicine, which you may need as the arena starts to get loud. Coastal Carolina gear of every stripe is also for sale inside the store, so this is also a great place to pick up a cap, t-shirt or sweatshirt. The only recommendation would be that Big South tournament gear be prominently featured in the front of the store, but this may be logistically impossible. The store is located just inside Gate 1 as you enter the arena.
Finally, the kids area just outside Gate 1 was quite popular, with a basketball goal, inflatable games and other fun activities for children, but it was overshadowed by an impressive structure just a few feet away. A sand sculpture was constructed along the sidewalk just outside Gate 1, with the logos of the Big South, the city of Conway, Coastal Carolina, television partner ESPN, title sponsor VisitMyrtleBeach.com and more imprinted in the sand. The sculpture was composed of 150 tons of sand, and it took three artists three days to finalize. The sculpture served as the perfect tie to the coast just miles away from the front entrance to the HTC Center.
Most fans across the country are likely not familiar with the Big South Conference, and the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference are likely on the minds of many in the region. If you are looking for championship-level basketball in a fun environment at a good price, however, the Big South Conference is truly hard to beat. Whether you get to see Longwood freshman Michael Kessens post a tournament-record 36 points against VMI, Charleston Southern guard Arlon Harper post career highs in points and rebounds in the same game, or even the incredible story of Liberty University coming together to win four consecutive games against extremely long odds, there is something for everyone to remember for years at the Big South Tournament.
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