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Official Review by James Staley, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The NCAA Tournament is where college basketball programs build their reputations.
Few mid-majors boast an NCAA Tournament history better than that of New Mexico State University. The Aggies are the only current member of the WAC with a Final Four appearance (1970). NMSU has won more NCAA Tournament games than any other WAC team (10).
Those aren't the only historical points of pride for NMSU.
More recently, the Aggies achieved a winning percentage of .728 in the 1990s, a number better than elite programs such as Syracuse, Indiana and Michigan State during that decade. That winning percentage was also better than that of more well known mid-majors, Xavier and UNLV.
Today, Aggie sneakers squeak on Lou Henson Court inside the Pan American Center. Henson, who has more wins than all but 10 coaches in Division I basketball history, was an NMSU guard in the early 1950s before leading the Aggies to national prominence in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
That history has helped make the Pan American Center an energetic arena at times, and one that has a reputation of being a difficult place for visitors. If the Aggies are competitive, the local fans seem to feel a connection to that history. They show up, and they get loud. When the Aggies are bland, basketball sounds can echo there.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
Quality Mexican fare is more abundant in Southern New Mexico than yuccas. Unfortunately, you won't find any of that inside the Pan American Center for NMSU basketball games. The food is no different than what you'd expect to find at any arena. There aren't any items that scream Land of Enchantment. The menu features plenty of the standard hamburgers, hot dogs, nachos (with canned cheese!), popcorn, candy and sodas.
A recent renovation gave the Pan American Center more concession stands, so food options are convenient if uninspired. The recommendation: keep your wallet closed until after the game, if you can. The Pan American Center also does not sell alcohol.
The Pan American Center is named for its proximity to Interstate 25 (which used to be referred to as the Pan American Highway), but it is the house that Lou Henson built. The coach, who has more wins (779) than almost anybody that ever picked up a clip board, played for the Aggies in the 1950s, and he lifted the program into the national spotlight with NCAA Tournament berths in the 1960s and 1970s. He is responsible for the school's lone Final Four appearance in 1970.
Fans outside the state probably won't recognize the Pan American Center from any historic college basketball monument. It used to host NCAA Tournament games in the 1970s, and received a $23 million modernization in 2005. The Pan American Center is clean, modern and relatively comfortable. It's the type of place that can bring that special buzz to games, but it's not a well-known building, so there are not many reasons, outside a matchup featuring your favorite team, to venture there.
Fast food joints are closer to the Pan American Center than any true night spots. It's an on-campus arena, so walking is probably out of the question if you're hunting for food and drink after the game.
However, merriment is a short car ride away. Three local restaurants sit just across University Avenue from the Pan American Center, convenient for a pregame meal or postgame drink.
The Game Sports Bar and Grill offers a bit of everything. It's the place Aggie coaches dine with boosters during the week, and has a lively and spacious bar with bigscreen HDTVs on every wall. The Game also offers more intimate seating, indoors and out. No matter where you sit, there are 42 beers on tap and tasty green chile cheeseburgers on the menu, plus a unique pecan-encrusted, chicken breast, stuffed with green chile and cheese.
Dublin's Street Pub sits east of The Game. It's smaller, but offers a full-service bar and diverse menu.
If you're looking for takeout, check out Santa Fe Grill. The short order cook is available 24 hours and will roll you the flavorful and unique burritos of your choice. Come hungry and keep two hands on their burritos at all times.
The Aggies have won nearly 80 percent of their games at home since the Pan American Center opened in 1968, so fans have had plenty to excite them. They fill the arena for big games most years and know when to shake the rafters. Sometimes, unfortunately, the student section doesn't foster a family-friendly environment. NMSU's fans aren't always loud and involved enough to produce that magic which gives the home team a consistent and considerable advantage. But you can find plenty of fans to tell stories about the time Larry Bird played there or when the Aggies upset the then-No. 7 UNLV team that won a national title in 1990.
The Pan American Center causes very few headaches when it comes to access. It's near a major highway, and has plenty of city streets leading to it. On most nights the surrounding area is open enough that you can quickly locate a parking spot within walking distance to the doors. Once inside, navigating to the restrooms is simple. Thanks to the 2005 renovations, there are enough bathrooms to get you back to the game without missing much time.
New Mexico State is a solid mid-major basketball program, and one that is worth watching in most seasons. So the cost of parking (free for many nearby lots) and admission ($8 at the cheapest) is a deal on most nights. The next pricing level of tickets might be more desirable for some fans. The cheapest seats might be considered uncomfortable for some fans. The $19 tickets are more comfortable, but might make you reconsider if it's not a matchup that sparks your interest.
The Pan American Center houses a winning program and was recently upgraded to give it everything you would expect from a contemporary arena. But outside the aesthetics of the game, and the excitement that can be associated with it, there's not much about the experience to make it stand out. Experienced fans may find some of the music and sound clip prompts to be awkward and/or forced.
**Interior photo courtesy of the New Mexico State Media Relations
**Exterior photo attributed to Allen S of Wikimedia Commons
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2605 S Espina
Las Cruces, NM 88001
1745 E University Ave
Las Cruces, NM 88001
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