For several years, the majority of the America East Conference basketball tournament has been hosted by one of the participating schools. In both 2013 and 2014, the host was the University of Albany, and the site of the tournament was SEFCU Arena conveniently located on the UAlbany campus. The conference combines both the women’s and men’s tournaments in one weekend at the singular location. Although the sessions require separate admissions, it does add a layer of convenience for those fans who cross over between the two events.
The women’s quarterfinals are played on Friday, the men’s quarters on Saturday, and the semifinals for both are played Sunday. This year, the women’s champion was crowned at the tournament site on the Monday following tournament weekend. The only game not played during the tournament weekend is the men’s championship game, which is held one week later at the home site of the highest remaining seed.
The fact that Albany, or any school for that matter, can host the bulk of the tournament on its own home court does not come without some controversy. By way of tangible, instant examples, the number one men’s seed in both 2013 and 2014, the Stony Brook Seawolves and Vermont Catamounts, respectively, were each upended by the host Albany Great Danes, the fourth seed each year, in the semifinals. Few in attendance doubt that the home court advantage played some role in the result.
Accordingly, beginning in the 2014-2015 season, the men’s tournament will be eliminated, and replaced with a “playoff” format used in similar small conferences, with each game hosted on the home court of the higher seed. The objective for the conference is to protect its higher seeds as much as possible, attempting to assure that the conference, a traditional one-bid league, will send its best team into the NCAA tournament. The downside is that fans and players will no longer get to enjoy a tournament environment, watching as many games as possible, along with requisite fanfare, camaraderie and hostility. The relative importance of these priorities varies greatly depending upon who you ask.
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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".
In addition to the typical small-arena offerings at SEFCU (pretzels, hot dogs, popcorn, chicken tenders, LOTS of candy, all fairly priced), the host institution created a "Fan Fest" location in an adjacent gymnasium which provided additional food offerings and "beer garden" (a too-small corner of the gym segregated by a makeshift white fence).
The additional food choices at the fest were, simply put, both a bit odd and a bit underwhelming. While offering a pulled pork sandwich or Philly cheesesteak ($7/each) are, by themselves, not too peculiar (indeed, such variety would be welcome in a lot of other scenarios), the problem rests in that such choices, along with mac and cheese for the kids, represented the entirety of the options. One would have expected some more common fare (hamburgers, chicken, pizza) to provide a more balanced menu. Unfortunately, the quality was also a bit sub-standard. As a result, the lines for the food in the Fan Fest weren't long. Beer and wine in the beer garden were between $5-$7 each, but the line moved slowly at peak times (immediately before or after games).
The urgency of playing for a single bid provides an added energy to the America East Conference tournament. The extent to which each fan base travels really varies by the team, with Vermont providing the most support outside the host squad. Stony Brook and Hartford also had decent turnouts, while the remaining institutions (Maine, UMBC, New Hampshire and Binghamton) provided a "smattering," providing further evidence that perhaps moving games to higher seeded sites might be justified. The fans that did arrive were quite enthusiastic, and-when combined with the pep bands, cheerleaders, mascots and dance teams of most of the schools-the weekend certainly had the requisite tournament feel.
SEFCU arena itself appeared to be the right size and have the proper ambience for the occasion, but also had a couple of noteworthy deficiencies. The scoreboard was the primary culprit. Outdated and tired, it only offered two options for two teams: "Albany" and "Visitor." While it may sound nitpicky, it did take a while for some folks to adjust to seeing their team's score under "Albany" (reserved for the better seed, unless Albany was playing). The scoreboard also lacked any space to identify current player scoring or timeouts remaining, a staple most fans have become used to at most other venues.
The Fan Fest was an adequate place to spend time in between games, but was really only entertaining if you were a kid (lots of bouncy houses!). Aside from the beer garden, there were two large screen TVs showing basketball, one dedicated to tournament coverage. Given the vast space of the fest, it seemed odd that only two TVs were offered. There was ample room to add more, perhaps in lieu of one of the blow-up structures. The location was roomy and bright (a contrast from prior fan fests in other locations like Hartford), but ultimately became a place just to chat and maybe grab a drink. A band played at the outset of each day, but was far too loud and, frankly, unnecessary.
Albany is never going to get confused for a quaint college town, but for the purpose of hosting a conference basketball tournament you could certainly do much worse. There are ample hotels and eateries just a few minutes from the arena, so no complaints were heard about not being able to find a room or get a table. In addition to standard chain restaurants that lurk around campuses, the locals generally recommend favorites Across the Street Pub and Maggies, each offering pub fare while providing the opportunity to watch games. A more upscale nearby option is Barcelona, a Mediterranean restaurant, but reservations are recommended during tournament weekend.
For a small, one-bid conference, the America East has a bit of a die-hard following. However, as noted above, the fans only travel well for a few teams. For the most part, the fan base is made up of community members and alums, but students do come out for the tournament, providing the extra emotion typically lacking for a regular season conference game. There's also no question that the fans are into the game, as each bucket is cheered, and every officiating call jeered. Venue intimacy gets an assist in keeping the arena loud throughout.
The arena is an easy find on campus, accessible via near-parallel streets on each side. It's also just a short drive through campus when coming off the highway, making access a non-issue.
For the tournament, SEFCU Arena provided a couple of parking lots containing ample space, and the VIP lot ($10 for the day as opposed to $5 at a more distant lot) was located adjacent to the arena. The VIP lot did sell out for at least a couple of sessions, but-to my knowledge-nobody failed to find a relatively convenient parking spot.
Bathrooms inside the arena and just outside the Fan Fest were convenient and easy to find. The concessions within the arena were all located on one side of the facility, and it was clear that the modest set-up was not accustomed to the traffic generated by the tournament. Since much of the fare was "grab and serve yourself," it was sometimes unclear if lines were forming or-if you were brave-whether it was permissible to walk up and acquire what you wanted without waiting your turn. Nonetheless, those responsible for the concession area did an admirable job making sure the checkout lines moved quickly.
For the tournament, seats with chair backs cost $18/session (2 games), while the remaining reserved seats went for $15. A pass to the six-session event cost $75, so that was certainly economical if one intended to actually attend all the sessions. Doing the math, an individual could have seen up to 11 games for that price. While nobody will mistake the quality of play with its major conference brethren, the America East is certainly a competitive conference, and the quality of the product on the floor makes the ticket cost almost nominal.
As noted, the Fan Fest is a good idea in theory but was a bit lacking in execution (except, again, for kids). Halftime promotions and t-shirt tosses are nothing that a regular basketball spectator doesn't become numb to after a while, so such items fail to stand out as extra entertainment. Most of the slack was adequately absorbed by pep bands and dance teams, and since credit was already given to those squads in lifting the atmosphere score, double credit isn't awarded. The addition of a couple of projector screens in the corners of the arena, showing stats and replays (as well as live action during the game), was a very welcome touch.
The 2014 America East tournament was very much a carbon copy of the 2013 tournament and, unfortunately, none of the deficiencies from years past appeared to be corrected. While the University of Albany does a decent job overall hosting the tournament, the fan fest continues to be a point of missed potential and, in some respects (smaller beer garden, loud band, lower quality of food), took a step back from 2013. Of course, with the elimination of the tournament, Albany will no longer have a chance to get it perfect. The America East tournament shut its doors on a bit of a stale note, so perhaps it is best that the conference simply moves on to the new format.
The University at Albany basketball program is a recognizable Division-I program, but they belong to a university where student support is almost non-existent, despite two trips to the NCAA Tournament in the last six years, including nearly becoming the 1st 16 seed to ever beat a 1 seed, leading UCONN by 12 in the second half in 2006. Early in the 2012-2013 season, the Great Danes pulled off the biggest regular season win in school history by shocking Pac-12 conference member Washington playing AT Washington; and yet, few students even knew about it.
UAlbany has produced no NBA talent, though some of the school’s more recognizable players have gone on to play overseas after graduation (Jamar Wilson, Jason Siggers, and Tim Ambrose). Gerardo Suero made quite a splash in his one season at UAlbany, finishing in the top 10 in Division I in points per game, before leaving after his junior season to play professionally. The lack of fan support and enthusiasm around the team on campus, though, takes a lot away from what has the possibility of being an awesome experience.
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