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A Tour of College Basketball's Most Historic Arenas

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An old-school Sweet 16 of arena architecture

As the frenzied filling out of brackets replaces the anticipation of Selection Sunday, it’s clear March Madness has officially arrived. Offering one of sport’s most exciting annual events, the NCAA college basketball tournaments draws from a deep well of die-hard fandom, campus-wide excitement, fierce rivalries, and rich history that spans decades. As prognosticators and partisans make cases for which teams will win it all, Curbed took a look at some of the game’s most iconic venues, the "cathedrals of college basketball," where much of the excitement originated. These classic gymnasiums and arenas may not be where the net get cuts down in a few weeks, but they’re well worth a visit.

Allen Fieldhouse (University of Kansas: Opened in 1955)

Completed in the early ‘50s during a materials shortage during the Korean War, the Jayhawks’s home court was initially billed as a combination armory and sports facility to help get around a scarcity of steel. While the derivation of the stadium’s name is certainly historic—Dr. Forrest C. "Phog" Allen, a Kansas legend known as the Father of Basketball Coaching—the team can literally trace its origins to the inventor of the game, James Naismith, who served as the men's coach from 1898 to 1907.

The actual hardwood in the 16,300-seat arena, called the James Naismith Court in his honor, confers an incredible home advantage. In addition to being one of the loudest in the nation, the arena has also helped Kansas compile a 140-3 home record since 2007, statistically one of the best in all of sports.

Gallagher-IBA Arena (Oklahoma State University: Opened in 1938)

Nicknamed the "Madison Square Gardens of the Plains," the home court of the OSU Cowboys was named in tribute to wrestling coach Ed Gallagher and Henry Iba, a perhaps lesser-known coaching legend who, in his 35-year career, won a pair of national championships and racked up the second most victories in men’s basketball history behind Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp. The arena itself, which racked up a then-extravagant price tag of $1.5 million when it was first constructed, was originally known as the 4-H Club and Student Activities Center, and still boasts the original white maple floor, the oldest still in use today.

Memorial Gym (Vanderbilt University: Opened in 1952)

Designed in 1952 by Edwin Keeble, a notable Tennessee architect who designed the Life and Casualty Tower, Nashville’s first skyscraper, the Memorial Gym, named in honor of alumni killed in WWII, stands as one of the most unique arenas in the country.

Designed to mimic some of the features of Europe’s great concert halls, the court is raised like an actual stage, with some of the front-row seating sunk below the playing surface. The unique vantage point explains why each team’s bench is placed the baseline of the court, to prevent movement on the sideline from blocking any fan’s view of the game. Corralling coaches behind the baskets provide the Commodores with an uncommon home court advantage, as the unique placement disrupts team communication during games. The odd supports for each basket (beams attached to support columns) and the lack of air conditioning helps make Memorial Gym one of the country’s most eccentric stages for collegiate basketball.

Cameron Indoor Stadium (Duke University: Opened in 1940)

A college basketball icon, especially after the famed championship runs of Coach K and the Blue Devils, this arena, initially called Duke Indoor stadium, was supposedly sketched on the back of a matchbook by Eddie Cameron and Wallace Wade, two of the school’s most famous coaches. Designed by the office of Philadelphia architect Horace Trumbauer—in fact, like much of the Duke campus, it was actually the work of Julian Abele, one of the country’s first African-American architects—the Gothic-style building with steel frames has become a collegiate classic, beloved by decades of basketball fans and the "Cameron Crazies" in the student section.

The Palestra (University of Pennsylvania: Opened in 1927)

Designed by Charles Klauder, an American architect famed for his educational projects and campus master plans, the Palestra is considered one of the game’s most important arenas, commonly called the "cathedral of college basketball." At the Quakers’s home arena, one of the nation’s first steel-and-concrete stadiums, fans nearly spill out onto the court, since the bleachers literally reach the floor.

A professor named the building after an ancient Greek term referring to rectangular enclosures where athletes would compete in front of an audience, surely seeing how Klauder’s design, one of the first to dispense with interior pillars that would block the view of the action, was a fitting site for athletic competition. Since its inception, the gymnasium has seen a number of historic games, including matchups between the city’s Big 5 teams, and to purists, and offers fans the chance to experience the game without too many modern distractions.

Hinkle Fieldhouse (Butler University: Opened in 1928)

It’s impossible to talk classic college basketball courts without discussing the real-life home of Hoosiers. Initially called Butler Fieldhouse, this National Historic Landmark, designed by Indianapolis architect Fermor Spencer Cannon, was the largest basketball arena of its day, seating up to 15,000 fans, and served as a site for high school basketball championships (including the 1954 Milan versus Muncie Central game that inspired the movie), as well as a barracks for the Army and Navy during WWII. Renovated multiple times over the years, the court was named after famous Butler coach Paul "Tony" Hinkle, whose team won the inaugural game at the fieldhouse against Notre Dame.

Pauley Pavilion (UCLA: Opened in 1965)

Designed by Welton Becket, an architect known for iconic projects in Los Angeles such as the Capitol Records Building, the Edward W. Pauley Pavilion has not only been host to Coach John Wooden’s famous championship runs, but for decades, doubled as a top entertainment venue for concerts, speeches, and awards show. Becket’s utilitarian, modern design was a massive step up for the Bruins, who had previously been playing in the cramped Men’s Gym on campus.

According to Coach Wooden, the new stadium was instrumental in recruiting top players, such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. While a massive, $185 million renovation in 2012 brought the aging icon up to speed, the seating bowl and character of the stadium was left intact.

Marriott Center (BYU: Opened in 1971)

Names after the founder of the Marriott corporation, whose large donation helped finance its construction, this massive court was the largest college basketball arena in the country when it opened. Built for the Mormon university (the center scoreboard was originally slightly off-center to accommodate the needs of devotionals that took place at the arena), the building has a unique roof that rests on one single steel truss.

Rupp Arena (University of Kentucky: Opened in 1976)

Designed by architects at Ellerbe Becket in 1976, the Rupp Arena, named after Kentucky’s famed coach Adolph Rupp, is the largest arena designed specifically for basketball, with an official capacity of 23,500 (not surprisingly, that limit was breached during a record-breaking 2010 game against in-state rivals Louisville). The building’s raucous reputation comes in part from the proliferation of bleacher seats, provided a more crowded and lively atmosphere, and the "eRUPPtion Zone" on the lower level behind one basket.

The Pit (University of New Mexico: Opened in 1966)

Officially known as Wiespies Arena when it first opened, it’s clear why this arena is called the Pit as soon as one walks inside and sees the sunken court, set 37 feet below street level. To construct a stadium without any obstructed views, architect Joe Boehning built the roof, a stress skin system of light gauge metal, first, then excavated dirt (55,000 cubic yards to be exact) to sculpt a seating bowl. Boehning’s unique construction process eliminated the need for expensive supports and resulted in massive cost savings, as well as one of the louder venues in college basketball. The stadium has since been expanded multiple times.

Assembly Hall (University of Indiana: Opened in 1971)

The home of the Hoosiers, Indiana’s home court was named after the first basketball venue on campus, and debuted the same year as fiery former Coach Bobby Knight. Designed by New York architecture firm Eggers & Higgins to improve sightlines for fans, the arena has a unique, steep design which concentrates seating on the sides of the court as opposed to behind the basket (it’s so steep, in fact, that a video scoreboard added to center court actually blocks the view of fans in the upper rows). The in-process renovations will upgrade the facility yet maintain the eclectic shape that has given the arena the nickname "The Carnegie Hall of Basketball."

Madison Square Garden (St. John’s: Opened in 1968)

While St. John’s only plays a portion of its games at Madison Square Garden, it does have the unique privilege of calling one of the world’s most famous arena’s home. The current Garden, the fourth venue to bear the name, also plays host to the Knicks and other basketball tournaments, in addition to a packed schedule of concerts and other events.

Carrier Dome (Syracuse: Opened in 1980)

The only venue on this list that hosts both college football and basketball contests, the "Loud House" was built on the site of Syracuse’s former football field, Archbold Stadium, with a domed, inflatable roof to insulate fans from the area’s frigid weather. Designed by Finch-Heery, the largest on-campus basketball arena in the country has been criticized by some for poor views, but it has also been host to the largest crowd for NCAA basketball, a February 2014 game against Duke attended by 35,466 fans.

McKale Center (University of Arizona: Opened in 1973)

Named after J.F. "Pop" McKale, an Arizona coaching legend who at one time coached nearly a half-dozen teams, including basketball, the Wildcats’s home arena is one of the most popular in the PAC-12 conference.

Rose Hill Gymnasium (Fordham University: Opened in 1925)

This relatively tiny Bronx gym is a basketball icon, currently the oldest on-campus court still in use and the scene of numerous famous contests, including the last high school game of Lew Alcindor (Kareem Adbul-Jabbar). Nicknamed "The Prairie," since the brick-clad gym was considered a sizable venue when it was first built, the 3,200-seat venue offers about a pure a fan experience as you can find, with the hardwood illuminated by sunlight that streams in from the skylights above.

Payne Whitney Gym (Yale University: Opened in 1932)

Designed by John Russell Pope, the architect behind the Jefferson Memorial, Yale’s imposing athletic complex, a 12-acre indoor facility that includes a third-floor swimming pool and a polo practice field, is the second-largest gym by volume in the world. Nicknamed the "cathedral of sweat," the building contains the home of Yale basketball, the John J. Lee Amphitheater.