<
>

Which Big Ten venue is the toughest place to win?

Indiana's Assembly Hall is currently undergoing renovations, set to be completed later this year. Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports

Over a two-week span, we're answering the following question for college basketball's 10 best conferences: Which venue in each conference is the toughest place to play? A number of factors, not just capacity and attendance, could affect a venue's place in the order. Where does your school fall?

Oh, sure, the 2015-16 season may have extended the Big Ten's national title drought to the better part of two decades, but it also extended a much less ignominious, and borderline mind-blowing streak: it was the 40th straight year the league led the nation in attendance.

If a difficult venue is a full venue, the Big Ten has more of both than most. Not that there aren't exceptions ...

14. Penn State Nittany Lions: Bryce Jordan Center, opened in 1995

Speaking of exceptions, here's one that proves the rule. The Bryce Jordan Center is a perfectly nice and relatively new arena that few people actually ever enter, at least for Penn State basketball games. In a gym that seats 15,000, the Nittany Lions averaged just 6,909 per game last season. "They have a dark gym," Indiana guard Yogi Ferrell said in March. "And it's a little quiet."

Fun fact: In 2011, the Nittany Lions were barred from practicing in their own gym for two straight weeks by famous rock artists/time lords Bon Jovi (Week 1) and a career fair (Week 2). Ouch.

13. Rutgers Scarlet Knights: Rutgers Athletic Center, opened in 1977
Basketball is an intimate sport, which is why a smallish arena can be its perfect setting. (See: Indoor Stadium, Cameron.) In the past, Rutgers' home gym, also known as the RAC, was exactly that. In this world, the Scarlet Knights have won three (!) Big Ten games in the past two seasons. They all came at the RAC.

Fun fact: One of those three wins came against back-to-back Final Four participant Wisconsin. (Frank Kaminsky was hurt, but still.)

12. Northwestern Wildcats: Welsh-Ryan Arena, opened in 1952

Welsh-Ryan is small, most of the seats are bleachers and, given Chicago's crush of Big Ten alumni, most league games are split more or less 50-50 between home and visiting fans. It's easy, and fun, to pretend you're at a really well-played high school game. None of which makes it a difficult place to play.

Fun fact: Northwestern hosted the first-ever NCAA tournament in 1939, in the old Patten Gymnasium. McGaw Memorial Hall -- which technically houses Welsh-Ryan Arena, plus some other stuff -- hosted the Final Four in 1956.

11. Nebraska Cornhuskers: Pinnacle Bank Arena, opened in 2013
Is this a tough place to play? It's too early to say. Pinnacle is basically brand new, and its first season (2013-14) was a rousing success. Nebraska went 19-13, lost just once at home and made the NCAA tournament for the first time in forever. The Cornhuskers have regressed in the two seasons since, though, which has made it hard to appraise, tough-venue-wise.

Fun fact: Pinnacle suite-goers can enjoy 10 sushi rolls, 12 pieces of nigiri and 12 pieces of sashimi for $204. And why not? Nebraska is famous for its sushi, right?

10. Ohio State Buckeyes: Value City Arena, opened in 1998
Argument in favor: Ohio State has had its best, most sustained period of basketball success since it moved to Value City Arena in 1998.

Argument against: Coach Thad Matta could probably win basketball games in a derelict Eastern European airplane hangar.

Argument in favor: In 2010-11, in a move rare among major college programs, and in the hopes of boosting atmosphere, OSU actually listened to its fans and relocated student seats behind team benches.

Argument against: Its official title is "Value City Arena at The Jerome Schottenstein Center."

Fun fact: OSU designed its current home with an eye toward preempting Columbus' own pro-arena ambitions ... which is how a program that averaged fewer than 13,000 fans per game last season (which is a lot!) wound up in a 19,000-seat gym.

9. Iowa Hawkeyes: Carver-Hawkeye Arena, opened in 1983

Carver-Hawkeye has high highs and low lows. When the Hawks are rolling and a big opponent is in town, it's one of the toughest buildings anywhere. Any other time -- or, say, in an early-Saturday-afternoon start, when an already-small student section has been decimated by whatever its members did at The Summit 12 hours earlier -- it can be downright dreary.

Fun fact: Carver's most unique feature is that it resides almost entirely underground, in a concrete bowl carved (sorry) out of the side of a hill, which earned its designers the prestigious American Institute of Architects Honors Award in 1984.

8. Minnesota Golden Gophers: Williams Arena, opened in 1928
The only reason Williams Arena isn't higher (er, lower) on this list is because it wasn't difficult to play Richard Pitino's team anywhere in 2015-16. Despite that 8-23 (2-16 Big Ten) disaster, though, "The Barn" hosted an average of 11,000 Gopher die-hards per game; their raucous dedication was rewarded with a cathartic Feb. 18 upset of Maryland. It helps that The Barn is one of the nation's most historic sports venues, one so well-designed that it remains as fashionable now as at any point in the past 90 years.

Fun fact: The Minnesota Field House was built in 1928, the same year as Butler's famed Hinkle Fieldhouse. From 1928 until 1950, Hinkle was the biggest college hoops arena in the country; after a 1950 renovation (and a name change), Williams Arena became the largest -- a title it held until 1971. Good run.

7. Illinois Fighting Illini: State Farm Center, opened in 1963
During the brief Bill Self era, and well into Bruce Weber's (initially) successful tenure, State Farm Center Assembly Hall (it was renamed in 2013) was one of the most imposing buildings in college basketball. Illinois' student section, the Orange Krush, can be as genuinely funny as any in the country, though the on-court inspiration has been lacking of late.

Fun fact: It looks like a repurposed vessel from a faraway alien planet.

6. Michigan Wolverines: Crisler Center, opened in 1967

In 2007, for example, a first-time visitor to Ann Arbor, en route to Crisler, could drive by Michigan Stadium in all its glory only to find the basketball arena a drastic comparative letdown. Those days are over. Not only are the John Beilein-era Wolverines better, and the attendance and enthusiasm much higher than in the years preceding him, but a recent renovation has made the building one of the Big Ten's more impressive fixtures. Putting students so close to the floor is a plus.

Fun fact: It's referred to as "The House that Cazzie Built," in honor of Cazzie Russell, a two-time All-American and the No. 1 pick in the 1966 NBA draft. Russell is the first (and only) Wolverine to have his number retired to the Crisler rafters. Other "honored jerseys" include legendary NBA coach Rudy Tomjanovich and former All-Star Glen Rice.

5. Maryland Terrapins: Xfinity Center, opened in 2002
First of all, the Xfinity Center does not seem 14 years old. By the time you hit the parking lot, the idea that the building opened the same year Gary Williams led Juan Dixon and Co. to a national title seems factually impossible. Yet it's true. Also true: Terps fans are every bit as crazy in this building as they were in the beloved old Cole Field House, a characteristic accentuated by the students' courtside omnipresence. Granted, they don't have to deal with DMV traffic, but still. They arrive early, they get loud, and they stay that way.

Fun fact: The WiFi is pretty bad. (To be fair, so is the Verizon Center's.)

4. Purdue Boilermakers: Mackey Arena, opened in 1967
Mackey Arena has seen some significant quality-of-life upgrades in recent years, but the guts of the building remain mostly unchanged. This is a good thing. Mackey is, as we've noted in the past, a concrete dungeon of noise, one of the most underrated, acoustically punishing and generally inhospitable facilities in college basketball. The students hanging over the elevated baseline stands, more or less eye-level with the shooter's angle at the basket, are a problem, sure. But mostly, it's just. So. Loud.

Fun fact: Purdue great Brian Cardinal is installing a replica Mackey Arena floor at a public court in Valparaiso, Indiana, an initially awkward-seeming spot. Valpo has its own hoops thing going, which is explained by its status as the hometown of fellow Purdue alum Robbie Hummel. Either way, as public courts go, this is awesome.

3. Wisconsin Badgers: Kohl Center, opened in 1998

Since the Kohl Center's inaugural season, the Wisconsin Badgers have won 259 of their 298 home games in the facility. Considering the Badgers lost five of those home games during last season's atypical 9-9 start -- when Bo Ryan retired, Greg Gard took over, UW closed the season with a 13-4 burst and a Sweet 16 finish -- it's safe to say the Kohl Center's uncongeniality for opponents is an ongoing concern.

Fun fact: The building itself is named after Herb Kohl, former U.S. senator and retail magnate, who donated $25 million toward its construction, the largest donation in the history of the Wisconsin university system. Some fans used to (or still?) call the building "Herb Garden," which is chill.

2. Michigan State Spartans: Breslin Student Events Center, opened in 1989
Look, it's Michigan State. It's the Breslin Center. Do you really need further proof? Fine: Coach Tom Izzo's home record, across 21 seasons as the Spartans' head coach, is 294-38. That may not be Bill Self-level, I've-won-more-league-titles-than-I've-lost-home-games-crazy, but it's close. And the fans, fed by success and led by a cacophonous lower-level student section, ensure a difficult stay for any visiting team.

Fun fact: The Breslin Center floor is the same one upon which the Spartans, led by Mateen Cleaves et al., won the 2000 national title.

1. Indiana Hoosiers: Assembly Hall, opened in 1971
Were this a list of the best basketball venues in Indiana, Hinkle Fieldhouse would win. (Though there would be a few mid-century, 7,000-seat high school arenas in the running.) Toughest, though? That's Assembly Hall. It's bonkers-loud, even when the team is just so-so. The sideline stands rise impossibly, and imposingly, into the rafters. And you can forgive the student section's incongruous split between the baseline, corners and upper deck for two reasons:

  • The deep-pocketed who occupy the prime sideline seats are as locked-in and rowdy as most 20-year-olds.

  • The 17,472-seat gym typically packs in 7,800 students a night. No setting in college basketball has more. Few are this daunting.

Fun fact: Everyone remembers the Christian Watford shot, and rightfully so. Fewer remember the Marco Killingsworth game, for a variety of reasons. But it was cool too.