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?
In an effort to keep up with the competition and add some juice to the relatively new conference, schools in the American Athletic Conference have been busy sprucing up their various venues. Yet the toughest place to play in the league earned its reputation not merely by revamping the arena, but by renovating the program. There's a lesson in there somewhere.
11. South Florida Bulls: Sun Dome, opened in 1980
The dreary building was given a much-needed facelift in 2012 and, paired with the Bulls' first NCAA bid in 20 years, it was supposed to signal a turnaround for USF's fortunes. Things didn't go exactly as planned. Instead two years later Stan Heath was fired, and third-year coach Orlando Antigua now has a nice building in sunny Tampa to welcome visiting teams to. But he's still trying to rebuild his team. USF is 12-23 in its past two seasons at home, and the Dome averaged just 29 percent of its capacity last season.
Fun fact: Alice Cooper played the first concert in the arena in 1980. He opened with "Welcome to My Nightmare."
10. East Carolina Pirates: Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum, opened in 1967
There's potential here, which is why East Carolina pulls in at No. 10 instead of 11. What Williams Arena has going for is it's not too big. It seats just 8,000, which puts a low demand on a fan base that hasn't tasted a whole lot of success. And when the Pirate faithful crowd in, it can be difficult for anyone to play there (see the win over Temple last season.)
Fun fact: One of the arena's highlight moments came in 2002, when the Pirates beat both Louisville and then-No. 9 Marquette at home, in their first season as members of what was then Conference USA.
9. UCF Knights: CFE Arena, opened in 2007
You get to be near Disney World. Everyone's happy at Disney World. How tough can visiting UCF be? Mix in the fact that the Knights, and their student section Knightmare, haven't been terribly intimidating: They ranked 112th in attendance last season. And you've got a big, fairly innocuous looking building that could be just about anywhere in the country. Not much to fear.
Fun fact: In 2008, Lupe Fiasco played a concert inside the arena. Outside, a presidential debate between Barack Obama and John McCain played on a big screen. When concert goers stuck around to watch the debate outside, the building hosted a massive presidential watch party.
8. Tulane Green Wave: Avron B. Fogelman Arena in Devlin Fieldhouse, opened in 1933
Truth be told, the fieldhouse is a pretty sweet gem of a gym on the New Orleans campus and better yet, the old place was given a complete facelift in 2012. And at just 4,000 seats it's got all the ingredients to be a tough bandbox. But until the Green Wave's play can match the facility, the fieldhouse will be stuck near the bottom of the rankings.
Fun fact: In 1975, President Gerald Ford announced the end of the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War in the fieldhouse. "The war is finished, as far as America is concerned," Ford said to cheering students.
7. Tulsa Golden Hurricane: Donald W. Reynolds Center, opened in 1998
When your new athletic director makes reviving attendance one of his premiere goals, you have a bit of an issue. But Tulsa AD Derrick Gragg's initiative has merits. In the Golden Hurricanes' first six seasons at the Reynolds Center, they averaged more than 7,000 fans per game. In the past three seasons, they've dipped to 4,745. In 2013-14, the year Tulsa won 11 games in a row to earn its first NCAA ticket since 2003, the Golden Hurricane brought just 4,528 people to the building.
Fun fact: Before the Reynolds Center opened, the Golden Hurricanes played in 13 different sites in their program's history, including a 20-year run of practicing on campus but competing downtown.
6. Houston Cougars: Hofheinz Pavilion, opened in 1969
There's an asterisk here because, in 2018, the Cougars will open an entirely redesigned facility, and the Hofheinz family (the late Judge Roy Hofheinz is a UH alum) is currently suing the university over the naming rights. The school announced an unnamed donor, who pledged $20 million to the redesign, will get the new naming rights. The family says that violates their contract. The asterisk also exists because when the redesign is done, Houston could conceivably move up the rankings. Just as the team is improving under Kelvin Sampson, a new and improved building could make for a tougher place for opponents to play.
Fun fact: A mover and a shaker in Houston, Hofheinz helped bring Major League Baseball to Houston (in the form of the Colt .45s before they became the Astros) and develop the Houston Astrodome.
5. Temple Owls: Liacouras Center, opened in 1997
Philly loves its basketball, and Philly knows its basketball, so the fans who come to watch the Owls play are as passionate as any you'll find. But Temple has two things working against it: a large commuter student population and too many other options in town. The students who do show up are boisterous, and when folks commit to Temple games -- usually when a big opponent comes to play -- it can be as good an atmosphere as you'll find. The struggle is to make that the case because Temple is playing, not because of who Temple is playing.
Fun fact: For years the city and the university fought over who would control a $5 million donation Temple had made for a housing project, which was included in the costs of constructing the new arena. As only he could, then Temple coach John Chaney used his postgame media conferences to publicly lambast city officials over the stalled project, going so far as to accuse City Council president John Street of blackmail. No surprise, the two sides soon reached a compromise and construction began.
4. Memphis Tigers: FedExForum, opened in 2004
This is a tough call because of what FedEx Forum once was and, of course, what it could be once again with new coach Tubby Smith at the helm. As the Tigers struggle on the court, their in-house intimidation factor takes a hit, too. Attendance at Memphis games has been steadily declining, bottoming out at a little more than 12,000 this past season. But if Smith can turn around Texas Tech, surely he can turn around the Tigers.
Fun fact: When undefeated and No. 1 Memphis hosted No. 2 Tennessee in 2008, the game was considered such a blockbuster, tickets were rumored to be selling for $10,000 and Entertainment Tonight sent a TV crew to keep tabs on the celebrities in attendance.
3. Cincinnati Bearcats: Fifth Third Arena, opened in 1989
Playing the Bearcats, who love nothing better than to ugly up a game, is no fun anywhere. Playing the Bearcats at home, where their crowd is just as relentless as they are, can be downright overwhelming. In the past three seasons, Cincinnati has lost all of seven games at home, but fan attendance is not as dedicated as it once was, and the arena has long needed serious work. When some fans even cited the building as a reason they chose to stay home, the school went to work with a fundraising plan and this year announced it signed a deal with a construction firm ... just in time for possible Big 12 expansion.
Fun fact: Despite its bank name, most locals still call the building "The Shoe," referring to its original name: Myrl H. Shoemaker Center.
2. Connecticut Huskies: Harry A. Gampel Pavilion, opened in 1990
Just getting to Gampel is difficult. Storrs sits only 28 minutes away from Hartford, but it's tucked in the middle of nowhere, an outpost down the road from the interstate. And that's on a good day, not on a lovely New England winter day in, say, January or February. And Gampel is not a building you would expect a national program to call home. It's an intimate 10,000-seat arena, of which former coach Jim Calhoun once said, "When you walk out there on the floor, you can see the faces, the fans can see the perspiration on the players, and you can really feel the pulse of the crowd." The Huskies, by the way, are 168-30 there. The Huskies also play a portion of their home schedule at Hartford's XL Center.
Fun fact: The university originally approved plans to build a new arena in 1979, the same year that UConn joined the Big East. Design changes, an original plan included a flat roof with an artificial turf field on top, and cost overruns delayed the start of construction until 1987.
1. SMU Mustangs: Moody Coliseum, opened in 1956
Before Larry Brown arrived in town, SMU averaged 2,013 fans per game. Last season the Mustangs lost one game at Moody. The Hall of Famer can be accused of lots of things, but the man knows how to turn around a program. In its 7,000-seat charming old barn, SMU is now a force in college basketball, with a rowdy home crowd to match its efforts. The big question: Can Tim Jankovich, named head coach after Brown resigned abruptly last month, keep it going?
Fun fact: Dallas' first ABA franchise, the Chaparrals, played some games at Moody. Owners couldn't agree on a team name so they went with the place where they were meeting, the Chaparral Club. But after just sevens seasons and declining ticket sales, the franchise relocated to another Texas town. The Chaparrals became the San Antonio Spurs.