I've been to West Lafayette. It's not great. If you haven't had the opportunity, you can get on Google maps and street view it, but there's this shadowy figure in the shape of a small child that follows you, and it gets closer the longer you stay in the city until it finally engulfs the screen and all you can see is the blood red of its eyes.
Mackey Arena, a secluded dwelling where the Purdue Boilermakers shoot hoops, is nice though. It's everything that Value City Arena at the Jerome Schottenstein Center is not; most notably, it's a venue constructed for the purpose of actual basketball instead of basketball plus every other event conceivable. WFNY summarized the disconnect between the two buildings thusly:
The new trend among the biggest universities is using new arena construction to eliminate the atmosphere altogether... The Ohio State Buckeyes did this 20 years ago, swapping out the iconic St. John Arena, featuring rattling bleachers inside an epic echo chamber, for the corporate Value City Arena at the Jerome Schottenstein Center, featuring Luke Bryan and Disney On Ice.
In the same article WFNY also did a pretty good job at breaking down what makes Mackey so special, but hell, don't take their word for it, check out what noted basketball venue connoisseur Chris Holtmann had to say about it:
Chris Holtmann on the atmosphere in Mackey Arena:
"Maybe the best I've ever been in." pic.twitter.com/cRdiOi28go
— Matthew VanTryon (@MVanTryon) February 8, 2018
Other choice quotes from the guy included "it creates this deafening noise because of the structure and the way it’s built and set up, and they draw and support a team that they should support" and "there’s not a lot of holes in that facility."
Holtmann coached in the legendary Hinkle Fieldhouse at Butler, which most of you know as the climactic setting of the film Hoosiers, and because of that is no stranger to kickass Midwestern barns that also double as temporary portals to hell whenever there's a basketball game on.
So it's obvious why Holtmann would have the kind of appreciation for Mackey that he may not have for the Schott. Which is okay, because it's also understandable. The (Value City Arena at the) Schottenstein Center is a cavernous treatise on excess. It was built to accommodate virtually any type of event, and therefore excels at exhibiting none of them. In this massive hunk of brick and mortar, I've attended basketball games, hockey games, comedy shows, concerts, one really disastrous showing of a national championship game against a team coached by some bum named Urban Meyer, and at no point at any of these events did I look around me and think to myself "yes, truly this is the pinnacle of what sporting arenas have to offer."
What's interesting about the Schott is that when it was completed in 1998, professional sports stadiums were already moving away from the overly modular faceless behemoths that dominated sports architecture starting in the late 60s and early 70s. It's telling that less than a year and a half after the Schottenstein Center opened, ground broke on the Cincinnati Reds' Great American Ballpark, a single-sport stadium meant to reflect a more modern sensibility about attending games, and a few years after that, I watched with glee as the dual-use stadium formerly known as Riverfront Stadium came crashing to the ground.
In that sense, the Schottenstein Center is kind of a zombie, carrying on a weird legacy as both a vanity project and a product of a time when making sure that a building could accommodate a Duran Duran reunion tour was just as critical as being able to watch a basketball game.
So what's the solution? What would an extremely hypothetical new Ohio State basketball arena have to have to have to meet our current sensibilities about what a sporting venue should look like?
I'm glad you asked! Because using the finest algorithms and predictive advanced AI thinking machines that money can buy, I've created the perfect space for Ohio State men's basketball to thrive and for fans to enjoy.
Note the lowered ceiling, for maximum volume. Note too the layout of the seating areas, placing fans as close to the action as possible. This is the kind of arena that Ohio State fans and players and especially coaches can be proud of, not in the least because it reflects the old-school cool of a Mackey with the bajillions of dollars that the university could throw at it to make the amenities as nice as possible.
But it's weird. Maybe this design has been long-dormant in my subconscious, but for some reason something about this seems kind of familiar.
Oh. Oh man.
I thought it was dead! There were plans! And besides, what about the lack of bathrooms and fancy beer dispensers and ultra modern light fixtures? Does that mean nothing anymore? Why the hell did Ohio State spend over 170 million dollars in today's money to build the Schott if not to discard the past and move on to...
"Playing at St. John’s has been certainly something that’s come up and I’ve considered, whether it’s an exhibition or an early non-conference game. I’ll continue to broach the subject and see if we can make some progress on it.”
Here's what I know: Chris Holtmann loves arenas like Mackey and Hinkle. He has also made some not subtle hints that the Schott doesn't really compare to those venues. St. John Arena is a great, classic basketball arena that is criminally underused by the men's basketball team, despite the fact that it would almost certainly sell out the place every single time they played a game there. While it's extremely unlikely that Ohio State would drop money into renovations for it, even modest upgrades would make it into something great.
Here's what I also know: The Schottenstein Center has a maximum capacity for basketball of approximately 19,000 seats, many thousands more than St. John has. The Schott also has the potential as a gigantic moneymaker as it plays host to dog shows and Christmas tree conventions and the like. It's got a good location, and even mediocre attendance for basketball and hockey is enough to justify its existence. It's also barely 20 years old, probably not even halfway into its envisioned lifetime. Additionally, it already has usable bathrooms, which is frankly a plus.
All of which means that Ohio State is between a rock and a hard place. The rock is an increasing desire from fans to attend games in a venue that matches their expectations about what a college basketball game should be like. They will not get that with the Schott. The hard place is the fact that if you give people what they want (occasional games in St. John Arena), that'll only increase their desire for more games played there and likely lead to a decrease in basketball revenue.
In the long term, I'd expect Ohio State basketball to continue as it has for the past few decades: trying to fit a college basketball program into a building that's doing its hardest to emulate an NBA arena. What happens in the short term might be more interesting, because St. John, despite every ounce of cultural inertia against it within the university, still stands. And if fans and the coach demand it loudly enough, it might once again become the best way to watch Ohio State men's basketball on a winter afternoon. For a few weekends at least.