Once McKale Center opened in 1973, the NCAA Tournament embraced Tucson and began a more modern era of staging its basketball madness.
It dropped Oregon State, Utah State, Colorado State and Idaho State from its rotation of Western sites and soon phased out Washington State, BYU, Oregon and New Mexico State.
Over the next four decades, McKale Center played host to 59 NCAA Tournament games. In the West, only Salt Lake City, with 83 games, was a more frequent site of the Big Dance.
It was a significant part of the UA’s emergence as a basketball-mad precinct, and strongly contributed to Arizona’s national brand and identity. From 1974-2011, McKale Center was No. 3 in the nation in NCAA games played, trailing just Utah’s Huntsman Center and Ohio’s Dayton Arena.
And then it all stopped.
Tucson enters its eighth year out of the NCAA Tournament rotation, a streak that will stretch through at least 2022. The NCAA has scheduled Sacramento, Spokane, San Jose, San Diego, Boise, Portland and Boise as its first-second round Western sites from 2020-22.
This year’s Western games will be played in San Jose and Salt Lake City.
This unanticipated development began when former Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne and Arizona coach Sean Miller decided that playing host to the NCAA Tournament could possibly diminish the UA’s chances to be bracketed at a more favorable, fan-friendly Western venue.
Since home games are no longer allowed — do you realize Arizona played an NCAA first-round game at McKale in 1987 against UTEP, and lost? — schools whose cities host first-weekend games have their stay-in-the-region chances halved.
Sometimes it doesn’t matter. At Boise last March, Arizona probably had 500 fans at the Taco Bell Arena. Buffalo probably had 25. As with most NCAA neutral sites, local fans cheered for the underdog. To Arizona, the advantage of staying in the West was muted, as it often is.
It might as well have been Tulsa.
Among the legitimate reasons for a pause in Arizona’s participation as an NCAA Tournament host was that McKale Center needed renovations to its concourses, restrooms, locker rooms and concessions facilities. The school recently completed those projects.
Today’s McKale Center is a superior game-day experience to those the Wildcats have visited in recent first weekend competition at Boise’s Taco Bell Arena, the Dunkin Center in Rhode Island and San Diego State’s Viejas Arena.
Half of next year’s first weekend of Western games will be played at the Spokane Arena, a fair to middlin’ multi-purpose facility – mostly a hockey arena — across the street from Gonzaga University.
But unlike Arizona, the Zags have continued to roll in March even though their neighborhood arena has played host to NCAA Tournaments in 2014, 2016 and will do so again in 2020.
The benefits of Arizona hosting an NCAA Tournament go beyond the campus.
When Seattle’s Key Arena hosted first-and second-round games in 2015, the Seattle Sports Commission reported that the greater Seattle area received $957,000 in tax revenue from visiting basketball fans/officials, and that the area enjoyed $7.8 million in economic benefits.
It further reported that 11,678 hotel nights were directly linked to the NCAA Tournament, that Key Arena realized a $173,000 profit in space rental and that Seattle merchants realized an extra $1.3 million just in food and beverage sales.
Some schools desperately want to be part of the NCAA madness but can’t get in.
New Mexico has been unsuccessful in returning to the NCAA Tournament hosting business. The historic “Pit” in Albuquerque, once a regular on the NCAA Tournament trail — host of North Carolina State’s historic 1983 Final Four victory — has been rebuffed in 2015, 2018 and for 2020.
Why? Because the NCAA now insists on installing its own playing surface at each site and the Pit no longer meets a requirement that it must have 17-feet of space between the baseline and the first row of seats.
The fans at the Pit sit too close to the court for the NCAA’s purposes.
That used to be one of the romances of college basketball. The Pit doesn’t qualify? Sad. Sameness rules. On-campus arenas are almost extinct in the NCAA Tournament. Only three of 14 NCAA venues this year — at Dayton, Louisville and Columbia, South Carolina — are the homes of college basketball teams.
One of McKale’s charms is that it’s not a cookie-cutter NBA arena like those used in recent Arizona NCAA games in San Jose, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Salt Lake and Portland.
Sometimes, sitting in those facilities, it’s easy to forget what city you’re in.
That’s not true at McKale Center. Its 12 different seasons as part of the Road to the Final Four created enduring, Tucson-only memories.
In 1974, John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins required three overtimes to beat Dayton 111-100 at McKale. Bill Walton — remember him? — scored 27 points and had 19 rebounds that night.
In 1989, a coaching matchup between Hall of Famers Bob Knight of Indiana and Don Haskins of UTEP was upstaged when Lute Olson walked into McKale Center a day after the No. 1-seeded Wildcats beat Clemson in a second-round game in Boise. The reaction by UA fans was deafening.
Two years later, 1991, No. 1 and undefeated UNLV faced Georgetown’s menacing front line of Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo in one of the most intense games ever played at McKale. The Rebels won, as thousands of UA fans cascaded boos upon Jerry Tarkanian’s team, then Arizona’s most hated rival.
Cinderella stories? In 1993, McKale Center became the site of unprecedented back-to-back upsets as 12th-seeded George Washington and 13th-seeded Southern won bracket-busting openers.
Some of the biggest names played and coached here: Wake Forest’s Tim Duncan, BYU’s Danny Ainge, San Diego State’s Kawhi Leonard. In 2000, Gonzaga’s Mark Few coached his first Zags team to consecutive upsets over Louisville and No. 2 seed St. John’s.
This year, the madness has been rerouted around Tucson entirely.
It’s almost like the lyrics from the movie “The Way We Were” — scattered pictures of the smiles we left behind.