The trip to Ole Miss was a bit disappointing, but it did finally complete my entire circuit of SEC Road Venues.
(Oxford, Ms.) – As a die-hard Kentucky Basketball fan, there’s not a better feeling in all the world than heading into the heart of enemy territory and snatching out a hard-earned victory. After all, when the Wildcats are on the road, it’s everybody’s Super Bowl—and there’s nothing more euphoric than spoiling an opponent’s weekend celebration.
When I started this media gig, one of my goals was to visit all the opposing SEC venues in both football and basketball. I’m still missing two football stadiums, but I’m happy to report that after my recent trip to Oxford, Mississippi, I have now officially completed the entire basketball circuit.
To celebrate, I thought I’d rank each of these venues according to the atmosphere around and within the arena on gameday. Now, this is my experience only. Yours may vastly differ. But it’s also important to note that I visited each of these places when Kentucky came to town, so you can bet your bottom dollar that the arenas were at their very loudest and rowdiest.
Coincidentally, it didn’t matter whether the Wildcats were nationally ranked or not, there always seemed to be a white-out, stripe-out, t-shirt giveaway, celebrity sighting, jersey retirement, or mascot rappelling out of the rafters adding to the chaos and frenzy of the afternoon or evening.
Let’s dive in, then, in reverse order—from least to most intimidating.
One of the most familiar trips for Cat fans to make is the quick jaunt to Nashville. The road to Music City now also ranks as the least intimidating. Don’t get me wrong, historic Memorial Gymnasium (capacity 14,316) can still get loud, but the magic of yesteryear is greatly overrated. The place is dated and worn, and the weird seating configuration—where the best seats (and the benches) are in the endzone—makes you feel like you’re watching an opera rather than a basketball game. Students still filed in early loaded for bear, but by the time the contest tipped off, half the seats were filled with blue. You’ll often hear more “Go Big Blue” chants in Nashville than you would in Rupp Arena.
Other than the “M-I-Z—Z-O-U” chants, nothing really stands out about Mizzou Arena (15,061). It’s surprisingly spacious, but the layout looks and feels like you’re playing in a converted airplane hangar. Everything screams “lukewarm” in the “Show-Me” state, including the fans. Trust me, there’s not much going on outside the stadium in the town of Columbia, either—making my sojourn here a likely one-and-done.
Okay, it’s not really fair basing your ranking on a visit during an ice storm. Unfortunately, that’s what happened to me. The Pavilion at Ole Miss seats 9,500, but on my cold and frigid visit, it was only about a quarter full. The sleek, modern, state-or-the-art facility was still loud, however, so you’ll have to use your imagination on how crazy it might be on a normal Saturday night. Keep in mind that the town of Oxford is a gem of a place to visit. If Kentucky stinks it up, there’s still plenty of charm to make you smile.
Reports of Starkville, Mississippi, being totally isolated and boring are greatly exaggerated. In my humble opinion, StarkVegas is only partially isolated and boring. That makes a game at Humphrey Coliseum (10,575) a fairly significant night on the town. Accordingly, the “Hump” can get pretty raucous, and victories against the Bulldogs are hard to come by if you fall behind early. I happened to visit during the Covid year, so I’m basing this ranking partially on what I’ve previously gleaned on television over the years.
Stegeman Coliseum (10,523) could be formidable when Georgia was competitive. The problem for Bulldog fans is that their basketball team seldom was. It’s a football school, and the enthusiasm for basketball dies down as soon as the home team goes down double digits—which happened quickly and frequently during the Tom Crean era. Do yourself a favor and spend your time at the bars and restaurants around campus instead. As bad as their basketball is, Athens, Georgia, might just be the best college town in America.
If you love Cajun food, then a trip to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has to be on your bucket list. Go during Mardi Gras, and you’ll certainly get more than your money’s worth. Show up at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center (13,215) for a game versus the Tigers, however, and you’ll most likely be disappointed. It’s fairly easy to steal a victory here as most fans in attendance are too drunk to care. They’re mostly still thinking about past pigskin parties. Walk a few feet next door to Tiger Stadium and see where the real sport is played.
It’s a haul to get from Lexington to College Station, so your trip to Texas A&M’s Reed Arena (12,989) better include some tourist sites along the way. The George H.W. Bush Presidential Library is right on campus and is well worth a visit. As far as the game environment is concerned, it’s predictably rowdy—especially with those Aggie Yell Leaders leading the charge. They’re a bit too weird for my liking, but they’ll boost the crowd to a fever pitch in no time at all.
Tuscaloosa is another venue where football rules the roost. But Coleman Coliseum (14,474) always seems stoked when the Wildcats come to town. It’s partially the size and the layout that makes it challenging to win. But Alabama always has the athletes to run with Kentucky. Their style of play gets the crowd into the game early. Fall behind here, and the mob mentality rules. Blowouts are as common as barbecue brisket and “Roll Tide” cheers.
The Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center (10,500) underwent a renovation back in 2016, so it’s not quite as harrowing as it was before. The Rowdy Reptiles are still there cheering their team on in force, but they’re no longer spilling out on to the court as before. The place is also open enough for the noise levels to dissipate. As Florida’s competitiveness has ratcheted down recently, so has the O’dome reputation for carnage.
Of all the visiting venues, this one was the darkest. And I don’t mean the lighting. Colonial Life Arena (18,000) reeked of evil the minute I stepped inside. Fans were loud, proud, and downright MEAN. Throw in Sandstorm and a heavy dose of Gamecock Jesus, and you’re in need of an exorcism when all is said and done. If Calipari’s getting ejected, you know it’s happening right here in Columbia. Be sure to take a shower before you leave town.
Thompson-Boling Arena (21,678) is certainly big enough. In fact, the only reason it seats what it does is because they wanted it to be bigger than Rupp Arena. Unfortunately, the only time the Vols can consistently fill it up is when the Women’s basketball team plays here…and, of course, when Kentucky comes to town. I’ll admit, when the Wildcats come a calling, it can easily turn into a madhouse. Some blue always manages to get in, but that Rocky Top orange will dominate more times than not. Escape with a win, and you’ve earned your checkerboard.
A visit to Bud Walton Arena (19,368) is certainly a bucket list item. When the Wildcats are in town, it’s predictably loud, boisterous, and intimidating. Moreover, Arkansas fans have the championship pedigree to hang with Kentucky. They also boast of the best cheer in the SEC. “Calling the Hogs” always brings me goosebumps. And for that reason alone, Fayetteville, Arkansas, becomes a very difficult place to win.
Cozy and compact, Neville Arena (9,121) is as intimidating as it gets for Kentucky fans courageous enough to make the trip. It’s almost as if the place was built for one purpose only—for Auburn to beat the Wildcats. Charles Barkley cried when Kentucky beat him in the 1984 SEC tournament, and his statue out front screams “overcompensation.” The acoustics are A+ here, the decibel levels somehow ratcheted up to insane, ear-splitting levels. With Bruce Pearl sweating on the sidelines and the student body ringing the floor, the Loveliest Village on the Plains is the smallest—but also the toughest—place in the conference to get that road “W.”
But maybe not for long. Conference expansion is fast approaching. I wonder where Austin, Texas, and Norman, Oklahoma, will rank when they enter the conference? I can’t wait to make the trip and find out.
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, and award-winning author. This blog posting was originally submitted as a UK Basketball Column for Nolan Group Media publications. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.
2 thoughts on “Ranking the Road Venues”
I’ve only been to Knoxville, during the Pat Summitt era, and the “Meeks” handled the Lady Bruins quite easily. The fans were knowledgeable and fair to the visitors. I never felt threatened. Same for the football crowd, with a similar result.
When passionate rivalries are involved, emotions can take over. The vitriol received in Knoxville is directly proportional to how good both teams are at the time.