Belber has sights set on NCAA men's tourney
I keep seeing the guy getting out of the barbershop chair at the town meeting in “Hoosiers”.
The Times Union Center was rightfully proud to announce on Dec. 11 that it will be hosting the NCAA women’s basketball tournament in 2015 and the NCAA men’s hockey East Regional in 2016.
This will be the first time the women’s tournament has come here, while the hockey tournament has come many times, including the Frozen Four in 1992 and 2001.
Every time I consider these fine achievements, though, I picture cranky Capital Region sports fans getting out of their barbershop chairs and insisting: “Now, the main point here is, we don’t get Jimmy Chitwood back playing ball, we don’t have a prayer.”
To paraphrase: If we don’t get the NCAA men’s basketball tournament back, we’re still just Smallbany.
The Times Union Center opened in 1990 and has a rich history of hosting college postseason events.
Among those were undefeated Cael Sanderson’s final match at the 2002 wrestling championships, the first and second rounds of men’s basketball in 1995 and the East Regional, won by Syracuse, in 2003.
All subsequent bids for the men’s tournament have failed, but the TU Center will give it another go this summer, armed with two developments that general manager Bob Belber believes can put Albany back on the court.
One is an adjoining convention center coupled with a refurbished hotel next door, and the other is a project at the arena itself that will add enough space to accommodate the media for the wildly popular tournament.
“I think we’ve got a tremendous shot,” Belber said.
Albany would have no shot if the convention center, a two-story building to be erected on a parking lot at the corner of Eagle and Howard streets, didn’t happen.
With $65 million in taxpayer money set aside for the project, the convention center languished for years through four governors before Andrew Cuomo gave the thumbs-up this month to a plan that finally was scaled down to a point where it seemed fiscally responsible and do-able.
The original plan for a much bigger building down on Broadway has been whittled down to 82,000 square feet on 1.3 acres.
It’s Convention Center Lite, but still should accomplish what Belber believes will buttress his bid, although he hasn’t seen the actual bid specifications yet.
What a new convention center adds is an indoor facility for hosting the auxillary fan festival that the NCAA wants at its tournaments, and the added hotel space will allow all the teams to stay at one spot near the arena. Heated walkways will connect everything.
The historic but decrepit DeWitt Clinton hotel on State and Eagle is scheduled to be refurbished into a Renassaince by Marriott to re-open in 2015 with 204 rooms.
“The fact that the convention center is smaller does not hurt us at all, because the amount of space is plenty,” Belber said. “We’ll be fine.
“In the past, some of the teams would stay downtown and some would stay on Wolf Road. Between the new Renassaince by Marriott and the Hilton and Hampton, that’ll be sufficient for the teams’ needs.”
As for the media, tournament sites typically approve as many as 400-450 credential requests these days, which the TU Center can’t come close to handling with its current configuration.
That’s why the arena will reconstruct the portion of the atrium on South Pearl Street.
The concourse level at that spot will be enclosed and used for a variety of purposes, including a media room big enough for the men’s basketball tournament.
“We really needed to find and make more space,” Belber said.
The NCAA will be accepting bids for the 2016 and 2017 men’s tournaments this summer.
The tournament is in such demand and competition among the sites is so ferocious that 53 cities applied for 2014 and 2015 dates, not counting the Final Four. If the tournament stays at its current format, with 68 teams, only 13 cities will walk away happy for each year, and the number is actually 12 if you account for the traditional selection of Dayton for the play-in games (I refuse to call it the First Four).
What Albany has going for it, assuming that the convention center and added media space are acceptable, is a pretty long history of running NCAA events to the exact specifications of the organization, which issues a binder of parameters for men’s basketball that would make a phone book whimper.
Belber, who also oversees booking dates for the SMG arenas in Providence, R.I., Worcester, Mass., and Manchester, N.H., will celebrate his 20th aniversary with the company in January. After both men’s basketball appearances here, SMG got positive comments from the NCAA for sticking to the letter of the playbook.
Albany also sold out its previous two shots at the men’s tournament in a heartbeat.
“The NCAA recognizes our company,” he said. “If you look at the number of championship events this year, many of them are SMG-managed. They know we pay attention to detail in the front of the house and the back of the house. All these things need to be precisely handled.”
Capital Region fans can also take heart in the fact that a few of the sites in the next two tournaments are comparable in some ways to the TU Center.
In 2015, the Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena (an SMG facility) and the CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb., will host games, and, like Albany, neither has a major pro team as a tenant, although the CenturyLink has 3,000 more seats for basketball.
In 2014, the tournament will return to the smaller Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. I’ve been to NCAA tournament games at the UD Arena in Dayton and in Spokane for Siena, and couldn’t help but wonder what they had over Albany and the TU Center.
Still, at the risk of sounding contrarian, I’ll believe that Albany gets the men’s tournament again when I see it, for one simple reason: The competition in this part of the country is so fierce.
Just among sites in New York, Buffalo will host early-round games for the fifth time this season, and Madison Square Garden has the East Regional.
Next season, the Carrier Dome gets the East Regional.
It’s going to take a great sales job by Belber to keep Jimmy Chitwood from transferring to Terhune.