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Mike Lopresti | | November 28, 2017

How some teams are adjusting to playing in other arenas amid renovations

So what happens when college basketball arenas are closed for renovation, and home games can’t truly be at home? It’s a good season to ask. Adopted homes are all the rage in 2017-18.

Consider what game day is like at Villanova.

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The Wildcats pile onto a bus in the morning, ride for 30 minutes or so down a couple of freeways to south Philadelphia and the Wells Fargo Center, and hop out for a shoot-around. Good thing the Sixers or Flyers aren’t scheduled. Then they head to a hotel for a meal and rest, since no one wants to make that long trip back out to campus through Philly traffic and have to turn right around again. That’d be spending all day on the Main Line.

“It’s definitely been different for us,” Jay Wright was saying over the phone. “We are out of our routine, but we knew going though this year that’s going to be a challenge.”

Consider what game day is like at Northwestern.

The Wildcats are like thousands of other Chicago-land folks, heading for the airport early in the day to beat the traffic on the Kennedy. O’Hare is 13 miles from campus, and just off one of the runways is Allstate Arena, where Northwestern will have a shoot-around, before finding a nearby hotel to bunk out and eat. When the Wildcats return to campus in the darkness after the game, jets will still be flying overhead, descending into O’Hare.

“This is our home,” coach Chris Collins said. “We’re going to make it our home.”

At least it is when the minor league hockey team doesn’t have a game, or the Professional Bull Riders don’t get in the way. WWE Monday Night Raw is coming, too.

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Consider what game day is like at Cincinnati.

Home court this season is 10 miles away -- on a different campus in a different state -- and rush hour traffic on the bridges across the Ohio River can turn into a parking lot. So just how do the Bearcats get to BB&T Arena at Northern Kentucky?

“Police escort, that’s the key,” coach Mick Cronin was saying. “Double police escort. You’ve got to have one to get you to the bridge (and the state line), but they can’t keep coming because it’s out of their jurisdiction. You’ve got Hamilton County to the bridge, then once you cross, the Boone County guys are waiting on you.”

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And when the Bearcats arrive at the arena, they might have to wait to take the court for early shooting, which is why there are couches in their locker room. By agreement, the Northern Kentucky team can practice up to 90 minutes before tipoff, which is also when the gates open.

Take Tuesday night’s game against Alabama State. The Cincinnati operations folks were there early in the day to set things up, so Northern Kentucky’s team practiced in its own arena, with black Cincinnati chairs surrounding the court.

Rather a unique situation, yes? “We’ve never discussed it,” Cronin said. “We focus on basketball, and what happens between the lines decides victory.

“The only thing I said to my guys, you’ll get more comfortable as the year goes on. Our fans are in the stands, that’s all that matters. I told them in the NBA nobody practices where they play. Almost never. They all have facilities somewhere else. They were surprised when I told them that.”

Consider what game day is like at Houston.

With historic Hofheinz Pavilion being remade into the modern Fertitta Center, the Cougars go two miles down the road to Texas Southern. They’ve taken their own courtside seats and tables, and since H&PE Arena has no video board, the video crew tries to get imaginative on social media to send its messages out.

But as coach Kelvin Sampson said, “To get what we are going to get with the Fertitta Center, we can endure a few headaches this season.”

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That’s life this season for the vagabonds, while their usual domiciles get a rebooting. Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena, Cincinnati’s Fifth Third Arena, Villanova’s Pavilion, Houston’s Hofheinz Pavilion – all with a lot of history, but all being redone to various degrees, some picking up new names. It’ll be the Finneran Pavilion now at Villanova, Fertitta Center at Houston.

Clearly, these are not minor renovations – not when you see the price tags – so the teams have to do the best they can elsewhere.

Villanova, for instance. The Wildcats have long played the occasional game at Wells Fargo Center, but nothing like this. Actually, they’re putting their bags down in several places this season.

“We played a home game (against Lafayette) in Allentown, Pennsylvania,” Wright said. “It’s like, 40 miles from us, but we had a great crowd, great atmosphere and we played great. That was an opportunity we normally wouldn’t have, and it really worked out well for us.”

Villanova will also return to its old-time Jake Nevin Field House Wednesday to meet Penn. There hasn’t been a regular season game in that place since 1986. There are only 2,200 seats, so most of the tickets went in a student lottery.

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“It’s still going to be a court we never play on, but at least we’re going to be on our campus,” Wright said. “I grew up a fan of Villanova. I’ve never even been in there as a fan. I’ve never coached a day in there except for an exhibition game. So it’s going to really wild, but really sentimental because I’ll think about the fact Al Severance, Jack Craft and Rollie Massimino used to coach home games there.”

Northwestern plays where DePaul once did, and the Wildcats have put up a signs and bunting to make Allstate Arena a little more Northwestern-ish. Shuttle buses bring students from campus, with pizza included.

Funny thing. The school didn’t demand that season ticket holders renew this season, given the location shift. But that NCAA Tournament trip last March made the Wildcats a hot item, and a record was set for season ticket requests.

Welsh-Ryan had turned into one pretty feverish home court; Northwestern was 28-8 at home the past two seasons. That has to be missed – it might have come in handy in a recent close loss to Creighton -- but the Wildcats are determined to make the best of it.

Bryant McIntosh, after the Creighton game: “We shot it really well. We had a good crowd. We had good energy. I don’t think it’s going to be an issue with us.”

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Vic Law: “We came to Northwestern, so we’ve never cared about the Jumbotrons or all the bells and whistles that some of the other teams have. We’re a blue collar team, we practice in a rec center. Wherever we’re playing, as long as the students come out, it’s home to us.”

Houston and Cincinnati are working around other Division I teams. The Cougars caught a big scheduling break. Texas Southern doesn’t have a home game until January, so the first seven men’s games this season in H&PE Arena will actually be played by Houston.

At Cincinnati, Fifth Third Arena has been a cauldron for visitors. It closed for renovation with a 26-game home winning streak intact. Now the streak has temporarily moved across the river. Cincinnati students get free bus transportation to games, and also 100 free parking spots for those who drive. But when they walk inside and look at the scoreboard, there’s a big Northern Kentucky Norse presiding over the court.

“We try to make the place as Bearcat as possible for our fans and our team,” said Andre Seoldo, in charge of game operations for Cincinnati. Which is why the Bearcats’ actual playing floor is in a BB&T Arena storage room, ready to be installed for the big television games to come. The Northern Kentucky folks vow they can make the change from one school’s court to another in three hours.

Traffic has been a hiccup. “This area is not used to crowds of 9,000 people,” Seoldo said. “There’s only three ways in and out of campus here, so you can only do so much.” Coming and going can be a full court press on a driver’s patience, which is why the savvy fans were leaving early Monday night as the Cincinnati lead swelled against Alabama State. That’ll be much harder to do when Wichita State comes to town.

But the transplanted faithful don’t seem to mind. Six games are already advance sellouts. And the place is starting to feel like a second home to the players. “After a certain while, it should,” Cronin said.

Visitors will be facing a boisterous Cincinnati crowd -- even if it is in another state. So it goes, in this season of teams looking for a home.

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