by Stuart Nachbar, Daytripper University Contributor *
With March Madness upon us, and college acceptances arriving in the next few weeks, it’s timely to ponder which schools are the best basketball schools for a true college basketball fan.
For the past ten years, the University of Kentucky and Syracuse University have topped all men’s basketball programs in attendance, according to the NCAA. But their women’s teams do not draw nearly as well. While the Kentucky Wildcats men’s team averaged over 23,000 fans sellouts—last season, the women drew just over 5,000. The Syracuse Orange men’s team averaged 21,500 fans per home game; the women averaged fewer than 2,400.
It would be easy to say that Kentucky and Syracuse are “basketball schools,” based on how well they attract fans for their men’s game. But aside from coaches salaries, it costs just as much to run the women’s basketball program as it does to run the men’s. Fans sit in the same venue, eat the same food, hear the same band, and watch the cheer squads and mascots for either game. The campus community that wants the men to win should also want the women to win, too, and show up for the games.
Occasionally there are seasons when the men’s and women’s teams are successful. In 2004 the University of Connecticut (UConn) Huskies pulled off an amazing “double-double” as their men’s, and women’s teams finished the season as national champions. That year both teams averaged over 13,400 fans per game.
It would be easy to say that UConn is a basketball school. The women have won 11 titles and usually rank near the top in home attendance. But when the men won titles in 2011 and 2014, they did not crack the top 25. This past season the women were in the Final Four, and they averaged just over 10,000 fans per home game, second in NCAA Division I play. The men had a less successful season and averaged 7,800. Just as the men should not dramatically outdraw the women, the women should not dramatically outdraw the men.
The schools that drew in the top ten in attendance in both men’s and women’s college basketball this past season include three that have also had success on the court.
University of Tennessee
Tennessee’s women’s program has been one of the best for a long time, and the men have played well this season too. The Lady Vols have won eight NCAA titles since 1987. They have ranked in the top five in attendance every year, in some seasons they nearly sold out an arena with over 16,000 seats for virtually every game. Last season they ranked fourth in the nation in attendance, even though they did not make it into post-season play. This season the Lady Vols are only sixth in their conference with a record of 17-8.
The men have never won a national championship--but they still are in the nation’s top 25 in attendance since 1978. This season they have been a success on the court. The Volunteers rank fifth in the USA Today poll with a record of 23-2.
I’ll call Tennessee a basketball school. Their fans fully support the men and the women teams, even in down seasons.
University of Louisville
The Louisville women have made the NCAA tournament each year for the last 14 years. They were the runner-up to UConn in 2009 and 2013. This past season the Cardinals made the Final Four and ranked fifth in the nation in attendance averaging 7,800 fans per game. As of today, they are still playing very well. They rank fourth in the country with a record of 23-2.
While the men were embroiled in a recruiting scandal last season that lead to the dismissal of head coach, Rick Pitino, the Cardinals still averaged nearly 17,000 fans per game. Louisville cracked the nation’s top ten in attendance in 1979 and hasn’t fallen out since. They have won three NCAA titles (The 2013 season title was vacated due to rule violations) and made seven Final Four appearances during that time. Louisville ranks 22nd in the nation as I write this today with a record of 18-8.
I’ll call Louisville a basketball school. It, too, supports the men and women teams, though it will take time for the men’s program to recover from the recruiting scandal.
Michigan State University
Led by Ervin “Magic” Johnson, Michigan State won its first national championship in 1979. The Spartans won another title in 2000, and they have made five more appearances in the Final Four. The Spartans have also ranked in the nation’s top 25 in attendance since 1991. Since the Big Ten instituted a tournament to determine the conference champion in 1998, the Spartans have won it five times, more than any other team. The Spartans currently rank first in the Big Ten, 11th in the nation with a record of 21-5 as of this writing.
The women’s team was a runner-up to Baylor in 2005, also winning the Big Ten title in 2011 and 2014. This past season, the Spartans ranked 10th in attendance despite not playing in the NCAA Tournament. As of today, the women are 17-8 but unbeaten (13-0) on their home court.
Michigan State is a basketball school not only because of the success of the men but also because the women rank higher in attendance against other women’s programs.
How come some ‘famous names’ didn’t make the cut?
Kentucky, Syracuse and UConn fans, not to mention those at Duke and North Carolina, will argue that their school is a better basketball school. But I must also consider whether a basketball fan who wanted to see four competitive seasons of NCAA D-1 men’s and women’s basketball could gain admission to the school.
Duke is exceptionally selective, and so is North Carolina, especially if you come from another state. Syracuse and UConn accepted less than half of the applicants to their two most recent freshman classes. Kentucky is not terribly selective. But there are better places to follow the women’s game, including conference rivals Tennessee and South Carolina.
All three of these basketball schools have achievable admissions for in-state and out-of-state students who love the game as well as success in the arena and on the court. There’s also plenty to do around campus at any of these schools after the game is over. That’s what makes them the best basketball schools.
An independent college/transfer/graduate admissions advisor based in Central New Jersey, Stuart Nachbar writes on colleges, careers and majors at EducatedQuest.com. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.