- Eric Angevine
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INDIANAPOLIS -- When hoops fans land at Indianapolis International Airport, on their way to the Final Four, they'll rent a car or hail a cab to take them downtown. The automobile will jump straight onto Interstate 70, taking them past the suburbs of Mars Hill, Drexel Gardens and Fairview Station.
About halfway through the 10-mile drive, as the highway turns due east, they'll start to see the city's downtown area looming ahead. But the skyscrapers will just be a backdrop for something not quite as tall, but equally impressive.
Take a closer look
For a gallery of images of Lucas Oil Stadium, where the Colts usually make headlines but where NCAA hoops are center stage these days, click here.
Also, for a look at another Indy hoops instituation, Hinkle Fieldhouse on the campus of Bulter University, click here.
Even from a distance, Lucas Oil Stadium is an arresting sight.
The home of the Indianapolis Colts doesn't really resemble any stadium you've ever seen before. The brick masonry facade that greets visitors looks quite a bit more like an old gymnasium on steroids. For a football joint, it has a very basketball-friendly vibe. That's intentional.
"Look at it as a glorified high school gym," said Mike Fox, Lucas Oil's facilities director. "In a normal high school gym, at least in Indiana, where there are a lot of big high school gyms, the seats come out on Friday night, they play the varsity and JV games, and then the seats go back."
Believe it or not, that's exactly the plan for the Final Four. The building's designers had college basketball's main event in mind from the beginning.
"It's the first building that was designed from day one with the NCAA Final Four as a significant design driver," said Mark Williams of HKS Sports & Entertainment, the architecture firm that designed the hulking edifice.
"HKS worked with the NCAA to figure out the Final Four setup. If you look at pre-Lucas Oil venues, the court is running the short way across the football field, there are black curtains everywhere, and you're only using about 70 percent of the venue. We looked at that and thought we could do it better."
It's a meaningful distinction. In college hoops, fan energy is key to the experience. At Duke University's Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C., 9,000 face-painted Crazies sitting right on top of the action can be more intimidating than a capacity crowd at nearby Greensboro Coliseum (capacity 23,500) could ever be. There's a delicate balancing act going on between the quantity of spectators and the quality of the fan experience when basketball is played in bigger spaces.
Doing it better meant rethinking the normal football seating plan, without ruining the space for the building's primary tenants, the Indianapolis Colts. The entire lower level of seating in Lucas Oil is made up of retractable seats. Fox might compare them to the setup at the local high school gym, but there's little resemblance.
When stadium staff wants to pull back the first few rows in Indianapolis, they push a button, and the entire section glides back, folding efficiently and neatly into storage space below the top section and leaving several square feet of bare concrete behind.
"That's the type of seating we have," Fox said. "It's just much higher quality. They're padded seats; you don't know you're sitting in a temporary seat."
Once the lowest level of football seats are tucked away, new risers are brought in that extend beyond the sidelines of the football configuration, bringing seats right up to the edge of where the basketball court will be.
"We bring in a whole different set of other seats that are on a different pitch that will go all the way down to the basketball floor," Fox explained. "Basketball is a lot more gradual; it's a parabolic rise from the sidelines to the court. The court is elevated approximately 30 inches, which helps tremendously with the sight lines."
Fox and his staff worked closely with their counterparts at Detroit's Ford Field, who had the experience of hosting an NCAA regional in 2008 and the Final Four in 2009.
"Beginning with the center court configuration we used for the BasketBowl Game at Ford Field in 2003 [Kentucky vs. Michigan State, which had 78,129 onlookers], we worked closely with the NCAA to improve the model and present a Final Four weekend that would have a unique and lasting impact on the championship for years to come," said Detroit Lions president Tom Lewand. "Based on the record-breaking crowds, we believe we achieved that goal with the 2009 Final Four configuration. It allowed more fans and more students of the participating schools to experience one of sport's greatest weekends."
The NCAA is not known for throwing caution to the wind. Just as Detroit had a chance to practice with the BasketBowl and the '08 regional, Lucas Oil debuted its basketball configuration in March 2009, as hosts of the Midwest Regional that sent its champion on to Ford Field. Since then, all of the specially designed plates that protect the football field from the impact of the basketball court have been packed away in the bowels of the building, just waiting for their one, shining moment.
It takes a lot of know-how to turn a 63,000-seat football venue into a 70,000-seat hoops cathedral. But that's just the technical stuff -- the mechanical and procedural details. The true test is how Lucas Oil feels when the lights go on Saturday and Monday as Butler, West Virginia, Michigan State and Duke bring their teams and fans to the stadium.
Lucas Oil Stadium was designed as a football stadium, with Final Four basketball in mind.