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Memorial Magic: why is it so hard to win at Vandy?

photo courtesy Vanderbilt University Athletics

The last time Alabama won at Vanderbilt's Memorial Gymnasium was February 1990. Since then the Tide has returned in 1991, 1993, 1995, 1997, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009--and lost every single time. In fact, most of Bama's current players were not yet even born the last time the Tide won a road game at Vandy.

It's not just Alabama, though. Vanderbilt's unusual stadium is known as one of the toughest places to play in all of college basketball. Commodore fans refer to their success there as "Memorial Magic". Of course, every major team in college basketball has a huge home court advantage, as the home court/field factor plays a bigger role in college basketball than any other American sport. But Vanderbilt's home court advantage is a level above. In the 21 years that have passed since Bama last won at Memorial--a span that includes some pretty weak Vanderbilt teams in the 1990's--the Commodores have lost a grand total of only 9 games against teams outside the SEC, who are even more unfamiliar with the arena than conference teams who visit regularly. In the last four seasons, the 'Dores are a combined 58-6 against all competition in what can only be called "Memorial Fortress".

But what makes this particular arena so much more difficult than other venues? Most point to its unusual design and layout, which have been known to throw opposing teams off their game. We'll take a look at four of the arena's most unique features, as the Crimson Tide prepares for what we all hope will be an historic assault on Vandy's "fortress" tomorrow night on ESPN.

The benches

Vanderbilt places the team benches behind the goal on each end of the court. Of all 345 Division I schools, this is the only one with benches anywhere besides the sidelines. Aside from just being an inconvenience for players coming on and off the court, though, the bench locations can have huge impacts on the role of coaches during the game. When play moves to the end opposite a team's bench, the coaching staff is completely unable to shout or signal instructions to the players. This makes it extremely difficult for opposing coaches, who aren't used to the setup, to manage the game both offensively and defensively.

The elevated floor

The floor at Memorial is actually elevated above the level of the scorer's table, press row and much of the crowd, much like a stage above an orchestra pit.  In fact, the lower level along the sidelines is much like an auditorium in front of a stage; it is almost flat, with only a slight grade from row-to-row. This means that most of the fans in the lower level--including the students, who sit along one sideline--are at or even below court level. Having the benches behind the goals and the scorers and media below floor level allows for about 30 feet of completely empty floor space along each sideline. The extremely wide floor with the drop-off just beyond and the fans at or below court level are said to create for a strange visual environment for players on the court who aren't used to it.

The goals

Unlike virtually every other major college arena, the goals are not the NBA-style roll-away variety. Rather, the goals are each actually affixed to two long black metal cross-posts which extend outwards and backwards towards two large metal posts behind the baseline on either side of the goal. On top of that, the backboards are actually stabilized by wires which attach all the way to the ceiling. You can see what the goals look like from a side view in the photo above, but from the front the two cross-posts to which they are affixed appear to jut straight out from the sides. Opposing teams consistently have poor shooting nights on these unusual goals.

The seating "compartments"

Yet another unique feature of this strange building is that rather than one open arena, all of the seating is actually in four separate compartments, which are completely walled off from one another. Unless you are seated right near the floor on the lower level, you can't see into the compartments on either side of you. Furthermore, if you are seated in the upper level, not only can you not see any of the fans in either of the side compartments, but due to a low-hanging sloped ceiling, you also can't see the compartment across from you either. From a fan's perspective (I sat in the upper deck once for a Bama game there) this means that from some spots you can literally only see the court, walls on each side of you cutting off your view of most fans on either side of you, and a low ceiling cutting off your view in front of you of anything beyond the court itself. For the players on the court, though, the compartments can have the effect of concentrating the crowd noise onto the court, as the walls seem to focus the sound waves in one direction. Furthermore, the upper levels (which opposite of the sideline lower levels are extremely steep and seem to hang over the court) help to trap in crowd noise and create an intimidating atmosphere for opposing teams.

Winning at Memorial is not impossible. One of Vandy's 12 home opponents has done it already this year, though that team (Arkansas) needed an inhuman shooting night from its best player to do so. Still, aside from the top-25 ranked Commodore team that Bama will be facing on the floor tomorrow night on ESPN, the Tide will also have to contend with Vanderbilt's "Memorial Magic" to break a losing streak in Nashville that literally goes back to the Cold War.