Battle of the fans: BYU vs. Duke

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The Marriott Center on the campus of Brigham Young University is the college basketball leader in attendance among schools in the western United States.

Visiting players, coaches and members of the media often comment on how incredible the atmosphere inside the Marriott is. That home court advantage was on display for BYU’s home game on Feb. 20 against conference rival Gonzaga.

Anson Winder gives high-fives to fans after a game against the Saint Mary's Gaels. Photo by Elliott Miller
Anson Winder gives high-fives to fans after a game against the Saint Mary’s Gaels. Photo by Elliott Miller

BYU junior Chad Burton, the leader of the ROC, said the atmosphere in that game was one of the best he’s ever seen.

“It was unreal,” Burton said. “From the minute the students got inside the building, to the sheet drop, and throughout the game, the noise and energy inside the Marriott Center was as good as anything I have experienced here in three years. It has got to rival any school in college basketball.”

So how does BYU’s basketball atmosphere inside the Marriott Center compare to other college powerhouses?

On Feb. 22, in the mecca of college basketball — Cameron Indoor Stadium — No. 1 Syracuse squared off against the No. 5 Duke Blue Devils.

ESPN commentators were calling it the best game of the decade. Previously unbeaten Syracuse was making its first-ever trip to Cameron, in its inaugural season in the ACC.

In comparing the two games, three notable differences distinguished the ACC bout from BYU’s showdown with Gonzaga.

First, BYU fans might take for granted the sheer size of the Marriott Center. The Marriott Center’s capacity of nearly 21,000 is good enough for sixth in college basketball. That alone is intimidating to opposing teams. Contrarily, Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium holds just more than 9,000.

Former BYU Cougar and current Duke grad student Trevor McKinnon said this size was the first thing he noticed of Cameron Indoor Stadium.

“I was just shocked at how little it was,” McKinnon said. “Having gone to so many games in the Marriott Center, Cameron is just so much smaller. I would compare it more to the Smith Fieldhouse at BYU, in terms of size.”

The gargantuan size of the Marriott center alone makes it comparable to any school’s atmosphere in the nation. Meanwhile, the size of Duke’s arena does not stop the team from having the best home court advantage in the sport.

USA Today referred to a game at Duke as being “the toughest away game in America.” Duke students, known as the “Cameron Crazies,” make up for their smaller size with their consistent passion.

Students at Duke are required to camp out for games from November to March, with rigorous rules and frequent tent checks. To even gain entrance to a basketball game, students have to camp out every night leading up to the game. Arriving at game time and expecting to get in is laughable, no matter who the opponent is.

BYU’s larger student section size means students can show up late to some games and still get in. However, at BYU, the passion is still evident. On the morning of the Gonzaga-BYU game, there were more than 60 tents lined up outside the Marriott Center.

“The excitement we felt for the Gonzaga game was pretty noteworthy. It was fun to see casual BYU fans talking about the game and making plans to be there,” Burton said. “If only we could be that loyal and excited about every game.”

The second difference is the behavior of Duke fans compared to the behavior of BYU fans. There is not a fan inside Cameron who refuses to cheer, jump or yell. Participating in the cheers is expected, and to stand still or sit down would be unacceptable and out of the ordinary. From the time students get into the arena until the end of the game, they are standing up — two or three to one spot. And they love it.

“At BYU, I remember there were sometimes fans and students who acted too cool to cheer or jump,” McKinnon said. “They weren’t the majority, but they still hindered the student section from being the best it could be. The fact is, a student section is part of the game, and a united student section can really impact the outcome.”

BYU students have received some solid praise this year for their efforts in impacting basketball games. In November, BYU welcomed No. 21 Iowa State to the Marriott Center.

Following the game, Iowa State big man Georges Niang said the ROC was as impressive and effective as any crowd he’d ever played in front of.

“I’ve been at all the schools in the Big 12, and you guys were the loudest,” Niang said after finishing with 19 points in the game. “The best student section we probably see is at Kansas, and yours was as good or better.”

Pretty high praise for the new ROC. The student section has improved despite being moved to the baseline from its traditional sideline location.

David Almodova, BYU director of athletics marketing, knows a thing or two about the atmospheres at Duke and at BYU. Almodova served as director of basketball marketing at Duke for five years before being hired at BYU.

“The thing that makes Duke so special is those students’ passion,” Almodova said. “They each feel like they are part of the team, and they are. They show up for every single game. The coolest thing is when the team gets down at home and the fans come alive. They feel that it is their responsibility to pick up their team.”

Almodova had high praise for BYU’s students as well, saying they are every bit as good, when they choose to be.

“At BYU, when we fill up that student section and our fans come out, we are as good as any basketball atmosphere in the country,” he said. “Our students just have to show up.”

The third difference to be taken away from Duke basketball was the mentality of basketball over everything. On game day, everyone’s number-one priority is that Duke wins the basketball game.

If there are fire codes, they aren’t enforced. If there is a weight limit on the bleachers, no one cares. The ultimate goal of the fans, ushers, police and staff inside Cameron Indoor Stadium is that Duke wins the basketball game.

BYU has achieved this before and will again. Many fans remember the magical 2011 season, when BYU was ranked in the top 10 and every game was exciting; or anytime since when a ranked opponent has come to the Marriott Center. At those times, Provo becomes a basketball city, and everyone at BYU is a basketball fan. In those moments, the BYU atmosphere and the student section become one of the best in the country.

That claim is backed up by BYU sports director of social media Stu Call, who previously worked at Ohio State University, a basketball powerhouse.

“Ohio State is packed with tradition and passion for the Buckeyes, but the Schott (OSU’s arena) doesn’t hold a candle to the Marriott Center on a big game day,” Call said. “The students (at BYU) are louder, more organized and provide a greater home court advantage every time the Cougars step on the floor.”

BYU can compete with any school in terms of basketball atmosphere and home court advantage. The challenge becomes being consistent and showing up for every game. That is the responsibility of the fans and is always enhanced by having a winning team.

BYU has finished its home schedule for the 2013–2014 season and will head to Vegas for the conference tournament in March, after a final road game at San Diego. In 2014–2015, the students at BYU and in the ROC will surely look to improve upon an already building home atmosphere and continue to be one of college basketball’s best environments.

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