Love March Madness? Take a College Basketball Trip On Route 66

If you like to watch NCAA Tournament games every March, you may have an opportunity to see a few games in person along Route 66. Even if you’re not traveling in March, there is no shortage of college basketball venues on the Double Six.

Chicago’s United Center is home to the NHL’s Blackhawks and NBA’s Bulls, but also a popular venue for NCAA events and a regular host for the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament in March. St. Louis, because of its central location, is another popular NCAA host city. Enterprise Center and The Dome have both hosted numerous NCAA Tournament games. St. Louis is behind only Dayton, Ohio, in hosting the most NCAA Tournament games.

The Pit
The Pit at the University of New Mexico prior to a women’s basketball game in 2019.
Photo by Ron Clements

Between Chicago and St. Louis is Normal, which is home to the first of several NCAA Division I universities. Illinois State University built a strong basketball reputation in the 1990s when they qualified for the NCAA tourney three times as the Missouri Valley Conference champions. ISU is regularly competitive in both men’s and women’s basketball. The men made the NCAA Tournament six times from 1983-98, and the women danced five times between 1983 and 2008. ISU athletics director Larry Lyons called Redbird Arena “and iconic building” and “one of the great environments in college basketball.”

Saint Louis University also has a strong basketball tradition, boasting Hall of Famer Ed Macauley among its alumni. The Saint Louis Billikens, who play at Chaifetz Arena two blocks north of Chouteau Avenue, qualified for the NCAA Tournament five times between 2000 and 2019. Chaifetz is a fun arena and the Billikens band is among the best in the nation.

Missouri State University is adjacent to downtown Springfield, which is the heart of Route 66 in the Show-Me State. The Missouri State Bears have had a solid basketball program since the late Charlie Spoonhour led them to the NCAA Tournament five times between 1983 and 1992. The Bears advanced to the Sweet 16 in 1999 under then-coach Steve Alford. Missouri State also has an excellent women’s program and both teams play at JQH Arena, an 11,000-seat venue that can get rowdy for Bears games.

The University of Tulsa has one of the best Division I basketball programs along Route 66. The Golden Hurricane have done plenty of dancing in March. Tulsa punched its ticket to the Big Dance 16 times prior to the 2019-20 season. Tulsa has advanced to the Sweet Sixteen four times, and reached the Elite Eight in 2000. The Golden Hurricane basketball teams play at Reynolds Center, which is adjacent to Chapman Stadium on Route 66.

NAU
The football team at Northern Arizona University shares the Walkup Skydome with NAU’s basketball teams.
Photo by Ron Clements

Albuquerque is home to one of the most revered college basketball venues in the country. The Pit at the University of New Mexico is rich with hoops history. It opened in 1966 and was a regional host for NCAA Tournament games nine times between 1968 and 2012. The Pit hosted NCAA women’s tournament games six times between 2003 and 2011. The Pit was also the site of the 1983 Final Four when the North Carolina State men’s team coached by Jim Valvano upset heavily favored Houston to win the national championship.

The Pit got its name because the floor is 37 feet below street level and has been called one of the loudest college basketball arenas in the country. The New Mexico Lobos have a proud basketball program with 15 NCAA Tournament berths, including three straight from 2012-14.

Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff doesn’t quite have the tradition of New Mexico, but the NAU Lumberjacks have qualified for the NCAA Tournament twice (1998 and 2000) and the women went to the Big Dance in 2006. Both teams play at the Walkup Skydome, where you can find two “Louie the Lumberjack” Muffler Man statues.

The best Division I basketball program along Route 66 is unquestionably UCLA. The Bruins play at a basketball palace in Pauley Pavilion, which is drenched in history and its rafters are covered in championship banners. UCLA men’s basketball teams won an NCAA-record 88 straight games between 1971 and 1974 under legendary coach John Wooden. “The Wizard of Westwood” led the Bruins to ten national championships over 12 seasons, and UCLA added another national title in 1995. Seeing a game at Pauley Pavilion should be a bucket-list item for any college hoops fan.

Ron Clements

Ron Clements

Ron Clements is a Wisconsin native and Green Bay Packers fan who married a Chicago Bears fan from Peoria, Illinois. Despite the rivalry, Ron and Patti make it work and have been living fulltime in an RV since March 2018. They travel the country in search of new adventures and love attending baseball games and exploring national parks. They visited all 30 MLB stadiums in 2018 and have taken their RV to each of the Lower 48 states. Ron is a veteran journalist of more than two decades and a summa cum laude graduate of East Carolina University, which he attended following his service in the United States Marine Corps. Ron has written for USA Today, Sporting News, CBS Sports, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Omaha World Herald, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Fresno Bee, the Montgomery Advertiser, and many other media outlets. The Sports Fan’s Guide to Route 66 is for anyone who has ever driven past a high school, college, or professional stadium, and thought, “I wonder what it’s like to see a game there.” A Sports Fan’s Guide to Route 66 will be in bookstores and online everywhere on August 3, 2021.

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