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SPORTS: Free throws, future Final Fours remain important

April 14, 2008

Thoughts about this, that and the other after a much-delayed return (yes, my bride and I were among the thousands caught in the American Airlines travel fiasco) from San Antonio for the Final Four.

I've related this story before-possibly in this space-so if I'm repeating myself, I apologize. I'm taking the chance that, if I don't remember, you don't either.

In my driveway, I have one of those adjustable-height basketball goals. Years ago, several of the local neighborhood kids would come over to play some hoop and, invariably, they would crank the goal down from its 10-foot height to about 7 feet so they could dunk. I would always admonish them to leave it at 10 feet and practice more free throws than dunks.

"Free throws will win or lose you a championship some day," I'd tell them. "Dunks won't."

Several years later, when they were playing on the local high school varsity team, they lost the sectional title ... and several missed free throws were the reason.

Those thoughts again came to mind in the wake of Kansas' come-from-behind NCAA championship victory over Memphis, a triumph in which Memphis' missed free throws opened the door for the Jayhawks' comeback. Throughout the season, Memphis coach John Calipari shrugged off his team's poor free throw shooting, and it didn't seem to matter as the Tigers stormed to the title game with a substantially improved percentage from the stripe.

But in the clutch, they clutched, proving that free throws aren't free. They can be costly.

The Final Four competition didn't end with the Kansas victory. In fact, it is just heating up. In San Antonio for the Final Four were representatives from Houston; St. Louis; Glendale, Ariz. (Phoenix); New Orleans; Minneapolis; Atlanta; "North Texas" (Dallas); the host city; and, of course, Indianapolis, all with their eye on the prize of being awarded one of the next Final Fours. In July, the NCAA men's basketball committee will dole out the Final Fours for 2012-2016. That means 10 cities are bidding for five slots.

Detroit (Ford Field) is the site next year, Indy (Lucas Oil Stadium) in 2010, and Houston (Reliant Stadium) in 2011.

What many haven't thought about is the fact that San Antonio's Alamodome hosted the last "half-dome" setup in which the court is laid across the end zone of a football configuration, limiting seating capacity to the low 40,000s. Beginning next year, the court will be placed in the middle of the venue and capacity will grow to the upper-60,000-lower-70,000-seat range.

Why is the NCAA insisting on expanded capacity? Simply, demand. People want to be in the building even if they are several hundred feet and a pair of good binoculars from the playing floor.

As the seating expands, the NCAA is preparing to "scale the house" for the first time, demanding premium prices for premium seating and charging lesser amounts based on proximity. At the same time, the NCAA will make inexpensive seats close to the floor available to students of the participating institutions, which is a great idea.

The good news for Indy is that The Luke has been designed with that expanded capacity in mind. What I've been telling people is that Indianapolis will have the best 70,000-seat basketball venue one can have, if there is such a thing.

In its letter of understanding with the NCAA, of course, Indianapolis is "guaranteed" a Final Four in that next cycle, as long as it continues to meet the bid requirements.

While there is much buzz about the 2012 Super Bowl effort, the Indy organizers are in no way taking the Final Fours for granted. Their focus is not just on clearing an everhigher standard, but on continuing to be the benchmark by which all other Final Fours are measured.

San Antonio was an incredible host and the atmosphere along its incomparable River Walk creates a magically festive environment. Most regular Final Four attendees will tell you that Indy and San Antonio are Nos. 1 and 1A among hosts of the event, but that doesn't just happen. It takes hard work, creativity and the efforts of hundreds.

Congratulations to college basketball's Pied Piper, Dick Vitale, for being selected in the 2008 class of the Basketball Hall of Fame announced in San Antonio. That said, a Hall that includes Vitale but is absent of Indiana University great and former Pacers coach and current broadcaster Slick Leonard just doesn't seem right.



Benner is associate director of communications for the Indianapolis Convention & Visitors Association and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. Listen to his column via podcast at www.ibj.com. To comment on this column, send e-mail to bbenner@ibj.com. Benner also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.
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