When it comes to selecting Final Four host cities, the Garden State is no longer included. At least not these days.
However, many New Jersey college basketball fans might recall the last time the NCAA national championship game was played at a basketball facility. It’s because they saw the last one, right here.
The 1996 Final Four, capped by Kentucky toppling Syracuse, 76-67, in the title game at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, was a magical moment for the Garden State.
That’s the last time a basketball-first facility and basketball-sized arena with roughly 20,000 spectators hosted the concluding act of March Madness.
After that, larger, dome-shaped facilities took over. The Caesars Superdome, site of the 2022 championship, for instance, has seating for more than 70,000 fans.
New Jersey’s hosting of the nation’s top collegiate players was a brief interlude during the emergence of the present-day dome era.
It’s a fond memory for those connected to it.
Thinking behind bigger Final Four plans
Ever since more than 60,000 spectators had seen a memorable 1982 finale, with Michael Jordan and North Carolina beating Georgetown in the Louisiana Superdome, the NCAA had become enamored with attendance.
Domes mean larger crowds, more money and more prestige. Seven of the next 13 Final Four tournaments were positioned in larger domes.
But in 1996, the nation’s top collegians came to New Jersey.
East Rutherford became the 25th different host city. And at the time, Continental Airlines Arena was the 30th different host venue for the Final Four.
While New York is the largest metropolitan area to host the Final Four, and had done so at the old Madison Square Garden, the town of East Rutherford itself is the smallest town to host a Final Four.
Its location wasn’t ideal, accessible primarily by car and nearby highways, not public transportation. The community feel of basketball fans roaming the area and populating nearby attractions wasn’t there, as it would be in New York City, for example.
The official NCAA Final Four logo had the Statue of Liberty, conveying the belief that it would be held in New York.
But because of the Garden’s longstanding relationship with the rival NIT, the NCAA Final Four was held a few miles away, in the Garden State.
And it would live up to its billing.
What happened on the court
The field included two well-known teams in Kentucky and Syracuse. Kentucky was making its first Final Four bid since 1993. Syracuse was snapping a drought going back to 1987.
Mississippi State and Massachusetts were making their first-ever appearances.
The New Jersey tournament concluded a compelling, season-long struggle for the top spot
Kentucky and UMass were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the country, respectively. And except for three weeks in December, either Kentucky or UMass was ranked No. 1 nationally. Plus, they held the top two spots from Christmas forward.
Fueling a separate Final Four narrative was Mississippi State’s late-season victory over Kentucky in the SEC Tournament. This is how the Bulldogs ensured a March Madness berth.
Both teams then went on to win four games, setting up an appealing rematch for the national title. And if both schools won their respective semifinal contest., they would meet again.
One of them did not.
Mississippi State was knocked out by in the semifinal by Syracuse.
After bearing UMass in the Final Four, Kentucky went on to beat Syracuse.
Hall of Famers behind the benches
The Final Four featured two future college Hall of Fame coaches.
Rick Pitino of Kentucky, already popular in the area, won his first college championship. He was previously a successful head coach for the New York Knicks in 1987-89.
Pitino’s semifinals victory came against John Calipari (Kentucky’s current head coach) was coaching UMass at the time. Later that season, Calipari would became the New Jersey Nets head coach.
He later gravitated to Kentucky, winning a national championship in 2012.
Sour side note for Calipari’s team
There was an unfortunate post-script to Calipari’s 1996 Final Four here.
In 1997, the NCAA Executive Committee voted to negate the Minutemen’s 1996 NCAA Tournament record as a result of Marcus Camby accepting improper gifts from agents.
The team’s 35–2 season record was reduced to 31–1, and the UMass slot in the Final Four is officially marked as “vacated.”
What if that had been a revoked championship?
NCAA moves Final Four to dome arenas
The RCA Dome in Indianapolis, then home to the NFL Indianapolis Colts, hosted the 1997 Final Four. And from there it was:
- 1998: Alamodome
- 1999: Tropicana Field
- 2000: RCA Dome
- 2001: Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome
- 2002: Georgia Dome
The domed venues have become standard. They continue to dominate and the next three Final Fours:
- 2023: NRG Stadium in Texas
- 2024: State Farm Stadium in Arizona
So why not East Coast locations?
Prices to add domes or retractable roofs are estimated at $100-150 million. It would be easier to construct on a new stadium, but how many of those do we see in this part of the country?
What happened to the Continental Airlines Arena?
It was victimized by nearby competition from the newly-built Prudential Center, only a few miles away in downtown Newark.
The Prudential Center eventually garnered all three major tenants who once called the Continental Arena home:. the Nets, the NHL’s New Jersey Devils and the Seton Hall Pirates.
The Continental Airlines Arena, which had opened in 1981 (then known as Brendan Byrne Arena) with six sold-out concerts from New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen, was shut down in 2015.
The venue morphed into a rehearsal venue for large-scale touring concert productions and a sound stage for video and television productions. It has hosted, among other programs, a crime drama series “The Equalizer,” starring New Jersey native Queen Latifah.
Ironically, the Newark-born, East Orange native may have been the arena’s last connection to basketball. As Dana Owens, she once played power forward for her Irvington High School basketball team.
Plans call for a new convention facility to be built on the site.
The Final Four has come a long way
Are you really at the game now?
Maybe, maybe not. Some tickets put people so far away they can be dubbed “rumor seats,” as in there’s a rumor of a game down below you.
But fans are definitely at an event and part of a movement that has propelled college basketball to enormous heights.
It’s been estimated that there are as many March Madness brackets filled out as presidential election ballots.
College basketball induces fever-pitched enthusiasm running from the conference tournaments in early March right through the championship games in early April. The NCAA has cornered a market, and its own month, March Madness.
This has been accelerated by the billions of dollars being legally gambled every year since 2018.
New Jersey fans and bettors enjoy the party as much as anyone else.
They also remember the privilege of hosting it.