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Tampa, Times Forum organizers impress NCAA officials with basketball tourney

TAMPA — Jon LeCrone, a member of the Division I men's basketball committee, expects to file a very brief evaluation today about the NCAA Tournament games held in the Tampa Bay area.

"This is my fifth year on the committee," he said, "and this would be among the best sites I've been to."

That's his short-but-sweet take and others shared that sentiment, praising the job done by folks at the St. Pete Times Forum, the Tampa Bay Sports Commission and the University of South Florida.

"It's as good as anywhere we've been," Villanova coach Jay Wright said Sunday afternoon.

In the Wildcats' previous three NCAA appearances, they've hit Nashville, Syracuse, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Chicago.

"Everything was so well organized and the people were very friendly," he said.

Siena coach Fran McCaffery gushed about the treatment he and his Saints received at Tampa Prep, where they practiced twice, as well as at the Sheraton Suites.

"They rolled out the red carpet for us and for our fans and for our administrators and the band and the cheerleaders and everybody," he said. "That's what makes this tournament so special. You have an opportunity to go somewhere. It was snowing when we left Albany, and it was 80 degrees when we got here. The players were able to enjoy that, enjoy the hospitality. But at the same time I think we were able to focus. We were given everything we needed to be successful."

If there were any downside, it was that the announced crowds for the six games totaled 45,752 (not quite three-fourths full), including 14,504 for the second-round games Sunday.

A ticket for all six games, not including service charge, was $198, second only to Washington at $228 among the eight sites.

The lack of a team renowned for its fans traveling en masse, such as a Kentucky, didn't help. A marquee team or a No. 1 seed might also have been more appealing to the local fans. Recall that in 2003, the last time NCAA Tournament games were here, so too was No. 2-seeded Florida. The six games, with one of the pricier tickets, drew a little more than 58,500.

"But from the moment we saw the draw, we said we might have the best games of the first round and that's what it turned out to be," said Ron Campbell, the president of the Lightning and the Times Forum. "That 10-minute lead on SportsCenter Friday night and Saturday morning was nothing but Tampa Bay and that was good for our community."

"We're excited to be here because this bracket is considered the Cinderella bracket," said Skip Trotter, 40, a basketball fan from Chicago who's in the area for a spring vacation.

That's why he attended Sunday's games after missing Friday's doubleheader. Fans generated some decibels, especially in Friday's overtime thrillers and four dramatic upsets. It also got noisy for Sunday's finale between San Diego and Western Kentucky.

Generating the warm-fuzzies from fans, coaches and, of course, NCAA officials is important as the area woos other NCAA events.

"Certainly the community was treated to an unbelievable weekend, an unprecedented weekend, of March Madness and we look forward to another opportunity to be able to host at some point in the near future," Sports Commission executive director Rob Higgins said. "We're also looking forward to two weeks from now and the state's first Women's Final Four (at the Times Forum)."

The area has sent in a letter of intent to join 12 other communities in bidding for the women's event between 2012-16. (Tampa can't host in 2012; there's a scheduling conflict with the Frozen Four.) Bids are due in June.

"Doing well in two weeks is paramount," Higgins said. "We have a unique opportunity."

Brian Landman can be reached at landman@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3347.

Tampa, Times Forum organizers impress NCAA officials with basketball tourney 03/23/08 [Last modified: Sunday, March 23, 2008 9:33pm]
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