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Warming up for heated battles
City is being 'so friendly' as March Madness host

The hotel rooms are tidied up and the streets are swept. The visitors' guides are printed. The "Welcome Hoops Fans" signs are up. And extra beer, roast beef and chicken wings are on hand.

After years of planning and weeks of intense preparation, Buffalo's segment of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament begins today with four sold-out games in HSBC Arena.

"It's wonderful; the buzz is incredible," John Bona III, owner of Amherst Pizza & Ale House, said Thursday as games began in other tournament towns. "People were waiting outside to get in this morning."

Team members, employees, alumni and fans from the eight schools Buffalo is hosting in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament began arriving Wednesday and Thursday.

Western New York put on its best face for the visitors, who say they're already impressed with what they've seen.

"I don't think I've been any place where everyone has been so friendly," said Brenda Bolfing, who drove from St. Louis with her husband, Charles, to support their Missouri Tigers. "We have felt so welcome."

Thursday, fans got an opportunity to watch the teams run through final practices at the arena.

The free sessions drew thousands of schoolchildren, office workers and retirees, with local favorite Syracuse University attracting an orange-clad crowd.

"It's cool that last week I was watching these guys on TV and now they're right in front of me," said Melissa Graham, a Geneseo State College basketball player who went to the early practice sessions.

Buffalo is hosting six games in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007 and the fourth time since 2000.

The Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau estimates the tournament will pump $5 million in revenue into the region.

"This time of year, these weekends would be wide-open for us," said Minesh Patel, general manager of the nearly sold-out Adam's Mark Hotel, where banners welcome Missouri and Florida State fans.

A walk up West Chippewa Street on Thursday found just about every establishment had signs welcoming college basketball fans or special offers meant to win their business.

Bona is hoping to lure Syracuse fans to his Amherst Pizza & Ale House with a giant photo of head coach Jim Boeheim's head. "I'm just trying to have fun with it," he said.

The large cutout -- dubbed "Big Boeheim" by its creator, Canisius College graduate Pat Manley -- has earned a lot of media attention since he brought it to an SU game in January.

Manley is in town for the tournament and worked out an arrangement with Bona, who promised Manley and his friends food and drinks on the house if he brings the head.

He also plans to take the head -- roughly 5 feet tall and 3 feet wide -- to the arena Friday.

"It will be there, as long as they let me in with it," said Manley, an SU graduate student.

Thursday, there was a relaxed, informal atmosphere in HSBC Arena for the practices.

A sea of fifth- and sixth-graders from the Buffalo Public Schools filled most of the lower bowl on one side of the arena for the earlier sessions. "I like the slam-dunks and the alley-oops," said Avery Stone, 10, a fifth-grader at North Park Middle Academy.

Depew resident Courtney Pew donned her Syracuse orange and took in Thursday's practice session with her dad just a few rows up from Boeheim.

The Syracuse University senior called the Orange "New York's team."

"There's so much local support," Pew said. "The City of Syracuse is pretty similar to Buffalo."

Ron and Vicky Shy, residents of Columbia, Mo., and Missouri alumni, planned to see the Anchor Bar and Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., while they're here.

"So far, it's great. The hospitality's been wonderful. The food has been beyond compare," Ron Shy said, praising the meal and service they enjoyed at 31 Club.

With the preliminaries out of the way, the main event starts today with two games in the afternoon, a break and then two more games at night.

That break is the critical period of the weekend for local businesses.

Organizers have 90 minutes or so to get everyone out of the arena, properly fed and lubricated and back in their seats before the start of the next game.

They will have volunteers outside the arena all day long Friday, a Twitter account feeding tips to fans -- search for #buffhoops on Twitter -- and they have information desks set up at all the downtown hotels.

They want people to know they can take the Metro Rail to restaurants farther north from the arena where the waits might not be as long. They also encouraged restaurants to serve food buffet style in an effort to get people in and out quicker.

"We've worked with the bars and restaurants to make sure they're aware of this time crunch," said Jay Josker, sport services manager for the Buffalo Niagara Sports Commission, a subsidiary of the CVB.

This weekend gives Buffalo a chance to show itself off, Josker said, and even the weather was cooperating.

Josker quipped, "I actually specially ordered that."

News Staff Reporter T.J. Pignataro contributed to this report.

-mail: swatson@buffnews.com

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