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NCAA isn't new to Buffalo, but Buffalo might feel new to fans

No other city has hosted more “first weekend” NCAA basketball tournament games than Buffalo.

So fans who have come back for the tournament over the years have seen how the downtown landscape has been transformed.

The last time the NCAA basketball tournament played Buffalo – a mere three years ago – HarborCenter was a construction site, with a 300-foot yellow crane towering over an old parking lot and hinting at a new era.

(716) was just an area code. Now it’s also a humming sports bar, with tons of large TV screens.

And less than a mile away, the Buffalo RiverWorks complex wouldn’t open for months.

When the tourney returns this weekend, visitors will notice a vastly different scene.

“The whole downtown area is completely different from what it was in 2014, with an explosion of new hotels, restaurants and the development of Canalside,” said Patrick Kaler, president and CEO of Visit Buffalo Niagara. “There’s so much more happening. We’re now using Canalside as our welcoming mat to bring people back to downtown.”

HarborCenter, Canalside and The Buffalo News as seen from the air Nov. 4, 2016. (Derek Gee/News file photo)

Buffalo, N.Y. – often battered, bruised and mocked nationally for our pro sports teams – has become a staple of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, one of the nation’s biggest annual sporting events.

When the tournament’s first and second rounds invade KeyBank Center for three doubleheaders Thursday and Saturday, the NCAAs will be visiting an old friend – for the sixth time since 2000. Previous early rounds came here in 2014, 2010, 2007, 2004 and 2000.

Why has Buffalo, never known as a basketball hotbed, become a regular participant in the NCAAs rotation?

Geography is a key. Buffalo is close to Ontario and within a day’s drive of much of the Northeast and Midwest.

But that’s just one reason.

“First and foremost, this town embraces big events when they come here,” Michael Gilbert, vice president of administration for the Buffalo Sabres, said of such events, including the National Hockey League’s draft and combine. “It’s a smaller big city, so it’s a big deal. Everybody knows the NCAAs are coming here. It becomes a point of pride for people living here.”

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Richard J. Ensor, commissioner of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, co-sponsor of the event here, also praised Buffalo’s sports fans.

“They support two major-league teams in a relatively small market, and they’re strong supporters of amateur athletics,” he said. “It’s worked well for us.”

Buffalo and its arena know how to host this event. So NCAA officials coming to town know it will be run properly, inside a clean arena, said Gilbert, who’s also general manager of HarborCenter.

HarborCenter, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Ensor’s well aware of the improvements made at the foot of Main and Washington streets. He cited the new Marriott HarborCenter, adjacent to the arena, allowing fans to make use of the nearby restaurants and bars, along with Canalside. Having so many amenities in a compact area allows fans to walk around and interact with other fans rooting for the same team, he added.

Once again, based on early returns, the Buffalo site appears to be at or near the top in ticket sales among the eight first- and second-round sites.

Tourney primer

For those who don’t scour the sports pages or watch ESPN around the clock, here’s how the tournament works.

The NCAA Selection Committee picks 68 men’s teams, including conference champions and at-large selections. Eight of those teams play in the “First Four” games in Dayton, with the four winners joining the other 60 teams in the traditional four brackets. Brackets are set up so that the strongest teams, the four No. 1 seeds, play the weakest, the No. 16 seeds. Similarly, the 2s play the 15s, etc.

So Buffalo will be hosting the first and second rounds on Thursday and Saturday. All eight teams play Thursday, in a pair of doubleheaders, with the four winners playing in another doubleheader Saturday. The two “Buffalo bracket” survivors make it to the tournament’s “Sweet 16.”

Who’s coming?

That’s one of the tournament’s charms – or frustrations. No one but the NCAA Selection Committee knew which teams were going where until it was announced Sunday evening. And coming to Buffalo are ... Villanova, West Virginia, Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Virginia Tech, Princeton, Bucknell and either Mount St. Mary’s or New Orleans, who meet in one of the “First Four” games with the winner facing Villanova.

On Sunday evening, as their school’s names flashed across the TV screen, fans of those teams started scrambling for tickets and hotel rooms in earnest.

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Longtime tournament watchers know that the teams aren’t assigned randomly to the eight cities hosting first- and second-round games. The tournament wants big, enthusiastic crowds, and a team like Syracuse, with its proximity and strong Western New York alumni base, always has been a natural here.

That’s why Syracuse came here in both 2010 and 2014, though it did not make the field this year.

Each year, the Buffalo bracket draws from near and at least fairly far, but with a predominance of Eastern and Midwestern schools. In 2014, the eight teams playing here were Syracuse, Villanova, Ohio State, Connecticut, St. Joseph’s, Dayton, Milwaukee and Western Michigan. Four years earlier, Syracuse, West Virginia, Clemson, Gonzaga, Florida State, Missouri, Morgan State and Vermont came here.

The disappointment

As Buffalo struts its stuff, including its built-up downtown, one big-city amenity will be missing: ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft, which still can’t operate in upstate New York.

The 38-foot TV projection screen behind the main bar at 716 in HarborCenter in Buffalo. This was on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2014. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

“I am disappointed that Uber and Lyft didn’t get here in time for the NCAA tournament,” Kaler said.

That concern is so genuine that tournament volunteers will be handing out cards, asking, “Do you want ridesharing in New York State?” and listing the website, in conjunction with Visit Buffalo Niagara.

To help fill that void, tourism officials have been working hard with local taxicab companies, especially Liberty Yellow Cab, with its mobile app, “Curb.”

“That acts almost like a ride-sharing program,” Kaler said.

Visit Buffalo Niagara also worked with the cab companies, which will have more than 75 taxis stationed at spots along and near Marine Drive, northwest of the arena, after all three doubleheaders.

That will be especially crucial during the roughly 1½ hours between the two Thursday doubleheaders.

More fan-friendly

Hoop fans, especially those from out of town, will benefit from other small touches to help improve restaurant, transportation and communications components of the post-game and between-doubleheaders experience. Some of these touches are new, culled from discussions on how to make Buffalo a more fan-friendly venue than in previous years.

They include:

• The presence of close to 100 volunteers on the streets, directing people to restaurants, bars, taxis or buses. Those volunteers will be holding orange placards, in the shape of a baseball home plate, with the words, “Ask Me.”

• The tweet team, using the hashtag #HoopsBUF, providing the latest information on parking, transportation and restaurant information. That figures to be invaluable during the tight time frame between Thursday’s doubleheaders.

• The top floor of HarborCenter hosting “Hoops Happy Hour,” a sold-out event charging about 500 people $65 each for all they can eat and drink in the hour and a half between the Thursday doubleheaders.

• Efforts to provide visiting fans with more options for the off day, on Friday. Those include using social media to learn more about such attractions as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Darwin Martin House; taking express buses to Niagara Falls from the NFTA Transportation Center; getting direct information from volunteers at each of the host hotels; and taking advantage of bars and restaurants providing more TV screens for basketball junkies wanting to watch NCAA games at other sites.

The volunteers and social-media communications will help out-of-town fans returning here from 2014 or earlier, as they negotiate the changed landscape downtown.

“We have, anecdotally, in our office come up with 25 new restaurants in the downtown core, from the waterfront to Tupper Street,” Kaler said.

And downtown Buffalo now boasts 2,180 hotel rooms, an increase of 434 rooms from 2014.

Courtyard Marriott in Buffalo, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Tickets, tickets, tickets

At mid-week last week, the tournament had roughly 800 tickets for sale in the upper deck, at $228 apiece for an all-session ticket covering all three doubleheaders. Those tickets were expected to move pretty quickly, once fans learned their teams were coming here.

Of course, there’s another option: the flourishing secondary-ticket market.

As of Sunday, before the teams were announced, Vivid Seats still listed asking prices for a few hundred tickets, ranging from $260 each for all three sessions, in the upper deck, to $1,173 in the 100 Level. StubHub listed similar ranges, from about $200 to $1,500.

But people should remember two caveats about such numbers. First, those are “asking” prices, not the actual selling prices. Also, some of the lofty asking prices are set artificially high, before being adjusted to what the market will bear.

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