Bud Walton Arena is one of the first venues that come to mind when I think about some of the toughest places to win a basketball game.
Or that swamp down in Gainesville, where back-to-back championships apparently give the student section an excuse to ignore proper stadium etiquette.
And then there was that Saturday in December when we took on a ranked Illinois team in front of a capacity United Center crowd. The Illini faithful outnumbered Auburn fans almost 100 to 1, which was expected I guess. But still, totally unfair for a game that was supposedly being played at a “neutral site”.
It only took until the first media timeout up at Iowa State for me to realize the Big 12 is an entirely different animal, and as hard as it is to believe now, the Missouri Tigers use to have one of the best home-court advantages in the entire SEC.
Our road trips always were a challenge during my time at Auburn, but for the most part, we never were completely alone. No matter where we played, there was a core group of Auburn fans that managed to make the trip. In the middle of some of college basketball’s most hostile environments, we always had a tiny section of orange and blue somewhere in the crowd — usually a few rows behind our bench — that gave us a little spark of confidence in arenas where nobody wanted to see us succeed
That statement holds true for almost every place we played during my college career, even out in the Bahamas during the summer heading into my sophomore season.
But there was always one place where there never was a shred of orange to be found: Rupp Arena.
There was a ton of blue though, as you could imagine. So much so that it felt like you were drowning at times. Banners hanging from the rafters bearing the retired numbers of Kentucky and college basketball greats. The entitled, unbothered demeanor UK fans more interested in how fast their club will go up by 21 points rather than the game itself. Some of the best young players in the country across the court from you and enough history in the place to fill up a library.
It was like we were gladiators fighting off lions — or Wildcats — in the Flavian Amphitheatre, and John Calipari was Julius Caesar. Many go in brave, confident and with a plan of attack. But only the truly calculated ever escaped with a win.
I haven’t had the opportunity to attend a game at Phog Allen Field House in Kansas. And I’m sure this isn’t anything compared to the horrors of Duke’s Cameron Indoor. But in two visits to Rupp Arena with no wins, I’d say that Rupp Arena is without a doubt the toughest place I’ve ever played, and there’s a level of discomfort that opposing teams experience in that building that cuts way deeper than the final score.
CJ Holmes is a former Auburn men’s basketball player. His two trips with the Tigers to Rupp Arena resulted in a 110-75 loss in to No. 1 Kentucky in 2015 and a 72-62 loss in 2013. Auburn is 2-26 all-time at Rupp Arena and 2-46 in Lexington.