NCAA March Madness at Golden 1 Center was ‘seamless, excellent’ with rave reviews from all

Xavier Mascareñas/

Mick Cronin studied the banners inside Golden 1 Center on Wednesday, and then the UCLA coach raved about the NBA venue and energy in the air after a March Madness sub-regional visit.

That his Bruins went 2-0 with victories over UNC Asheville and Northwestern with the backdrop of a large contingent of UCLA fans certainly added to his experience. But he’s a basketball lifer who embraces history. A native of Cincinnati, Cronin spoke about Oscar Robertson, the Hall of Fame guard great for the Cincinnati Royals, the precursor to the Kings. Days later, the coach stamped Golden 1 as a worthy spot to host college basketball in the coming years.

Golden 1 had its mix of fans from each of eight teams that made the trip, and there were a lot of Kings fans walking around in Vlade Divac, Peja Stojokovic, Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox jerseys.

As for the atmosphere that was there for four games on Thursday and two on Saturday, Cronin said it started with the team that uses Golden 1 regularly, and he was one of many who raved about the venue and experience.

“Well, the Kings are really good,” Cronin said. “Mike Brown is a great guy, a great coach. Sabonis is pretty good. I have a feeling it’s going to be rocking again like Vlade and Peja were out there come playoff time.

“It’s nice to see both of our fan bases support us. So much is made now about the NIL, NBA and stuff. The college experience is great. (Players) value the college experience, which is why we’re so good.”

UCLA and Arizona came into Golden 1 as No. 2 seeds out of the Pac-12 Conference with visions of a Final Four run. UCLA next plays No. 3 Gonzaga on Thursday in Las Vegas in the Sweet 16 while Arizona is preparing for its end-of-season banquet, a victim of the discipline and fundamentals of No. 15 Princeton. The Tigers eliminated the Wildcats on Thursday and another batch of Wildcats from Northwestern on Saturday to reach their first regional semifinal since 1967 and their first since the NCAA expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

Princeton was the crowd favorite for those who were otherwise neutral. That Princeton coach Mitch Henderson played for Hall of Fame coach Pete Carril, who ended his career as an assistant with the Kings under the tutelage of longtime team president Geoff Petrie, another Princeton product, added a layer of intrigue. Current Kings general manager Monte McNair is a 1996 Princeton graduate and was glued to the action.

“Our players and staff will remember this weekend here,” Henderson said, reminding that Ivy League programs rarely play in front of crowds exceeding 10,000. “What a great experience.”

The other teams that came to Golden 1 were Boise State and Utah State of the Mountain West.

When will it return?

To land such an event and to pull it off requires the efforts of the host school in Sacramento State, the tourism arm of Sacramento and the people who own Golden 1 — the Kings.

“It takes all three of us, and if one of those partners is not committed, it doesn’t come off well,” said Mike Testa, CEO and president of Visit Sacramento. “We all locked arms and helped each other and it showed. The final product was seamless, excellent.”

Testa added, “It was extra great to see so many people and the crowds were massive in DoCo outside the arena. People found plenty to do. The atmosphere inside was amazing. And the games: Princeton had the upset over Arizona, which is what this tournament is all about. There was a very large UCLA contingent with a lot of alumni from different parts of Northern California, like a homecourt advantage.”

The economic impact is projected to be nearly $10 million between hotels, restaurants, souvenirs and tourism.

Testa said the player and fan experience resonates with the NCAA when it comes to bids. So does a spectacular venue. The next round of bids for NCAA events for the years 2027-30 start in August, though the brainstorming never stops. The women’s NCAA Tournament will be at Golden 1 in 2026.

Arco Arena in Natomas — the home of the Kings from 1988-2016 — hosted NCAA men’s rounds in 1994, 1998, 2002 and 2007. Golden 1 hosted in 2017 and was set to host again in 2020 before the pandemic forced the cancellation of sports across the country.

The Sacramento State crew that made sure things ran smoothly included longtime Hornets sports information directors Brian Berger and Ryan Bjork, both of whom athletic director Mark Orr raved about, saying: “We couldn’t pull it off without those two.”

Irish vibe

The man tasked with introducing players and coaches to the media for off-day and post-game interviews was Doug Kelly, the longtime color analyst for UC Davis football who has dabbled in NCAA events for decades.

The exchange between Kelly, he of the white handle-bar mustache and good cheer, and the spirited Cronin was an event highlight. They’re both Irish. They understand each other’s vibe. While introducing the Bruins on Wednesday, Kelly said: “Mick, you were here six years ago, believe it or not, with Cincinnati. Here we are again.”

“It’s good to see you, my fine Irish friend,” Cronin replied. “Nothing like Kelly and Cronin.”

At the end of that interview session, Kelly thanked the coach and athletes for their time. Cronin replied, “Thank you, my friend. See how the Irish treat each other? Then we fight after the bar closes.”