SAN DIEGO — The Honda Center, off the beaten path by car for those wanting to travel out of downtown Los Angeles, is one of the smaller venues in the desert.
It’s a very colorful venue, too. The California-shaped center is named after John Wayne’s birthplace, and rock artists from Alice Cooper to Peter Frampton have played there.
But none of those rock stars has been able to light up a crowd like Kansas State basketball coach Bruce Weber when his teams play there in the World’s Largest Outdoor Primetime Event, which has become the biggest — and flashiest — basketball game in the world.
The annual San Diego State-Michigan game, in front of a sellout crowd of 20,000, was legendary in its time as a new phenomenon.
The first time Weber took his Wildcats on the road was a long time ago. It was 2001. The No. 18 Wildcats were playing No. 4 Michigan, a school only a couple of hours south in Ann Arbor, in a sold-out arena in the state of Texas that carried a different feel.
The last time there was anything like a Mario Chalmers miracle was in 2003. Missouri was undefeated, and Kansas was No. 1 in The Associated Press poll. The Tigers had beaten Michigan by a field goal with half a second remaining in regulation.
Weber had just fired his top assistant, Tony Thomas, and Kansas coach Roy Williams had been impressed enough to offer his top assistant the lead coaching job at his alma mater, North Carolina. Michigan was in first place in the Big Ten and was among the hottest teams in the country. Weber, however, still wasn’t sold. He thought he was making a mistake.
“I talked to Gary Waters, our assistant here at the time and he kind of threw me under the bus,” Weber said. “He basically said, ‘Bruce, this team doesn’t have the same look to it as Kansas did with (Sherron) Collins, (Jeff) Withey and (Cole) Aldrich.’
“All of that, it wasn’t really the right time.”
Weber reconsidered. When Collins and Withey graduated, Butler’s Matt Howard and the Big 12 Conference had a new star in James Augustine, who Weber followed to Indiana after recruiting him out of Purdue. Weber got Lemont Drayton and Kansas was back on the map.
The top-ranked Jayhawks beat Michigan 79-76 to take the Cancun Classic title, and Weber later brought Wichita State to the Elite Eight.
Kansas won only one more game in the 2001-02 season, finishing in a five-way tie for second place in the Big 12. North Carolina advanced to the Sweet 16. Lawrence was again on the rise, with its annual fashion shows for the school’s success in field hockey, soccer and volleyball.
When Michigan and Kansas met in the first game of the 2007-08 season at the Honda Center, the crowd, with the HOV lane at its most crowded, numbered just over 20,000 and those that weren’t sitting on the floor found their way to the concession stands and souvenir stands. It seemed as if the courtside seats were at capacity.
Butler held Kansas to its lowest scoring total in Kansas’ history in that 2008-09 season opener, and Weber later said the game was a “major turning point” for his rebuilding project in Columbia.
The game from afar didn’t change much. The two teams are 1-1 all-time with Northwestern ending a streak of eight consecutive wins by Kansas in the 1993-94 season.
The 2010-11 season in Lawrence, when Nebraska upset the Jayhawks in Lawrence, drew a sellout crowd of 18,091 at Allen Fieldhouse and 7,409 at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
The annual championship game has been sold out since 2007. With more than 20,000 seats this year, the capacity is likely to approach the Dec. 29, 1992 Michigan-Duke game at the Palace of Auburn Hills, which drew 33,198 in just its second year of existence.
The 1996 Final Four held a “double-championship” game, with the winner of the No. 4 seed vs. No. 1 seed game going against the winner of the double-elimination “Semifinal 4” match. Florida won the first game over Wisconsin, 94-89, and Michigan beat Stanford, 105-102, to win the title.