Newark set for first NCAA regional

Associated Press
Newark Mayor Cory Booker, left, jokes with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie during a news conference talking about the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament East Regional at the Prudential Center, Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2011, in Newark, N.J. The event is scheduled for March 23-27, with the top team heading to the Final Four. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)
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The NCAA tournament is coming to Newark, N.J., and the city is ready.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Newark Mayor Cory Booker were on hand Tuesday for a news conference to announce Newark's plans for this year's East Region finals to be held at the Prudential Center.

The weekend will feature a host of different fan-friendly activities, and when it's all said and done, one team will advance to the Final Four in Houston. At the news conference, a special motto, "Go Newark Hoop Fest" and logo were also introduced.

The games will be held at The Rock — the home of the NHL's New Jersey Devils and the temporary home of the NBA's New Jersey Nets — March 25-27.

"It's difficult for us to put ourselves in a March Madness mindset in January, but it's going to be an exciting time," Christie said. "People from all over the country will be coming to Newark to root for their favorite teams. This is one of the very best, if not the best, arenas in the country and we're looking forward to having New Jersey be a part of the excitement. It's good for the city of Newark and good for the entire turnaround for the state of New Jersey."

The governor was also asked about the possibility of Newark becoming a permanent home to an NBA team in the future, following the Nets' scheduled 2012 move to Brooklyn.

Christie said he supported the idea of a New Jersey NBA team, and had engaged in casual talks on the subject with NBA Commissioner David Stern. Such a move would be financially difficult, however, as the Knicks and Nets have territorial rights to the greater New York area.

This is the 11th time the NCAA has held the East finals in New Jersey. The tournament committee used to rely on the arena at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, before Newark's state-of-the-art facility opened. They even used the Meadowlands for the 1996 Final Four.

But The Rock has far surpassed what is now called the Izod Center in attracting marquee events.

"It's nothing short of stunning that the city of Newark is being associated with the NCAA tournament," Booker said. "We're excited that the NCAA sees what Newark has to offer, from high school sports to the professionals. This is a way that we can distinguish ourselves as a major sports city and continue to establish New Jersey as a great sports state."

Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek, who spearheaded Newark's tournament bid two years ago, said that he heard nothing but positive responses from the NCAA with regards to Newark.

"We think we have a great arena and this is a real great opportunity to show this place off," said Vanderbeek, a Newark native instrumental in the building of the Prudential Center in 2007.

"It was a thoughtful, well-planned bid proposal that we did and we were competing with other arenas across the country. But we won. The NCAA felt good about Newark. Fans aren't just coming to a game. They're having a game-day experience."

Vanderbeek said The Rock is now the sixth-busiest facility in the country in terms of events and attendance, with more than 2.5 million fans coming to see the Devils, Nets, and Seton Hall basketball, as well as concerts and other events.

"People are coming here and they're staying here," he said, "enjoying Newark's culture and many different restaurants and eateries."

Seton Hall, which also left the Meadowlands for The Rock, will be the host school for the weekend.

"We plan to have tented areas for fans with different activities going on," said Patrick Hobbs, the school's acting athletic director.

"We plan on having bands playing outside. We're going to make sure that this is a total Newark experience and show this venue as a unique venue. People are going to want to spend the day here, see some good college basketball and enjoy the area. We're going to make this attractive for the college basketball fan. It's going to be an exciting place come March."

Christie believes that New Jersey securing the 2014 Super Bowl helped push the NCAA process along.

"I don't think it hurt," he said. "Success begets success. The NFL looked at New Jersey as a viable option for the Super Bowl and it opened the door for others like the NCAA to take a look. Having a world class arena like the Prudential Center didn't hurt either."

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