Atlanta tunes up for Final Four with South region

6:47 p.m Monday, March 19, 2012 Sports

A slice of March Madness comes to the Georgia Dome this week, a forerunner of next year's arrival of the Final Four.

"This is considered our dress rehearsal," said Sharon Goldmacher, executive director of Atlanta's 2013 Final Four local organizing committee.

For the teams coming here this week, though, next year's Final Four will be the farthest thing from their minds.  Kentucky, Indiana, Baylor and Xavier will be vying to represent the NCAA tournament's South region in this year's Final Four in New Orleans.

Baylor plays Xavier at 7:15 p.m. Friday in one regional semifinal at the Dome, followed at approximately 9:45 p.m. by No. 1 seed Kentucky vs. Indiana in a matchup of programs with 12 national titles (seven by the Wildcats and five by the Hoosiers). Friday's winners will meet in Sunday's regional final, with the time to be determined later by TV, for a berth in New Orleans.

A new, NCAA-provided basketball court was installed in the Georgia Dome over the weekend.  Backboards were being erected and decorative banners were being hung on Monday. Additional tickets have been put on sale, thanks to Kentucky-fueled demand.

Atlanta gets games this week because the NCAA typically places a region's semifinals/final in a venue one year before it hosts the Final Four, although the setup of the two events is quite different.

For Friday's and Sunday's games, the court has been installed on one end of the Georgia Dome, and about half of the 72,000-seat stadium will be curtained off from view, virtually the same setup as for the SEC basketball tournament here last year.  But for next season's Final Four -- the dates are April 6 and  8, 2013 --  the court will be installed in the center of the stadium, and all seats will be used.

The NCAA initially put about 22,500 lower- and middle-level seats on sale for this week's games at the Dome.    Those seats sold out, and upper-level seats were added to the available inventory on Sunday, increasing capacity by another 10,000-plus.  Tickets are available through Ticketmaster or ncaa.com/mbbtickets.

"This year, for our setup in the half-house configuration, the court is on roughly the [football] 5-yard line," Georgia Dome spokesman Jason Kirksey said.  "Next year for the Final Four, it will be on the 50-yard line, right over where the Falcons logo is painted."

When the Final Four was played at the Georgia Dome in 2007, the venue was configured for a seating capacity of about 50,000. But since 2009, the NCAA has required 70,000-plus seats for the Final Four.

That will be achieved next year at the Dome, as at other recent Final Four sites, by placing the court on a platform in center of the stadium and installing extensive temporary courtside seating. The NCAA will test the seating in the Dome this summer.

While some 3,000 volunteers will be recruited by the local organizing committee to assist with various aspects of next year's Final Four -- up from 1,800 in 2007 -- the logistics of the regional games here will be handled mostly by the Georgia Dome and Georgia Tech staffs. Tech is the host institution for both the regional tournament and the Final Four here.

Tech senior associate athletic director Paul Griffin said a significant difference between the two events, in addition to the size of the crowd, is that the Final Four is accompanied by many external activities while the regional is mostly an in-venue happening.

"The Final Four has grown over the years to be such a comprehensive event," Griffin said. "Even the in-arena activity will be much different because of [the court location]. Your whole logistics for inside change.

"But it's good we have [the regional]. We get to test a lot of the systems. And it's good for the community because we've got great teams coming here and a lot of people coming in."

When this season's tournament moves on to New Orleans next week for the Final Four, a delegation of about 30 Atlantans will go there. Representatives of Atlanta's Final Four committee, the Dome, Tech, the Atlanta Sports Council and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau will closely observe in the Superdome.

"We will be there to understand and learn from the host how we can continue all the best practices and look for new opportunities to innovate," said Goldmacher, who is president and CEO of Atlanta-based marketing and public relations firm communications 21.

Next year's Final Four will be the fourth held in Atlanta, following the 1977 event at The Omni -- Philips Arena's predecessor -- and the 2002 and 2007 events at the Georgia Dome. Next year's will have special meaning to the Atlanta group, and to the NCAA, because it will mark the 75th anniversary of the Final Four.

"It was a huge honor that Atlanta was selected for that," Goldmacher said.

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