Sights and sounds of this March Madness are different, but the stellar stories, and then some, are there all the same
Indianapolis — Four Missouri fans sat in a mostly empty Indiana Farmers Coliseum on Saturday afternoon, drinking beers and cheering on an Eastern Washington team they probably had not even heard of until the 2021 NCAA Tournament bracket was released last weekend.
Under normal circumstances, the four die-hard Tigers, decked out in black and gold attire, no doubt would have rooted for Eastern Washington to pull off the upset — which it did not — of their long-hated Kansas rival.
But there is nothing normal about the circumstances under which this NCAA Tournament is being played, and that fact made it possible for the four anti-Kansas crusaders to be in the building, flapping their “wings” with the Eagles fans as EWU pushed Kansas to the brink.
Among the one-liners the group shouted that filled their section and may have been heard around the gym was their shot at KU sophomore Christian Braun, whose brother, Parker, plays for Mizzou.
“Parker’s the better brother,” they yelled between somewhat cliché barbs about the FBI, paying players and the like.
It was all in good fun, of course, and, after giving Eastern Washington a standing round of applause that many Kansas fans joined in on after the final horn sounded, the foursome filed out of the building, presumably to prepare for their own game later that night, across town against Oklahoma.
The ninth-seeded Tigers lost that one, ending their season, while their former Big 12 brothers moved to 6-0 in the first round of this year’s tournament.
As they left, I couldn’t help but wonder if they enjoyed rooting for EWU more than they would their own team a few hours later. Given the outcome, it seems likely.
But the mere fact that they were four of the 961 bodies — you read that number right — inside the Coliseum watching a first-round NCAA Tournament game featuring Kansas blew my mind.
And if not for this year’s event taking place almost entirely in the same city, it never would have happened.
Again, under normal circumstances, that group likely would have been in Detroit or Dallas or Raleigh with the Tigers while Kansas and its legion of fans would’ve invaded Wichita again.
But therein lies the beauty of what’s taking place this month in Indianapolis. Instead of fans from seven or eight teams visiting eight different cities across the country, they’re all right here in Indy.
There’s not nearly as many of them, of course. And the scene is nowhere near what it would normally be. But there’s something really cool about walking around and seeing a couple dozen different fan bases rocking their school colors within a five- or six-block area downtown.
Big and small, they’ve all shown up. I saw everything from Utah State and Cleveland State to Georgia Tech, Texas Tech, Kansas and North Carolina.
There was Zags gear, Purdue duds, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Maryland red and dozens of others. And while the idea for all of the fans in attendance was to be the last team standing and root against all the others, there was a feeling of kinship that existed between all of them.
A friendly nod here, a good luck there and, perhaps the biggest and best of all, the prevailing vibe shared by all of them that subtly and without even trying screamed, “Way to go! We made it!”
Yes, watching your team make the Big Dance is a big deal. But the joy of just getting to enjoy March Madness in the first place trumped that this year.
It wasn’t just the fans who felt that way, though. Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team advanced to Round 2 with a 93-84 win over those four Tiger fans’ second favorite team for a day, expressed as much in his postgame press conference.
“I don't want to have to do this again,” Self said of waiting almost two full years between NCAA Tournament games, KU’s last coming on March 23, 2019 in Salt Lake City. “We've been so fortunate and blessed around here to be in a lot of tournaments in a row, and you should never take it for granted. It's a reward for your kids. So it couldn't happen soon enough, but I just hope like heck (a break like that) never happens again.”
It’s not just attendance oddities that have made this year’s trip to the Big Dance different from years past. The experience of simply being here is different, too.
For the players and coaches and team personnel, it means spending your non-court time on mostly the same floor in the same hotel with limited entertainment options. Video games, movies, team meals and meetings and a little bit of outside time fill most of the days.
There are no bands or cheerleaders either, and the familiar faces of those who typically fill the seats behind the Kansas bench each March — a group so well versed in the ups and downs of the madness that they know just when to stand, squeal and swear — are also missing.
For the media, it’s mostly the same set-up, though no one is monitoring where we do or don’t go. Where we aren’t is at the arenas.
I’d estimate that 80% of the non-sleeping time at NCAA Tournaments past has been spent at the arena at whatever site we’re visiting. On game day, you’re there long before and after tipoff and often spend time — when you’re done writing — watching the other games at the venue that day. On the off days, it’s open practices, locker room access, hospitality rooms and videos/radio hits in and around the arena.
None of that is available this time around. It definitely stinks. Some of the most fun and coolest stories we done all year come from the open access environment of the NCAA Tournament, when the locker rooms are open on game days and off days for periods of time and you’re able to dig deep with one-on-ones and off-the-beaten path interviews and inquiries with everyone on the roster, assistant coaches included.
Not having that is a small price to pay for having basketball back and seeing the madness march on. But it is missed. And it makes the whole thing feel, as Self said today, “different.”
Zoom calls and at least being able to watch the action live — though the number of people doing that at each game, understandably has been limited, as well — has created an atmosphere that feels close to normal and allows us to do what we do, but I can’t help but think how different it’s going to feel the further we get into this thing.
No interviews in overjoyed locker rooms with music bumping and signs of the coach’s water bath visible from floor to ceiling. Also, no eerie silence or devastated blank stares after heartbreaking losses either.
It really limits what we’re able to share with our readers and the stories we can tell. But, again, March Madness without it — at least temporarily — is still a heck of a lot better than no March Madness at all.
We’ve all experienced that. And it’s not much fun.
This is. And even though the interactions between the players and teams and the fans and the media has been drastically different, all of the great stories will still be told. And they’ll be born from what happens on the floor, between the lines, with the clock ticking down, where, at least for 40 minutes, everything feels pretty normal.
Eastern Washington big man Tanner Groves was one of those. And the only thing that kept him from becoming the hot name of the first round and a household name around the country overnight was the final score.
Groves understood that. But it didn’t wipe the smile from his face or eliminate the appreciation he felt for the opportunity to prove himself in front of the nation against a blue blood program.
The lumberjack-looking power forward from the northwest who finished with 35 points in the loss to Kansas was the talk of social media for a little while. People compared him to Bill Walton and Will Ferrell’s character in Semi-Pro.
He also received some praise from inside the gym in which he played his heart out, from those four Mizzou fans, in the form of a standing ovation from the Kansas fans and from Self, as well.
“He just said he had a lot of respect for my brother and I,” Groves said of Self’s in-person message to him on the court after Saturday’s game. “He said we had a heck of a game. It’s really cool to get some crazy recognition like that from one of the premiere coaches in the entire NCAA. “It’s really surreal that Coach Self came up to me and said he respected my performance today. I’m just thankful for the opportunities we got today.”
It’s those moments that remind you what March is all about.
The rest will return. And it will be glorious when it does.
But even without it, this year’s event is off to the kind of start we’ve always loved about this tournament, and there’s no doubt there’s more coming in the days ahead.