INDIANAPOLIS – When the ball was thrown just after noon for Florida and Virginia Tech, an NCAA men’s tournament began in earnest that is sure to be one of a kind. The squeaky sneakers, the strong competitiveness of a survival match, and the March Madness branded basketball court were known, but little else was there, as 16 games were scheduled to be played at six locations in and around Indianapolis on Friday.
The atmosphere was as extraordinary as the effort to host a 19-day tournament with 68 teams during a pandemic that wiped out the NCAA’s nearly $ 1 billion cash cow last March.
Huge arenas – like the football stadium where the NFL Colts play – or picturesque venues like the historic Hinkle Fieldhouse or the Farmers Coliseum on the Indiana State Fairgrounds were only occupied by a small fraction of their capacity.
There were no bands or cheerleaders, which gave most of the games the ambience of an AAU summer tournament, where the grandstands are mostly occupied by parents and hardcore fans.
Often times, without the roar of the crowd cheering them on, players could only turn to their competitive juices for inspiration. And exciting moments – like a late 3-pointer from Virginia Tech’s Nahiem Alleyne forcing overtime – were mostly muffled in person, without the usual soundtrack of the throaty roar of a crowd.
A number of teams – Georgia Tech, Kansas and Oklahoma – were without key players this weekend after testing positive for the virus. And Virginia, set to open the tournament on Saturday, won’t even play safely after being in quarantine last week after abandoning the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament because of an outbreak. The team flew to Indianapolis on Friday.
The state of Ohio, the second seed from the South region, was knocked out not by the virus but by upstart Oral Roberts, who stunned the Buckeyes (75-72) in overtime for the first surprise of a tumultuous tournament on and off the pitch .
Not long after, Oregon State, the 12th Seed in the Midwest, angry Tennessee for its first tournament win since 1982. North Texas, the 13th Seed in the South who had never won a tournament game, entered the angry parade. Working overtime to take down Purdue and eliminate the only Indiana team in the tournament.
A total of five double-digit seeds went ahead and three games went into overtime.
North Carolina coach Roy Williams, whose team was ranked eighth in the South, lost a game in the first round for the first time in 30 tournament openings – another data point of the clutter.
“Everything is unusual until you hit the ground,” said Lucas Williamson, a senior security guard at Loyola-Chicago, whose players were grateful to play in front of some of their fans who had traveled from Chicago for the first time this season. “As soon as you are on the court, you only play basketball.”
The chaos on the pitch would be a welcome distraction for the NCAA. Their President Mark Emmert and the organization have been attacked in the past few days by the players who were quarantined in hotels for almost a week, tested daily and isolated before coming to the center stage.
Just as a storm – a social media campaign calling on the NCAA to give athletes the right to benefit from their fame – subsided Thursday, another surfaced: the inequality of women after an Oregon player, Sedona Prince, on social media A video of some dumbbells forming the training area for women’s teams at their tournament due to begin Sunday in Texas.
News came on Friday that the men were being given the less reliable antigen tests while they were being given polymerase chain reaction tests for the coronavirus.
Previously, six referees were sent home for violating the virus logs by having dinner together.
In an interview with a small group of reporters at Hinkle Fieldhouse Friday, Emmert defended the difference in the tests, saying they were administered by local medical institutions that had worked at NCAA events and had been approved by the NCAA’s medical advisory board. He called the inadequate training room for women “inexcusable”.
March 20, 2021 at 12:05 am ET
Emmert said he supported players with their voices or gestures – like several Colgate and Drexel players who fell on one knee before their games because of the national anthem – and that some expressions the players had implied could even then be tolerated if you break the NCAA rules.
But there would be limits.
“When does it start to bother other people?” said Emmert, who plans to attend the women’s tournament in Texas on Tuesday. “If someone does something that inherently creates a situation where another team or teammates cannot meaningfully participate, that’s a problem.”
In downtown Indianapolis on Friday morning fans who had traveled here wandered the streets – many with their masks on their chins – to a tournament that in normal times would have been full of people downtown. When Arkansas fans broke into the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the NBA’s Pacers, they gathered in pods.
After last year’s tournament was canceled, some couldn’t bear the thought of missing out on another one – including Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the 101-year-old vaccinated nun who was Loyola-Chicago’s talisman en route to the Final Four in 2018 she saw from from her wheelchair in a corner of Hinkle Fieldhouse, as she had seen her walkers in person for the first time this season as they advanced with a win over Georgia Tech.
Cathy Work, a 53-year-old Virginia Tech fan from Lynchburg, Virginia, might be referring to this. After undergoing triple bypass surgery 11 years ago, she promised to live life to the fullest and was helped by a sense of camaraderie with fellow Hokies fans.
“I don’t want to live in fear,” she said as a mask kept creeping off her nose.
Instead of games stacked on top of each other – usually the teams stand in the tunnel, waiting to conquer the field as soon as the previous teams have cleared it – there was a break of 30 minutes between competitions so that the benches could be disinfected by at least one A dozen workers carried clear tub backpacks with disinfectant spray that were distributed through hoses to pour over the seats.
The teams didn’t actually have benches but a row of 34 chairs arranged in a grid to accommodate the members of each team’s travel group who have been tested daily for at least a week and will continue to do so until the team is eliminated . The Hinkle broadcasters sat alone across from the goalscorer’s table with 20 rows of empty seats behind it.
“The energy is not the same,” said Sharron Mack, who is from Gainesville, Florida and a close friend of a Florida player. “Fewer fans, less energy.”
She added of the pandemic, “A lot of people are afraid to be outside and have fun. When you get to a tournament like this one, you’ll enjoy it. That forbids a lot of it. “
For at least one game, however, the atmosphere changed noticeably when a energetic group of Georgia Tech students were on their feet to inspire their team, whose best player, ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright, had tested positive. (A teammate, Jose Alvarado, wore Wright’s number.) Students sang, “Let’s go jackets,” and pulled a finger off a tech player as he warmed up.
It was an encouraging gesture, a moment of connection between players and fans that is sure to wane for this tournament, if it exists at all.
Gillian R. Brassil contributed to the coverage.