INDIANAPOLIS – In a normal year when a player pokes a summer beating shot in an NCAA tournament game, tens of thousands of fans break out to celebrate.
It’s going to be a little quieter this year, even if the venue is bigger.
The men’s Final Four tournament takes place at Lucas Oil Stadium, a 70,000-seat arena that is home to the NFL’s Indianapolis Colts. Crowds will be limited to 25 percent of capacity, with fans masked and sitting in socially distant groups of two, four, or six people. And the area reserved for each 29-piece band is empty.
“I understand the NCAA’s decision,” said Jake Tedeschi, 22, a senior tenor saxophonist in the University of Illinois Basketball Pep Band, in an interview Thursday. “But man, I wish I could be there. I hope they reconsider the Final Four. “
But now this dream has also been shattered.
After previously banning bands through the Elite Eight only, Christopher Radford, the NCAA’s assistant director of communications, announced in an email on Friday that no bands will be allowed to play in the men’s or women’s NCAA basketball tournaments this year.
The decision, he said, was based on health and safety protocols developed with local health authorities, which “resulted in a reduction in the size of official tour groups and a limitation in overall capacity at venues”.
The six Indiana venues that will host this year’s Games will continue to play school battle songs and anthems. They will show cheering video performances and other band music will be on rotation.
But the honking tubes and energy-building improvisation of pep bands draw a lot of fans to college game – they’re the opposite of the NBA’s reliance on can noise to puncture large blocks and thundering dunks. And bands play an even more important role in the NCAA tournament, said Barry L. Houser, director of the University of Illinois marching and sports bands for the past 10 years.
“There is nothing like live music to bring a stadium or arena to life,” he said in an interview on Thursday. “Playing a fight song after a great game or going out on a hot break after a great game for the team can really upset the crowd.”
Tedeschi, the University of Illinois band member, believes that a band can “absolutely” change a game.
“We scream a lot,” he said. “And especially late in the game, we do our best to distract the other team’s players.”
But Pep Band players aren’t just passionate about school battle songs or “Sweet Caroline” – they’re some of the biggest basketball fans in the arena and the spark that ignites most student departments.
March 19, 2021, 10:19 p.m. ET
“The chance to travel with the team and be their main supporter is an important reason why I make sports bands,” said Tedeschi. “It takes time from my other courses, especially when we’re on the road more, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. It is very important to me. “
But seniors like Tedeschi will never get a chance to compete in an NCAA tournament game – a big part of why he joined the Pep Band in his freshman year, he said. (The Illinois didn’t make the men’s or women’s NCAA tournament their first two years, and the pandemic derailed last year’s games.)
He understands the NCAA’s decision to ban bands in the first two rounds, but believes they may have been allowed to play later in the tournament. “The bracket is smaller and there would be fewer team bands,” he said. “It would mean fewer other fans, but for seniors it’s the only chance we have. Mid-major teams don’t make it every year. “
Michael Martin, a 21-year-old Ohio senior who plays snare and bass drum in the pep band, has never been to any of the NCAA tournaments. And now he’s missed his chance.
“I’ve prepared for this,” he said. “But I’m still very disappointed. I was looking forward to playing Buckeye Swag for everyone. “
Houser, the University of Illinois band director, feels awful for his seniors – especially in a year when the men’s team is number one.
“The teams have faced a lot of challenges and now they are doing so well,” he said. “I just wish our students had the opportunity to cheer them on in this situation.”
Now that the band directors have adjusted to the reality of a tournament without live music, they look forward to the coming year with optimism.
Christopher Hoch, who is in his fourth year as the director of the marching and sports bands at Ohio State University, has stuck to his sports band class and has even had no opportunity to participate in games.
“I thought it was important that students still have the opportunity to play even though they don’t necessarily appear at events,” he said.
Now Hoch is preparing his students for the halftime show they usually do at the spring soccer game. “We love to be there to support the team and the university,” he said. “And I hope we can get back to it soon.”