NCAA Tournament: Same Courts, Same Game, New Emptiness

INDIANAPOLIS – When the ball was thrown just before noon for Florida and Virginia Tech, an NCAA men’s tournament, which is definitely unique, began in earnest. The squeak of sneakers, the strong competitiveness of a survival-and-advance competition and the March Madness basketball court were known, but little was known that 16 games would be played at six locations in and around Indianapolis on Friday.

The atmosphere was just as extraordinary as the attempts to embark on a 68-day 19-day tournament during a pandemic that wiped out the NCAA’s nearly $ 1 billion cash cow in the early stages of March.

Large arenas – like the football stadium where the NFLs play Colts – or cute venues like the historic Hinkle Fieldhouse or Farmers Coliseum at the Indiana State Fairgrounds, are occupied only by a small fraction of their capacity.

There were no bands or cheerleaders, giving most matches an atmosphere of an AAU summer tournament, where the stands are mostly filled by parents and stubborn fans.

Without the hustle and bustle of the crowd to cheer them on, players could often just turn to their competitive juices for inspiration. And exciting moments – like a late 3-pointer by Virginia Tech’s Nahiem Alleyne that forced overtime – are mostly personally muted without the usual soundtrack of a crowd’s throbbing roar.

A number of teams – Georgia Tech, Kansas and Oklahoma – were without key players this weekend after testing positive for the virus. And Virginia, who will reportedly open the tournament on Saturday, will not even be sure after spending quarantine last week after dropping out of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament due to an outbreak. The team flew to Indianapolis on Friday.

The state of Ohio, the second selected from the Southern region, was not struck by the virus, but by the emerging Oral Roberts, who stunned the Buckeyes 75-72 for the first upset of a turbulent tournament. , on and off the court.

Not long after, Oregon State, the 12th seed in the Midwest region, upset Tennessee 70-56. It was the first tournament in Oregon since 1982.

“Everything is unusual until you get to the floor,” said Lucas Williamson, a senior guard at Loyola-Chicago. The players were grateful to play in front of some of their fans, who drove from Chicago, for the first time this season. . “Once you’re on the court, you just play basketball.”

Chaos in court is a welcome distraction for the NCAA. The president, Mark Emmert, and the organization have been attacked for the past few days by the players, who have been under surveillance in hotels for almost a week, tested daily and isolated in hotels. increase.

Just as one storm – a social media campaign urging the NCAA to give athletes the right to exploit their fame – began to simmer on Thursday, another one arose: the unequal treatment of women after a Oregon player Sedona Prince posted on social media a video of a pair of dumbbells that make up the training center for women’s teams during their tournament, which begins Sunday in Texas.

On Friday, the news comes that while the men administered polymerase chain reaction tests for the coronavirus, the women gave the less reliable antigen tests.

Even before all that, six referees were sent home for violating virus protocols by eating dinner together.

In an interview with a small group of reporters Friday at Hinkle Fieldhouse, Emmert defended the difference in tests, saying it was administered by local medical facilities that worked at NCAA events and were approved by the NCAA’s medical advisory board. He calls the inadequate gym for women ‘inexcusable’.

Emmert said he supports players who use their voices or gestures – such as several Colgate and Drexel players who knelt before the national anthem before their matches – and that some expressions indicated by players would be tolerated, even if it would be in violation of NCAA rules.

But there will be limits.

“When does it start disrupting other people?” says Emmert, who plans to visit the women’s tournament in Texas on Tuesday. “If someone does something that inherently creates a situation where another team or teammates cannot participate in a meaningful way, then that is a problem.”

On Friday morning in downtown Indianapolis, fans traveling here wandered the streets – many with their masks on their chins – for a tournament that would make the downtown district teem with people in normal time. When Arkansas fans began sneaking into Bankers Life Fieldhouse, home of the NBA’s Pacers, they began to gather in pods.

After the cancellation of last year’s tournament, some could not fade to miss another – including Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, the 101-year-old vaccinated nun who was Loyola-Chicago’s talisman on her way to the 2018 Final Four She looks out of her wheelchair into a corner of Hinkle Fieldhouse, the first time she’s seen her Ramblers in person this season as they progress with a win over Georgia Tech.

Cathy Work, a 53-year-old Virginia Tech fan from Lynchburg, Va., Can tell. After a triple bypass operation 11 years ago, she promised to live life to the fullest and was driven by a sense of camaraderie with other Hokies fans.

“I do not want to live in fear,” she said while a mask still crept from her nose.

Instead of games stacked on top of each other – teams usually stand in the tunnel waiting to take the track once the previous teams have cleared it. There was a 30-minute gap between the matches so that the benches could be disinfected against at least a dozen workers who had a clear backpack with a disinfectant spray issued by snakes to extinguish the seats.

Teams did not really have benches, but a series of 34 chairs set out in a grid to accommodate the members of each team’s travel company, who tested daily for at least a week and will continue to do so. until the team is eliminated. Broadcasters at Hinkle sat alone, across from the court of the scorer’s table with 20 rows of empty seats behind them.

“The energy is not the same,” said Sharron Mack, who hails from Gainesville, Florida and is a good friend of a Florida player. “Less fans, less energy.”

She added the pandemic: ‘Many people are afraid to be outside and enjoy themselves. When you come to a tournament like this, you go to the pleasure of it. It forbids much of it. ”

However, the atmosphere changed significantly for at least one game when an energetic group of Georgia Tech students got on their feet and did their best 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.) The students chanted, “Let’s go, jackets,” and drew a fingertip of a Tech player during warm-up.

It was an engaging gesture, a moment of connection between players and fans, one that will surely be diminished for this tournament, if it exists at all.

Gillian R. Brassil contribution made.

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