I need to begin with a blanket statement. I am not a doctor. Nor am I a scientist or a sociologist or a politician. I’m not even smart enough to know what other kinds of people to include in that list of people who should know better than me.
I can’t critique the NCAA’s decision to hold the NCAA tournament to a limited group of fans, inviting only dozens to a space usually occupied by tens of thousands. From what I’ve read, precautionary measures of this kind are vital in a time of pandemic. It seems at face value to be the correct decision for the health of our nation and the human race as a whole.
With all of that being said, strictly as a deep, caring basketball fan, I’m worried. March Madness is special . Not so special that it’s worth spreading a disease to all corners of our country, but to many of us, the last three weeks in March mean something. For now, we should still get our brackets, buzzer-beaters, Cinderellas, and champions. We won’t, however, feel the same energy or experience the same emotion as a typical year of March Madness.
It’s OK to say that the NCAA made the right choice and that the NCAA Tournament will be diminished compared to prior years. In a time of crisis, we needed to swallow our pride and eat our vegetables. I hate that the timing of this had to be mid-March. This could have been baseball season or early Fall or, God forbid, the during NFL Playoffs (imagine that!).
Regardless of how and why the decision was made, and whether or not it was the proper one, it’s happening. We’ve reached a reality where the Big Dance will essentially be without music.
The NCAA is already looking into smaller venues in the already chosen cities to host these now barely-attended games. There’s some room for that to be a positive thing. Indianapolis can shift from the giant Lukas Oil Stadium to one of college basketball’s most aesthetically pleasing and historic sites, Hinkle Fieldhouse. Los Angeles could downsize from the glitz of the Staples Center to the heart of Pauley Pavilion.
Despite the actual venues, there will be a flurry of questions this month. Will this effect the play on the court? Is there an advantage to favorites or underdogs or big schools or small ones? Do teams from specific areas of the country face greater challenges or have some sort of advantage? What will the experience of watching this quiet tournament (hat tip: Brett Brown) feel like? What memories will we create?
Perhaps most importantly, if COVID-19 continues to spread, is there a guarantee that this tournament will be finished as scheduled?
I don’t know the answers to any of those questions beyond an educated guess. I’d think that if any schools are at a slight disadvantage, it would be those famous for bringing raucous crowds to neutral arenas – Kentucky, Duke, and Kansas come to mind. Teams that were looking forward to a game close to home might be disappointed that those games will not come with the thousands of partisan fans they’d hope would attend, namely Gonzaga in Spokane, Baylor in Houston, Ohio State and Dayton in Cleveland, and again, Kentucky in “Cat-lanta”.
I know we’ll miss out on that special moment in a game when the neutral fans in an arena switch from bracket-obsessed frontrunners to the newfound diehard fans of a Cinderella within striking distance of an upset. We won’t see players slapping the floor or begging their half of the crowd to make some noise. Or maybe we will. Maybe the family members in attendance will become the loudest fans we’ve ever heard. Maybe the bench players and walk-ons will be even more boisterous than usual. Maybe we’ll be able to hear every sneaker squeak, trash talk, and dunk scream (and maybe we’ll secretly love that part).
We don’t know what the future holds. We know that for now, like every other year, there will be a tournament. I’m going to be just as excited as I am every other year because I don’t know any different. It might be eerie to watch a basketball game without fans or this might just be the perfect excuse to kick up our feet and self-quarantine for a few weeks. That’s basically what I do for those three weekends every other year.
Stock up on canned food and microwave popcorn. Forget the fears and the politics behind it. Watch the games and smile.
Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.