The sights and sounds of this March madness are different, but the outstanding stories and a few more are all the same History of the Tait

A peek inside the Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis, where Kansas beat the 14th seed Eastern Washington (93-84) by the third seed in a highly competitive first-round game in the weirdest edition of March Madness in history. by Matt Tait

Indianapolis – Four Missouri fans sat in a largely empty Indiana Farmers Coliseum on Saturday afternoon, sipping beer and cheering on an east Washington team they probably hadn’t even heard of until the 2021 NCAA tournament bracket last weekend has been published.

Under normal circumstances, the four inveterate tigers clad in black and gold clothing would undoubtedly have caused eastern Washington to stir up the excitement of its long-hated Kansas rival – which it didn’t.

But there is nothing normal about the circumstances in which this NCAA tournament is played, and that fact enabled the four Crusaders against Kansas to be in the building and flapping their “wings” with the Eagles fans than EMU Kansas urged the edge.

Among the one liners, the group who filled their section and may have been overheard at the gym called out their sophomore KU shot, Christian Braun, whose brother Parker plays for Mizzou.

“Parker’s the better brother,” they yelled amid somewhat clichéd barbs about the FBI, paying gamblers, and the like.

It was all great fun, of course, and after many Kansas fans received applause for Eastern Washington after the final horn, the foursome left the building, presumably to prepare for his own game later that night across town against Oklahoma.

The ninth Tigers lost this and ended their season while their former Big 12 brothers switched to 6-0 in the first round of this year’s tournament.

As they left, I wondered if they were having more fun promoting EMU than their own team a few hours later. Given the result, it seems likely.

But the mere fact that there were four of the 961 bodies – you read that number right – at the Coliseum when I saw a first-round NCAA tournament game with Kansas blew my mind.

And if this year’s event hadn’t been held almost entirely in the same city, it would never have happened.

Under normal circumstances, that group would likely have been in Detroit, Dallas, or Raleigh with the Tigers while Kansas and its legion of fans would have invaded Wichita again.

But therein lies the beauty of what’s happening in Indianapolis this month. Rather than having fans from seven or eight teams visiting eight different cities across the country, they’re fine here in Indy.

Of course, there aren’t nearly that many. And the scene is nowhere near what it normally would be. But it’s really cool to walk around and see a couple dozen different fan bases rocking their school colors in a five or six block downtown neighborhood.

Big and small, they all showed up. I’ve seen everything from Utah State and Cleveland State to Georgia Tech, Texas Tech, Kansas and North Carolina.

There were Zags gear, Purdue guys, 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 to go up against everyone else, there was a sense of kinship that existed between everyone.

A friendly nod here, good luck there and, perhaps the greatest and best of all, the prevailing mood shared by everyone who shouted subtly and without trying, “Keep it up! We made it!”

Yes, watching your team big dance is a big deal. But the joy of being able to enjoy March Madness in the first place has surpassed this year.

However, it wasn’t just the fans who thought so. Kansas coach Bill Self, whose team advanced to the second round for one day with a 93-84 win over the second favorite team of the four Tiger fans, expressed this in his post-game press conference.

“I don’t want to have to do this again,” said Self as he waited almost two full years between NCAA tournament games, the final KU on March 23, 2019 in Salt Lake City. “We have been so lucky and blessed to have played many tournaments here in a row and it should never be taken for granted. It is a reward for your children. So it couldn’t happen soon enough, but I just hope the hell (such a break) never happens again. ”

It is not just curiosities in participation that made this year’s trip to Big Dance different than in previous years. The experience of just being here is different too.

For the players, coaches and team staff, this means that most of the off-field time is spent on the same floor in the same hotel with limited entertainment. Video games, movies, team meals and meetings, and a little time outdoors fill most days.

There are also no bands or cheerleaders and the familiar faces of those who usually fill the seats behind the bench in Kansas every March – a group so well versed in the ups and downs of madness that they know exactly when to stand , squeak and swear – also missing.

For the media, it’s mostly the same setup, although no one is monitoring where we are going or not. Where we are not is in the arenas.

I would estimate that 80% of the non-sleeping time in NCAA tournaments was spent in the arena in every location we visit. On game day, you’ll be there long before and after the tip and often spend time – when you’ve finished writing – watching the other games on that day at the venue. On the days off there are open practices, access to changing rooms, hospitality rooms and videos / radio hits in and around the arena.

None of this is available this time. It definitely stinks. Some of the funniest and coolest stories we’ve made all year round come from the NCAA tournament’s open access environment, where locker rooms are open for specific periods of time on match days and non-working days, and you’ll be able to with one to dig. On-one and off-the-Beaten-Path interviews and inquiries with everyone on the roster, including assistant coaches.

Not having that is a small price to pay for having basketball again and watching the madness march on. But it is missed. And that makes the whole thing feel, as Self said today, “different”.

Zoom calls and at least the ability to watch the action live – although the number of people who do this at each game was understandably also limited – has created an atmosphere that feels normal and allows us to do that, what we do. But I can’t help but think about how different it will feel the further we get into this matter.

No interviews in overjoyed changing rooms with music and signs of the bus’s water bath visible from the bathroom to the ceiling. Also no eerie silence or ruined empty looks after heartbreaking losses.

It really limits what we can share with our readers and what stories we can tell. But even here March Madness without him is – at least temporarily – still much better than no March Madness at all.

We have all experienced that. And it’s not a lot of fun.

This is. And while the interactions between the players and teams, as well as the fans and the media, were drastically different, all great stories are told nonetheless. And they are born from what happens on the floor between the lines while the clock is running, where everything feels pretty normal for at least 40 minutes.

The great man from east Washington, Tanner Groves, was one of them. And the only thing stopping him from becoming the hot name of the first round and a household name across the country overnight was the bottom line.

Groves understood that. But it didn’t wipe the smile from his face or remove the appreciation he felt for the opportunity to prove himself before the nation against a blue blood program.

The lumberjack force from the Northwest, who ended up with 35 points in the loss to Kansas, was on social media for a while. People compared him to Bill Walton and Will Ferrell’s character in Semi-Pro.

He also received praise from the gym where he played his heart out from these four Mizzou fans, in the form of standing ovations from Kansas fans and also from Self.

“He just said he had a lot of respect for my brother and me,” said Groves of Self’s personal message to him on the pitch after Saturday’s game. “He said we had a damn good game. It’s really cool to get such insane recognition from one of the premiere coaches for the entire NCAA. “It’s really surreal that Coach Self came up to me and said he respected my performance today. I am just grateful for the opportunities we have today. “

It is these moments that remind you what March is all about.

The rest will return. And it will be lovely when it does.

But even without them, this year’s event kicks off with the start we’ve always loved about this tournament, and there’s no doubt more to come in the days ahead.

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