by Andrew Hatton
Arriving in Indianapolis like I had for many sporting events before, it’s not hard to tell that this atmosphere is different; this is something special. Swarms of green, red and blue roll by. Arrogant shouts of fandom and pride are belted out from each small group as they pass. Everyone brings their optimism to the Final Four.
We enter Lucas Oil Stadium and it is filled to the brim. For many it’s their first visit to the home of the NFL’s Colts, and they walk around admiring the architecture like most would. It truly is one of the more eye-pleasing venues in the nation.
But the NCAA is in town, so there are no horseshoe logos to be found, no Andrew Luck jerseys, just the emblem of college sports’ mighty dictators covering every available space. You don’t create a billion dollar industry by marketing for Roger Goodell.
As we approach the entrance to the club lounge, current NC State Head Basketball Coach and former Alabama Crimson Tide standout Mark Gottfried is standing there. This is going to be pretty cool, Roll Tide.
We find our seats and begin to check out the environment. The basketball court has been dropped right in the middle of the football field, and looks as small as it sounds in comparison. Our seats are good, but I immediately feel for those in the nosebleeds watching the apparent flea circus before them.
But the NCAA isn’t worried about viewing pleasure, they just squeezed over 72,000 in here, they can’t see the game through the dollar signs. Mark Emmert is probably off somewhere doing his best Scrooge McDuck impersonation.
A buzz begins to grow behind us; I turn and see The Big Aristotle in the luxury box directly to my back. He’s checking out the crowd, smiles and waves at us; it feels genuine.
The Admiral then enters the very same box; they laugh and exchange a hug. They turn their eyes to Game 1, eager to watch the next crop of NBA stars. Shaq and Robinson, two legends of the game there to see the best player in the nation, a 6’10” Blue Devil that goes by ‘Jah’.
Future NBA stars are great and all, but the true stars of the first game were found on the sideline, Coach K and Izzo. Such a surreal moment, two Hall of Fame coaches meet at mid-court for the pre-game handshake on the sport’s biggest stage. Goose bumps, man.
My favorite moment of the night comes when it’s time for the national anthem. A student athlete from each of the four schools represented is chosen to sing; my favorite being the Wisconsin basketball player in his pre-game warm-ups. As if playing ball in front of 70,000 plus isn’t bad enough, make sure you don’t sing off key.
The four students each take turns singing a line separately; the Badger, the Blue Devil, the Spartan and the Wildcat. But then they begin to come together, and as they harmonize the crowd becomes electrified. That is what this is all about; these four schools, these student athletes, this moment. More goose bumps.
As the first game begins you quickly realize that this game is not like others. A stadium of fans divided evenly into four groups. Half of the stadium sits silent as the Badgers and Wildcats refuse to cheer for teams they will see in the final.
The game quickly loses its excitement; the Blue Devils have been dominant. Winslow and Okafor have added another line to their résumé-NBA scouts swoon.
The second game of the night arrives, fans waiting with bated breath; this is the primetime match-up. The Kaminsky-led Badgers in search for their moment of infamy. Also, Bo Ryan as a villain is definitely more Lethal Weapon than 007.
The second game makes up for the excitement that the first one lacked, and then some. Wisconsin and Kentucky exchange blows like heavyweight boxers in a title bout; the twelfth round looms large.
As the intensity of the second half grows, the neutrals begin to pledge their allegiance to the side of their choice. Disgruntled Spartan fans split right in half; some yell blue, some yell red.
With minutes left in the game, Wildcat fans are still confident. They’ve seen this movie before, they know the ending, and the good guys always win. But the optimism slowly fades.
A fan favorite fails to make an impact, the wonder-twins clutch gene never materializes, and Kentucky’s Knight in Shining Armani stands on the sideline inept as the seconds tick off the clock. Immortality has slipped away.
Kentucky fans stand there stunned with ghost-like complexions. Badgers knock down more free throws. It’s over.
For the fans at the game not privy to replay, there was no shot-clock controversy, no officiating shortfalls. There was a string of bad possessions, a failure to get the ball into the hands of their best player, and an opponent that executed.
As blue waves flooded out of the stadium there were scattered murmurs, but very little conversation; there are no words.
Off to the side, one man in a group speaks up. “They were kids, that was just too much pressure to put on 19 year-olds,” he says. Ironic coming from a group wearing “40-0” t-shirts.
“We’ve got it next year though, with this recruiting class,” another man from the group chimes in. “We’ll be back here for sure.”
Hope springs eternal.