Welcome to the Bizarro World that is the NCAA Tournament
How things might play out for a very different March Madness in Indiana will be drama worth watching.
It was during an eighth season of the sitcom “Seinfeld” when a central character made a new group of friends who represented the inverted types of her normal companions.
Elaine Benes had entered the Bizarro World.
Which means television was about 25 years ahead of what we now know as the NCAA Tournament.
Oh, it’s different, all right.
One Shining Moment?
Um, try One Giant Petri Dish.
Drama worth watching
It’s March, so expecting the unexpected is hardly original. But there might not be a better case study for sports in times of a pandemic than what is about to occur in Indiana. The madness was canceled last year because of COVID-19. That it has returned is a celebration in itself.
How things might play out, though, as 68 teams descend upon the Hoosier State is drama worth watching. Games will be held at multiple venues, with the largest number in Indianapolis. That’s a whole lot of players and coaches and members of traveling parties being tested on a daily basis.
Call it what you want. Bubble. Controlled environment. Just know that the NCAA is a shade darker than Creighton’s blue jerseys right now from holding its breath.
Already, six referees have been sent home because of a positive coronavirus test and contact tracing. Their hotel rooms were reportedly not ready upon arriving in Indianapolis, so the group went to dinner together. Talk about a Lucas Oil Stadium-sized no-no.
Another important note: A team will be allowed to play should it be limited to just five healthy players.
Now, we aren’t suggesting that Gonzaga’s starting lineup alone could beat the winner of Appalachian State-Norfolk State over 40 minutes. Even though it could.
“We have a very good plan regarding (COVID-19),” said Dan Gavitt, senior vice president of men’s basketball for the NCAA. “Our medical protocols have been clearly communicated. Testing, masking, physical distancing and making sure meals are spaced or individual. As long as teams are disciplined in how they approach outside of games as well as during games, we feel confident.”
It just won’t look and feel the same.
The NCAA could settle on a rotation of Indianapolis, San Antonio and New Orleans to host the Final Four and call it a day. I’ve covered 23 straight years of college basketball’s last weekend — a streak halted when the pandemic erased last season’s event — and you’re not getting better than those three for atmosphere and convenience.
But given the circumstances, that such an unprecedented event will be held in its entirety within the state of Indiana is a good thing.
This isn’t: Games make the NCAA Tournament, but a close second is the pageantry around it.
No bands, cheerleaders
That’s especially true with the Final Four, where thousands of fans annually party in the streets of the host city.
Instead, attendance this year will be capped at 25 percent of an arena’s size, meaning 17,500 will be allowed to attend both the semifinals and final at Lucas Oil.
Many seats will be filled by those familiar cutouts, which isn’t exactly 74,000-plus fans on their feet and screaming at the highest of decibels as Kris Jenkins hits a buzzer-beater to take down North Carolina.
There will be no bands. No cheerleaders. No midnight rumors about who’s being hired and fired swirling around a packed lobby at the coach’s hotel. No ancillary factors that make the tournament what it is.
But brackets will bust and a national championship game will arrive April 5 and one team will ascend a ladder and cut down a net. Once, that is, an NCAA official has climbed up there with a can of Lysol.
Welcome back to the greatest sporting event we have.
I’m sure those in Indiana will breathe in every ounce of the magic.
Through those masks, of course.
Ed Graney is a Sigma Delta Chi Award winner for sports column writing and can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.