INDIANAPOLIS — It’s 11 a.m. Friday and a mile or so from Hinkle Fieldhouse, The Urban Hippie has just opened its doors, bohemian dresses and fringed tops hanging in wait. Down the road a bit on the way to madness, Northwood Christian Church’s pastor Heath Jones invites people, via a road sign, to worship with him on a weekly Facebook livestream.
Along the cracked sidewalks of 42nd Street, cars whiz by. It’s walking distance now to the madness. A golden retriever, with deep red fur, stops to sniff a patch of grass. A baby holding a pine cone, a treasured find, is being pushed in a stroller down Pennsylvania Street.
Two men, out of place on a corner, are the first clue that the madness is actually here. Standing catty corner from Hinkle, they hold a sign: “I need tickets.” A few yards down, a group of guys drinking cans of beer bounce to music blaring in their yard, a makeshift grass parking lot they’re offering up for $20 a car.
Shiny black-and-silver chartered buses sit empty in front of Hinkle, only a matter of time before one team will come out joyous and the other their heads hanging.
The clock strikes 12:15 p.m. The whistle blares. The first game of March Madness has tipped off.
As if anyone expected any differently, this first game of the first round of the NCAA Tournament wouldn’t end when it was supposed to. Overtime would ensue.
The first two days of the first round wouldn’t end as planned, either. The final first-round game would be canceled due to COVID-19.
But from the first tip to the supposed-to-have-sounded final buzzer, and all that happened in between, there was a glorious show of college basketball. Two days, 36 hours, 12 teams and six venues for the first round of March Madness.
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Overtime. Yep. Sounds about right.
“Fans thank you for doing your part…” the announcer inside Hinkle starts reminding the crowd from the very beginning. Wear masks, socially distance. The fans are fine with that, it seems.
They are a select group of limited spectators allowed to attend the tournament. Most are at Hinkle because they have a stake in this game, wearing maroon for No. 10 seed Virginia Tech or blue for seventh-seeded Florida.
With 12:58 left in the second half, Virginia Tech leads 44-38. A collision between opposing jersey No. 22s — Virginia Tech’s Keve Aluma’s elbow with Florida’s Tyree Appleby’s head.
Coaches and trainers run to Aluma’s side. He’s rubbing his elbow. Appleby is writhing in pain, his head thrown back as he stumbles off the court with the help of trainers.
“We need him,” a Florida fan screams out. “We need you.” Everything can be heard so clearly in this fieldhouse with so few fans. Even the players on the court, what they are saying to one another echoes. A little trash talk to a competitor, mixed with encouragement to a teammate.
The sun shines onto the court, streaming in from the vintage windows that adorn Hinkle. Less than seven minutes are left in this first game. The announcer comes over the loud speaker.
He is letting fans know that merchandise stands will close with five minutes left in the game, in order to clean and sanitize. As he thanks the crowd for its cooperation, a referee on the court next to the Virginia Tech bench puts his arm out to signal a call. Coach Mike Young puts his arm out to signal to a player. Their arms collide. For a split second, Young’s face reddens and looks furious. Then he realizes it was an accident.
His pacing begins again.
It’s 62-59 Florida with 30 seconds left. Virginia Tech sophomore Nahiem Alleyne makes a jumper, 62-61; Florida calls timeout.
The music reverberates through the fieldhouse, “Juice” by Lizzo. “Mirror, mirror on the wall…lit up like a crystal ball….that’s cool, baby, so is you…that’s how I roll.”
A crystal ball. If only the crowd here could see into one of those.
With 7.3 seconds left, Florida is up 64-61 and gets fouled. Virginia Tech calls the timeout. Icing the free throw shooter. It works. Junior Anthony Duruji misses both.
Alleyne drains a 3, tying the game up at 64-64. Timeout Florida with 1.7 seconds left on clock. The game resumes and then it stops. No one scores. Overtime.
“So get out your seat and jump around,” House of Pain begins blaring. A referee stands on the court across from the benches, rubs his hands together and looks up at the score clock. Overtime. Yep. Sounds about right.
A Florida fan with a 16-ounce can of Coors Light and a look of overtime excitement on his face heads toward the restroom and ends up walking next to a Virginia Tech fan in maroon. “I can’t believe it,” the Florida fan says to him. “We only had to hit one.”
And that 3-pointer wouldn’t have mattered.
“I know man,” the Virginia Tech fan says to him, with a smile.
In the end, the missed free throws didn’t matter. Florida pulled ahead in overtime and won 75-70.
“Fans, thank you for attending the 2021 NCAA first round at Hinkle Fieldhouse. We encourage you to depart at the nearest exit, keep a 6-foot distance. If you have been drinking, arrange for a designated driver and arrive home safely.”
Game 1 of the madness is in the books. Now onto a peculiar NFL stadium transformed for basketball.
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No way they’ll pull that off
The concession stands inside street level of Lucas Oil Stadium are barred up. Pictures of soft pretzels and popcorn and chicken tenders are on colorful signs, but the food is not being sold.
It’s dark and it’s empty. A CSC event staff member walks through the area usually buzzing with game day fanfare. The only hint any sport is taking place here at 3:41 p.m. Friday is a voice that booms through the loudspeakers.
“Jump ball, possession Baylor.”
No. 1 seed Baylor is on the field — an NFL field split into two by a massive black curtain — now a makeshift basketball court. No. 16 seed Hartford is giving this top seed a game. For the first 12 minutes, the lead flips back and forth. With six minutes left in the first half, Baylor has been held to 20 points with a six-point lead.
The court looks tiny in this 185,000-square-foot stadium. The stands reach way too high and number way too many for the fans in this place. Binoculars are out as spectators in the loftiest seats trying to catch a glimpse of what look like tiny Lego men playing below.
And here at Lucas Oil, just like Hinkle, the sounds are potent, with no large crowd to drown things out.
“Oh, he wants to shoot a step-back fadeaway. He wants to shoot a step-back fadeaway,” a Baylor fan heckles Hartford’s Austin Williams.
When a Baylor player falls to the court, any time a player’s skin touches the court, a mopper in a clear, full facemask walks out to wipe up the spot. This time, she almost doesn’t make it off before Baylor comes rushing back down on a fast break.
A time out is called. And people in red jackets hold up a posters in front of fans at every corner of the court. “Please wear face coverings.” A man holds his sign during the entire time out. He holds it every single break. And during the action if he spots a fan without a mask, he holds it up as if trying to communicate directly to them.
As the first half winds down, the No. 1 seed starts to pull away. It’s 31-20 with 2:07 left.
Baylor senior MaCio Teague dives for a ball and lands under the feet of people in the press box. A screen falls off the table and the cords fall around him, twisting Teague up. It takes at least a minute for him to unwind himself and step back on the court.
Four more points for Baylor, 35-20. “Let’s go Hartford. Let’s go Hartford,” fans chant desperately. No good. The halftime buzzer sounds: 37-21 Baylor.
A golf cart navigates toward the Hartford bench as the teams head to the locker room. Hartford’s D.J. Mitchell, who is on crutches, is asked if he wants a ride. He declines.
As the teams disappear, workers appear on the court with ladders and cleaning supplies. Backboards and goals are sanitized, scrubbed all the way down to the NCAA cushion that wraps around the goal.
A man with what looks like green Nerf gun navigates the spread-out-chairs of the teams’ benches, spraying each seat with sanitizer.
With no live halftime entertainment, this is it — watching the COVID-19 protocols. But then the big screen sweeps to a live look-in of No. 2 seed Ohio State taking on No. 15 seed Oral Roberts game. With 11:20 left, Oral Roberts leads 49-45.
“No way Oral Roberts will pull that one off,” a woman walking up an aisle of Lucas Oil says to her friend.
But they did pull it off, 75-72. And the madness continued.
1st day: Wacky upsets, busted brackets
Baylor lived up to its top seed and soundly thumped Hartford, 79-55, inside Lucas Oil.
Through the streets of downtown afterward, two teens stood in front of the J.W. Marriott taking selfies with the world’s largest bracket behind them. On Interstate 65, just before the 29th/30th street exit, a blue March Madness sign greeted northbound travelers.
An acknowledgement that yes, this is the way to West Lafayette. This is the way to Mackey Arena, where another first round game was about to be played. Just past John R. Wooden drive is the fan entrance to Mackey.
There are candy stripes inside — and they don’t belong to the usual suspects. IU and its red and white striped pants, always an annoyance playing Purdue in this arena, have been replaced by the same color striped overalls of Wisconsin.
The No. 9 seed Badgers are taking on No. 8 seed North Carolina, but this place at 7:10 p.m. doesn’t feel like college basketball. There is no frenzy. Just diehard Wisconsin and North Carolina fans who’ve made the trek to the home of the Boilermakers.
On Purdue’s campus outside, the streets are buzzing for another game No. 4 seed Purdue is taking on 13th seeded North Texas that evening.
More than 100 people pour onto State Street waiting to get into Harry’s Chocolate Shop – a misleading name for a place that describes itself as a “boisterous, campus-adjacent pub serving American bar fare in a vintage setting since 1919.”
Students in pairs holding hands almost skip toward bars wearing black and gold, prepared for an easy victory. They have no care for what’s taking place in their arena.
With two minutes left in the first half, Wisconsin has already started dominating the game, 32-24.
North Carolina fans are clapping furiously, shouting “De-fense. De-fense. De-fense.”
Wisconsin senior Brad Davison drains a 3-pointer and salutes. Senior redshirt Trevor Anderson hits his own 3. With less than a minute to play in the first half, the Badgers are up 40-24.
The Wisconsin section, spread out by protocol, erupts. This is the loudest, most college-like basketball it’s felt like in any arena so far.
The faithful in the light blue of North Carolina are silent. As halftime begins, it’s 8:12 p.m. and the Purdue game is on the big screen. The Boilermakers trail 21-18 with 6:20 left in their first half.
Twitter is echoing with Boilermaker fans urging each other not to be worried yet. A Wisconsin fan yells out, “Gooooooooo North Texas.”
An old video of Wisconsin’s spirit squad preforming at home when the stands were filled appears on the screen. “On, Wisconsin!” the school’s theme song is playing, the Badger fans are clapping and dancing.
Purdue and North Texas pop back on the screen, 29-22 with 3:07 left in the half. North Texas is leading. “North Texas is really playing with confidence,” the TV analysts say. As the half ends, Purdue is losing 32-24.
The fans in Mackey seem not to care. They are waiting for the light blue and red to take the court again. And when they do, the fans stand up cheering. In the end, the candy stripes would win 85-62 inside Mackey and Purdue would lose 78-69 in Indianapolis.
The first day of the first round is nearing an end, filled with wacky upsets and busted brackets and strange-feeling crowds. And the madness of March would take on a different meaning this year.
Life goes on
The March Madness sign is along the highway again, this time on I-465 South. This is the way to Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall on a beautiful, sunny Saturday — Day 2 of Round 1.
A billboard just before the Beech Grove exit features a big Butler Blue, the mascot of Butler University. Get the score on college hoops, it reads. Follow Butler Blue all week long.
On the campus of Bloomington, it’s 1:45 p.m. Outside Assembly Hall, four fans dressed in IU crimson walked toward the entrance. They aren’t really here for LSU and St. Bonaventure. They are just there to see basketball.
As the game tips off inside, it doesn’t quite feel like college basketball as defense becomes king — or maybe poor shooting is the king. Seven minutes elapse, the score barely a score, 4-2 St. Bonaventure.
Eight minutes left in the half, 4-4. A time out is called. And so it goes, roughly one score per minute, a slow-paced game. St. Bonaventure, up 6-4 with 11:06 left in the half. LSU up 7-6 with 10:43.
LSU’s Javonte Smart says something that fans can’t hear but the referee can. A technical foul is called on Smart. He looks around in disbelief. A spectator whispers, “He must have said something bad.”
St. Bonaventure makes both free throws, 8-6, and turns over its possession. LSU scores, 10-8 with 9:40 left, then another, 12-8 with 8:54 remaining.
A roaring shout is heard from the St. Bonaventure bench. “You’ve got to be better than that,” a coach screams. LSU drains a shot, 29-18 with 2:30 left.
As halftime hits, the teams walk off the court to a score of 31-22, LSU leading. The sanitation begins. Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You” plays. Fans talk in low murmurs.
LSU will be the ultimate victor in this game, 76-61. And as that plays out, the sun still shines outside and a crowd is gathered across the street from Assembly Hall. A group of nearly 40 people stands in a circle with blue tents sprinkled around them.
“March to end the madness,” they chant. They are here not to end basketball but to protest the city of Bloomington’s unhoused population.
“Everybody’s got a right to live,” reads one sign. Another: “Fight poverty, not the poor.”
It may be March on IU’s campus, but the Hoosiers didn’t make it into the NCAA tournament. And life goes on.
‘Punch their ticket’
Meridian Street is abuzz, a group of fans decked out in Rutgers gear walking toward Slippery Noodle Inn, where people linger outside talking and drinking.
Toward Bankers Life Fieldhouse, dozens wait outside Kilroy’s Bar-N-Grill. Georgia Street is packed. This is the heart of the madness, downtown Indianapolis
Inside Bankers Life, the suites are full, people eating and drinking and watching basketball the most luxurious way it can be watched.
It’s 4:30 p.m. and No. 6 seed USC is taking on No. 11 seed Drake. A lone USC fan in the upper levels hits the chair next to her in rhythm. Another USC fan shakes maroon and gold scarves to a disco beat thumping during the timeout.
The game is a close one as the first half plays out, 30-30 with 3:33 left. Bankers Life looks huge and the fans look small. Three teenage Drake fans turn their backs as USC shoots a free throw.
As the halftime buzzer sounds, it’s 40-37 USC. The school’s fight song plays.
“Now let’s head back to Lucas Oil,” the fieldhouse announcer says. It’s a nail biter there. Eleven seconds left in the game and No. 5 seed Creighton is up 63-62 against No. 12 seed UC Santa Barbara.
UC Santa Barbara has the ball and misses the shot. With 1.9 seconds left, Creighton is at the free throw line.
“There is still a time out left for UC Santa Barbara,” the announcer says. Creighton misses the free throw. UC Santa Barbara doesn’t call a time out. Instead the ball is launched and misses the basket. Creighton survives by 1, winning 63-62.
“Off to the round of 32,” the TV analyst says. “The Blue Jays punch their ticket.”
A few in the crowd cheer. Another few bemoan a pick they made in their brackets.
They watch as the game in front of them, live on the court, resumes and ends with a USC victory, 72-56 over Drake.
The final games of the second day of Round 1 are ready to begin.
The final buzzer of the first round was expected to sound well past midnight in the wee hours of Sunday at the Indiana Farmers Coliseum — declaring a winner between Oregon and VCU.
But as 6 p.m. hit Saturday, the alerts started sounding on cell phones across the country.
March Madness had its first COVID-19 casualty. The Oregon-VCU game was canceled due to multiple positive tests in the VCU program. The game was declared a no contest, and No. 7-seeded Oregon moved on to the second round to play No. 2 seed Iowa.
“We’ve been tested every day for the past three weeks, but within the past 48 hours we’ve received multiple positive tests,” VCU coach Mike Rhodes said in a statement. “We are devastated for our players and coaches. It has been a dream for all of us to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
The VCU program had not been shut down during the regular season because of COVID-19 issues, according to athletic director Ed McLaughlin.
“This isn’t something where our team broke protocol,” McLaughlin said in a Zoom call with media. “We don’t know how this happened. It’s brutal.”
Brutal and maddening. Missed shots and drained ones. Exciting and disappointing. All the ingredients for a recipe for madness, all the ingredients poured into just one round.