They practice in comfortable gymnasiums. They play all year in arenas where the fans and noise are right on top of them. And then, in the absolute biggest games of their seasons and possibly their lives, college basketball teams play in a setting that is about as intimate as the Grand Canyon.
There is nothing quite like it anywhere else in American sports, this practice of the NCAA Tournament welcoming its Final Four by dropping them into a completely alien environment. It is amazing that players shoot as well as they do while facing into vast acres of air and spectators far, far away in the upper, upper decks.
Welcome back to stadium ball, which is, of course, a windfall for the NCAA and a huge potential pratfall for players who are trying to win a national championship.
“Definitely, a change of scenery causes that depth perception trouble and whatnot,” said Michigan State’s Kenny Goins, a fifth-year senior who redshirted in 2014-15 but was with the team when it went to the Final Four. “Really, it’s just getting out there and warming up and shooting. The practice we had here [Thursday] definitely helped. We weren’t allowed to have an actual practice before the game last time and I think it definitely affected us. But I think being able to get out there and put up as many shots as possible is probably the biggest thing.
“Once you’re in the swing of things, it all evens itself out,” Goins said. “But it’s those first couple of shots, you might end up hitting just backboard, thinking you’re a lot closer than you are.”
Texas Tech big man Tariq Owens, whose team faced Michigan State on Saturday night before more than 70,000 at U.S. Bank Stadium, said: “The rim is the rim. You’ve got to trust the work that you put in. The depth perception is a little bit different, but you’ve got to trust the work. It’s muscle memory. You can’t get consumed by how much space is around you, how many people are in the gym. You’ve got to believe in what you can do.”
Some teams do that better than others. The 2016 Villanova Wildcats were not the least flustered by NRG Stadium in Houston. They shot 71.4 percent from the floor in their semifinal against Oklahoma and 58.3 percent in their championship game win over North Carolina. But at the same huge venue five years earlier, Connecticut won the title by shooting a mere 34.5 percent because Butler shot 18.8.
It is something else with which everyone must deal. That’s the cost of the NCAA insisting on a Super Bowl atmosphere, which it has fostered since it last held the Final Four in a basketball arena (the Meadowlands) 23 years ago.
Kyle Guy of Virginia said Friday, “As a shooter, obviously, you have to be confident in yourself and your teammates have to be confident in you. And with that confidence, it doesn’t matter where you’re shooting. You could be shooting at Rucker Park in Harlem or you could be shooting in a football stadium.”
Said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, “The key is just to get good shots.”
The key for tournament organizers is to attract as many ticket- and souvenir-buyers as humanly possible. Fine. It’s nice that many people get to say they were at the Final Four (to say they actually saw it might be a stretch).
But it would be nice, at least once in a while, if they brought the Final Four to New York, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Greensboro or anywhere else that does not have the luxury of a monstrous dome. Bring it back to its true indoor roots.
The tournament wouldn’t be what it is without games in cozy settings such as Maryland’s Cole Field House (trailblazing Texas Western over Kentucky, 1966), Salt Lake City’s Special Events Center (Magic Johnson over Larry Bird, 1979) and Albuquerque’s Pit (Jim Valvano’s desperate dash to find someone to hug).
It reminds me of a time I covered a matinee National League playoff game in St. Louis and the headline in the next day’s Post-Dispatch was, “Day Baseball: What’ll They Think of Next?”
How about this: a championship basketball game in a basketball arena.