Noie: Even in a pandemic, NCAA Tournament still delivers the way it should

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS — We talked more about the Gallaghers than game plans.

It was March 2016 and the Notre Dame men’s basketball team had embarked on another NCAA Tournament run that delivered a second straight Elite Eight. The Irish were back in a familiar arena — Brooklyn’s Barclays Center — doing familiar postseason stuff. Mainly, winning. During media access on the day after a first-round win over Michigan and the day before a memorable second-round win over Stephen F. Austin (the Rex Pflueger tip game), Irish players Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell had had enough questions about any Xs and 0s.

So the conversation went an entirely different direction.

Both had started binge-watching the Showtime series “Shameless,” the story of a financially-, morally- and socially-challenged family trying to make ends and everything else meet in the Back of the Yards neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Colson and Farrell were big fans of Fiona and Lip and Frank. They even pondered road tripping over to Illinois to see the actual house where the series is filmed (Google it). The two tossed out lines and scenes from their favorite episodes and nearly lost it when they learned one local beat writer’s niece was friends with the actor who played Carl Gallagher.

There was little mention of hoops. There were no “talk about” questions, no bland sound bites about taking it one game at a time. No deep dives into what problems the Lumberjacks might create for the Irish the next afternoon. Just two basketball players talking everything but basketball.

It was glorious.

One perk of covering the NCAA Tournament isn’t the courtside seats or the ability to watch as many as four games for free in one day — back when the tournament followed its usual format. The best part after enduring the previous six-month grind of the regular season is the media access offered. Before games. After games. Between games. It’s as if a certain curtain lifts and reporters are allowed to roam and actually, you know, report.

One rule in covering any team in postseason — right behind Rule No. 1 which is never, ever let someone else in your organization book your hotel reservations for it may cause some disagreement down the line (yeah, you know) — is that you never, ever attend the head coach’s day-before-game press conference. It’s the same guy giving the same answers you’ve heard since the season started, only this time, to a group of journalists unfamiliar with his team. You’ve heard it all before, so no reason to hear it all again.

Once the head coach takes the dais, a 30-minute countdown clock — there’s an actual clock with red numerals counting down in every team’s locker room — begins. Media have that time to talk to any and all team personnel. Want to grab a veteran guy at the back end of the rotation or a walk-on for a feature? Grab him. Want to pull aside an assistant coach for a quick scouting report? Pull him. Want to listen to the long-time trainer trade stories with one of the greats to ever wear an Irish uniform? There wasn’t nearly enough time to listen to the banter between former Irish trainer Skip Meyer and Kelly Tripucka that day at Barclays, but we digress.

Unlike the regular season, where certain players might be shielded from the media for certain reasons, nobody is off limits. Everyone is required to sit at their locker and speak if asked to speak. You might share ”Shameless” stories with two main guys, or pick up a newsy nugget of the unnamed variety.

That day at Barclays before the Michigan game, one former Irish accidently (not really) let slip to this reporter that Notre Dame was going a different starting lineup direction for its opener. You didn’t get this from me, the player said, but Farrell’s starting.

Whoa!

Farrell started and the Irish started winning. Three wins later, Farrell had his own “breakout” interview room on a Wells Fargo Center concourse prior to the East Regional final against North Carolina in Philadelphia. He still wanted to talk more about “Shameless” than the Tar Heels.

That depth of access is absent from this tournament, for obvious reasons. There are no open locker rooms. There are no chances to seek out stories about players that haven’t been told. Interviews for the 2021 NCAA Tournament are limited to a few minutes on Zoom, where the connection from a team’s hotel headquarters might not be all that great. In essence, you get 10 minutes of speed dating. Instead of a hug at the end, you have to crank out a 900-word story.

There’s no color. There’s no insight. It’s all run-of-the-mill question and answer stuff. Same goes for postgame.

Those after-game scenarios now are controlled chaos. Or just plain crazy. Following Friday’s game between Georgia Tech and Loyola Chicago at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, a few veteran journalists (and from Chicago) who don’t cover college basketball on a regular basis had no clue how to access the post-game Zoom feed. Who’s talking? What are they saying? How do we listen?

Pfff….rookies.

Back in 2017 — the last time Notre Dame actually appeared in the NCAA Tournament — former Marian High School standout Devin Cannady nearly sent his hometown team home with a buzzer-beating jumper. It didn’t fall and the Irish advanced. Afterward, a crushed Cannady sat in the silence of the Princeton locker room and answered the waves of questions about the final sequence. He was quiet, but all class. His cooperation helped put a face on the moment, and the madness of March.

Now, the one player made available for post-game Zooms might not be someone like Cannady.

There’s much missing about the way the tournament has to run today because of the coronavirus pandemic. No big crowds. No real access. No way to actually get to know the guys that you see on the television making the big plays or taking the big shots.

But then the games begin. As the song says, the ball is tipped and there you are. Sitting not necessarily courtside but at least you’re in the gym and covering live NCAA Tournament games. Once games start, it’s all college basketball again. Tournament basketball. You remember why you’ve spent nearly a quarter century doing all of this.

More, please.

No shame in saying that.

In a different kind of college basketball season, it's been a different kind of challenge to cover the NCAA Tournament. Until the games begin. Then, it's just basketball.