Noie: Don't be sad that the 2021 hoops madness ended, be happy it returned

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

They closed down college basketball’s postseason party. Turned on the lights, sent everyone home, thanked them for showing up. And out.

A champion was expected to be crowned (this column headed to print long before tip-off) late Monday. They planned to shoot confetti into the air inside Lucas Oil Stadium and hand out hats and T-shirts, get one team to climb specially-sponsored ladders and cut the nets. On the video boards, “One Shining Moment,” would play and everyone associated with the sport would collectively exhale and think, whew, we got there. Don’t know how, but yeah, baby, we got there.

That included the man in charge of it all — NCAA senior vice president of basketball Dan Gavitt. Couple months back during a 30-minute phone interview with the Tribune in advance of the 2021 NCAA Tournament, Gavitt admitted that he’d steal a moment to himself somewhere along the way. It wouldn’t be on Selection Sunday when the field of 68 was set. It wouldn’t be when the First Four unfolded at two separate college arenas in this basketball-starved state. It wouldn’t be that first weekend or even the second. Not this past weekend at the Final Four, which gave us THE game for the ages.

Where were you when Jalen Suggs did what Jalen Suggs did in overtime to beat UCLA? People will ask and remember that final sequence in overtime for the next 30 years. Don’t think so? See Laettner, Christian and Duke and Kentucky for proof.

No, Gavitt insisted he wouldn’t take a minute until sometime on Championship Monday, when Baylor and Gonzaga gathered on the floor of a football stadium to determine college basketball’s first national champion since 2019. The court wouldn’t be laid out on the 50-yard line, but shoved into one corner of the massive facility. There’d be about 8,000 fans way up in the stands, and the other half of the building closed off with a massive black curtain.

It was likely then that Gavitt would steal that moment to himself. He figured to get emotional after feeling personally responsible that the 2020 tournament never got off the ground because of the coronavirus pandemic. A tournament that means so much to so many means more to Gavitt.

College basketball is in his soul. It’s his life.

Gavitt got this show to go on, and Monday, he was about to pull off the finale, pandemic and all the issues and concerns that accompanied it be damned.

“The challenges around this and the unpredictability of the virus means you can’t ever rest or let your guard down,” Gavitt said in early February. “I don’t anticipate doing that until it’s over.”

It’s over. The NCAA tournament reached the finish line. They played 66 games in six venues over 18 days. Only one game — a first-round matchup between Oregon and Virginia Commonwealth — couldn’t go because of virus issues. The NCAA deemed that one a “no contest.”

Word that Saturday afternoon raced around Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse — Oregon and VCU was off. A fog of uncertainty settled over what passed as press row on the arena’s upper level. Was this the beginning of the end? Would the tournament even see the second weekend? The Sweet 16 and Elite Eight? Man, that seemed so far away. How would the NCAA ever get there?

A fine finish

They got there. Bash the NCAA for the organization’s shortcomings and tone-deaf decisions between the haves (the men’s tournament) and the have-nots (the women’s tournament). It’s warranted. But be sure to praise Gavitt and his group for doing what many thought couldn’t and wouldn’t be done.

We had an NCAA Tournament. We had games and names emerge over the last three weeks. We busted brackets. We got a Final Four. We crowned a champion.

No, this wasn’t the NCAA Tournament in the traditional sense. The venues were limited to Indianapolis and vicinity. Arenas filled with a thousand or so fans — some of which still stood 10 deep at concessions stands, like at Hinkle where they sold tubs of popcorn for $15 a pop and icy cold White Claws. Both were snapped up by men and women and college students who all love their basketball.

The main storyline at the start of this tournament centered on the virus. The protocols, the “controlled environment” of downtown, where teams were housed in security-controlled hotels, the police-escort of charter buses going to and from venues around town. Hear the sirens, see the buses. Here they come; there the go.

Then something happened as it always does in this tournament — the games and the moments became the story.

The only way Oregon State was getting in was by winning the Pac-12 tournament. So the Beavers won the tournament kept right on winning, getting all the way to the Elite Eight. The only way UCLA was staying was if it won a play-in game against Michigan State. So UCLA played the first of its three tournament overtime games, kept advancing and nearly dropped undefeated Gonzaga in Saturday’s memorable national semifinal.

The Big Ten again proved that playing in the nation’s toughest and most challenging conference gets you nowhere but an early tournament ticket home. Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, likely the first pick in the summer’s NBA draft, won one game. By the end of the first weekend, he too was done. So was everybody’s bracket, but that’s the point. That’s the Madness of March.

This tournament had everything from Rick Pitino stomping to Miley Cyrus singing.

UCLA’s Johnny Juzang piled up points and became a household name. So did Drew Timme for his Fu Manchu ‘stache. Nice to see and hear again from Sister Jean and Loyola Chicago. This tournament didn’t lack for drama or storylines or names of players we hardly knew during the winter.

For that, we give thanks. And praise. Both to the NCAA tournament, for bringing some sports-world normalcy back to our lives after a year pretty much void of it.

Sports does what sports does. It turns its attention to next up on the calendar. That means The Masters and baseball and, sigh, spring football. College basketball heads on hiatus for the next six months. When it returns in October, there will be new coaches at Indiana and North Carolina and Texas. Who knows where the transfer portal will have topped out? As of Monday, there were over 1,200 names of players looking for fresh starts, for new homes, for better opportunities. The Name, Image and Likeness cloud continues to hover over all of college athletics.

Closest to home, Notre Dame and coach Mike Brey face a self-imposed get-back-to-the-NCAA Tournament-or-else mandate. There’s no other choice.

College basketball will look and feel different when it returns in fall. For 66 games across 18 dizzying days in basketball-crazed Indiana, it looked and felt pretty darn good.

They only used half of Lucas Oil Stadium to stage the 2021 NCAA men’s basketball tournament Final Four, but it was a good end to a much-needed month for college basketball.
For years, basketball fans will remember where they were when Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs made this improbable buzzer beater to lift the Zags over UCLA in overtime Saturday night at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.