The Eerie Strangeness That Will Be an NCAA Tournament Without Fans

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystMarch 12, 2020

Virginia celebrates winning the 2019 men's NCAA championship
Virginia celebrates winning the 2019 men's NCAA championshipMatt York/Associated Press

Whether or not a college basketball tournament will be played seems like a silly concern in the grand scheme of a pandemic, but it was huge news when the NCAA made the stunning yet unsurprising announcement Wednesday afternoon that fans will not be allowed to attend the Division I men's or women's college basketball tournaments this March and April because of the COVID-19 outbreak.

NCAA President Mark Emmert said in the official statement, "This decision is in the best interest of public health, including that of coaches, administrators, fans and, most importantly, our student-athletes. We recognize the opportunity to compete in an NCAA national championship is an experience of a lifetime for the students and their families."

Canceling the men's NCAA tournament altogether still could happen, with Stadium's Jeff Goodman reporting from an NCAA source that there have been discussions about such an outcome. But while this may well change within the next 24 hours, the plan is still to play and televise the games, which is going to make for a bizarre viewing experience.

That viewing experience is what I'm here to consider. This isn't a "Should they have taken these drastic measures at all? Should they have done so sooner? Think of the economic impact!" type of piece. There are others more well-versed on the coronavirus and the economy who can shoulder that load.

But as a lifelong fan of college basketball, I'm just curious what this is going to look and sound like, and I'm pretty sure you are, too.

Can it truly be March Madness without the fans?

Half the fun of this annual three-week-long extravaganza is seeing and hearing the crowd gradually become diehard fans of the potential Cinderella team.

I was in Columbia, South Carolina, for the first two rounds last year, and let me tell you: The number of very vocal Gardner-Webb supporters increased by about 4,000 percent from the opening tip to midway through the first half when the Runnin' Bulldogs led by 14.

Gardner-Webb firing up the crowd during its early lead in last year's NCAA tournament.
Gardner-Webb firing up the crowd during its early lead in last year's NCAA tournament.Sean Rayford/Associated Press/Associated Press

That level of excitement starts small, and it quickly overtakes the "neutral" fans of the other teams who either already watched their guys play or are waiting for them to take the floor.

Aside from the NCAA tournament, the only time I've experienced that type of mounting tension in an arena or stadium is when a baseball pitcher is going for a no-hitter. The whole "Oh my goodness, are we about to witness history?" wave of anticipation is electrifying.

But it won't be part of this year's NCAA tournament.

No, this tournament is going to feel more like the crowdless game between the Chicago White Sox and the Baltimore Orioles in April 2015. At one point during that one, MASN broadcaster Gary Thorne started whispering like he was providing commentary on a golf course. And considering CBS announcer Jim Nantz provides commentary for the Masters every year, he may take that approach to the Final Four, too.

Instead of hearing and seeing screaming fans, this will be like watching an intense practice—one of those not-so-secret scrimmages teams conduct every autumn. Except instead of trying to work on conditioning and experimenting with potential lineups and rotations, they'll be "scrimmaging" for the national championship.

It'll be unique, to say the least. But it might be...kind of cool?

It's the most silvery of silver linings on a widespread crisis, but getting to hear the interactions between teammates, combatants, their coaches and the referees is something we simply don't get to experience as fans of team sports.

They might need to preface each game with a "viewer discretion advised" warning because we'll probably be able to hear everything. Say a prayer for whoever gets stuck working the dump button throughout the tournament, especially during Iowa's games. Head coach Fran McCaffery is not a G-rated fella.

We'll get edited snippets of a mic'd-up segment in the NFL or MLB. You can pick up the occasional morsel of dialogue if you're sitting close enough to the field of play. But the constant stream of audio not diluted by fan noise is going to be a new and entertaining experience.

It's also likely that the lack of fans will produce a much "chalkier" tournament than what we're used to seeing, which flies in the face of what we've been saying for the past four months about the March Madness implications of there being no elite teams this season.

While some of the big-name programs reap the benefits of fanbases that travel wellKentucky's Big Blue Nation, for one—they are also the teams that most neutral fans loathe the most. So when those favorites fall behind, the other two-thirds of the arena gets fired up and starts motivating the underdogs to finish the fight.

Dike Vitale with Big Blue Nation
Dike Vitale with Big Blue NationFrederick Breedon/Getty Images

But there won't be any of those momentum swings within the building. Players will inevitably still celebrate their big shots with teammates, but you won't see players from Team David draining a big three, forcing Team Goliath to call a timeout and then trying to pump up the crowd.

Or maybe old habits are hard to break, they'll still do that type of stuff, and it'll be just as comical as when a player makes a technical free throw and proceeds to slap hands with teammates who aren't there.

Either way, with less emotion coursing through the venues, my theory for this unprecedented situation is that the better teams are more likely to hold serve and advanceespecially in the first round, during which the gap in talent between the two teams is often massive.

Maybe I'm completely wrong and we'll see two No. 16 seeds pull off upsets. Who knows?

Regardless of how it plays outas long as it actually gets playedwe'll forever remember this as a unique tournament in the event's lengthy history.

Just please make sure you're watching it from the safety of your own home.

        

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.

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