March Madness is no stranger to Indiana. Actually, college basketball’s “big dance” feels quite at home in the Hoosier state.
The hoops sport, at every level, holds a significant spot in the state’s heritage, and yet another niche is about to be added.
The high school game’s “Milan Miracle” – which inspired the film “Hoosiers” – happened here in 1954, along with Oscar Robertson and the legendary Crispus Attucks state champs in 1955 and Damon Bailey’s heroics in front of 40,000 fans in the 1990 state finals.
Colleges here produced five NCAA titles by the Indiana Hoosiers, John Wooden’s career at Purdue, Larry Bird and the Indiana State Sycamores’ amazing 33-1 NCAA finalist season and Butler’s back-to-back runner-up finishes. Among the pros, the Indiana Pacers won three ABA championships under Coach Bobby “Slick” Leonard, and had an NBA Finals appearance in 2000 under Bird, the coach.
So, as the COVID-19 pandemic forces the NCAA to take extraordinary steps to conduct its postseason men’s basketball tourneys, no state is better suited than Indiana to take on the challenge of serving as the lone site of the games.
NCAA officials announced their decision Monday to play the tournaments entirely on Hoosier courts. The usual 68-team field will begin competition March 16 and 17, whittling down to two teams vying for the national championship April 5.
Instead of regional brackets unfolding at spots across the country, the host venues will be Lucas Oil Stadium, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Hinkle Fieldhouse and Indiana Farmers Coliseum in Indianapolis, Assembly Hall in Bloomington and Mackey Arena in West Lafayette. Fort Wayne will host the full NCAA Division II tourney, while Evansville will host Division III games.
Alas, Terre Haute’s newly renovated Hulman Center – the site of NCAA Mideast Regional in 1974, just months after the facility opened – was not chosen as a tourney site. Perhaps it could be considered for future tourneys, especially after the new convention center and hotel open.
Of course, as the world well knows, no plans are certain in this pandemic. The grim course of the coronavirus could derail March Madness this year, just as it did in 2020. Any excitement and anticipation over this all-Indiana opportunity is tempered by the physical, emotional and economic toll of the virus that has claimed 354,000 lives in the U.S.
Hope is important, though.
The incredible development of vaccines by medical scientists offers a beam of hope as the inoculations roll out this winter, albeit slowly. Spirits need a shot in the arm, too, and a well-planned, safety-first basketball tournament could brighten the landscape.
The NCAA does not yet know if fans will be able to attend the games. Audiences could be limited to the participants, their families and the tournaments’ essential workers. Regardless, the participants are expected to fill 2,500 hotel rooms and generate $100 million for the central Indiana economy, the Indianapolis Star reported Tuesday.
Even if the games remain fan-less, the televised sight of the teams competing in Hoosier arenas, and crews from Indiana entities and universities conducting the operations should inspire residents.
To accomplish such a feat, Indiana needs to fully embrace the public health experts’ well-known, proven guidelines to suppress COVID-19’s spread. Lackadaisical approaches to masking and social distancing will not only impede the NCAA tournaments’ chances of becoming a reality, but also could worsen the loss of life and further spread the sickness, compounding the struggles of our courageous and exhausted health care workers. So mask up, space apart and help the cause.
Nobody wanted such a beloved event to occur in such a strange, restricted format. This plan is a make-the-best-of-it situation. It is encouraging to know that a national tradition has placed its confidence in Indiana to pull it off.