Four Games, Four Venues, One Day: A Diary Detailing March Madness's Long-Awaited Return

A major upset few predicted. A favorite's victory that many doubted. A near-upset. A mid-major taking down a wounded Power 6 squad. We saw it all on Friday.
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INDIANAPOLIS — Trevion Williams was bent over double on the court for a long time after the final horn. The 6’10”, 265-pound Purdue forward’s broad shoulders heaved as he sobbed.

Straightening up, Williams dabbed his eyes with his white jersey. Teammate Mason Gillis and a Purdue staffer stood on either side, supporting him as he walked off the court. But Williams didn’t get very far before dropping nearly to his knees, one hand on the floor, and crying anew.

The No. 4-seeded Boilermakers’ season had just ended in shocking fashion, outplayed and eliminated by No. 13 North Texas, 78-69 in overtime. And just like that, the state of Indiana’s only entrant in this all-Indiana NCAA tournament was gone. All 67 games of this unprecedented Big Dance will be played in the state, and 66 of them will be contested without home-state representation.

While that takes a certain flavor out of the event, there are plenty of other spices all simmering in one Hoosier melting pot.

FORDE: March Madness, Meet Hoosier Hysteria

The tournament’s hyperlocal setting provided a fascinating Friday return of wall-to-wall March Madness. After no tournament at all in 2020, the whole thing is condensed to six arenas in three cities—with Indianapolis serving as the hub.

The customary sea-to-shining sea tournament puts teams in an octet eight-team pods, with huge throngs of tribal fans roaming the streets. Not so this time. It’s more like 64 clans, small handfuls representing the kaleidoscope of the sport. They’re all here, sharing socially distanced arenas and restaurants and hotels.

To get a feel for this unprecedented setting, I set out to see four games in four different arenas Friday: from an NBA arena to a college cathedral to an NFL stadium to a multi-use old barn at the state fairgrounds. I saw a major upset few predicted, the lack of an upset a bunch of people predicted, a flirtation with another upset and a mid-major defeating a shorthanded Power 6 team.

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I became one with my mask, wearing it nearly continuously from 11:30 a.m. until well after midnight. I twice entered arenas the wrong way and had to wander my way to media seating. I watched a Winthrop fan nearly get into a scuffle with a couple of drunk Villanova fans. I watched the conclusion of the day’s biggest upset, which was playing out an hour up the road in West Lafayette, on the big screen at Hinkle, where the sun came through the big windows and bathed the playing surface in slanting afternoon light. And I watched a bunch of angry Boilermakers fans stream out into the cold night before their game had even ended.

Here is the Friday tourney travelogue:

Arkansas Razorbacks guard Moses Moody (5) and Colgate Raiders guard Tucker Richardson (15) battle for a rebound during the second half in the first round of the 2021 NCAA Tournament

12:45 p.m.: Bankers Life Fieldhouse

The game: No. 14 seed Colgate vs. No. 3 seed Arkansas

The Pacers’ home arena is a prototype NBA arena, which makes it an ideal NCAA tourney venue. It seats about 18,000 and has multiple locker rooms and a practice court, which makes it a great spot for multi-team events. But on this occasion, the fans are few and far between—especially since those with tickets to the later games in that arena aren’t allowed in for anything other than their game. Still, it would be the first fans to see Colgate play in person all season.

The enduring mystery of the game was how four Arkansas fans got lower-level sideline seats amid a sea of empty chairs. With the vast majority of fans dispatched to upper levels and/or end zones, the four men were the only people who had sideline seats on that side of the arena. They did not appear to be members of the Clinton family, but they must have had some clout.

On the court, this clash of crimsons got off to an interesting start before tipoff, when half a dozen Colgate players took a knee during the national anthem. Their gesture did not seem to resonate much in the arena, but it did (of course) on social media.

When the game started, No. 14 seed Colgate made another statement, pushing a small lead out to 14 points at 33-19. The Raiders were hot from three-point range, strong on the defensive glass and more than willing to let the Razorbacks shoot jump shots, brought their backers to their feet and sent a shudder of panic through the Arkansas faithful.

For One Shining Moment (and not much longer), the scores of the three early games showed a No. 10 seed beating a No. 7, a No. 14 seed beating a No. 3, and (however briefly) a No. 16 seed beating a No. 1. Mayhem flickered enticingly on the horizon.

But just about the time Cinderella was window shopping for glass slippers, things changed for Colgate. Arkansas upped the defensive pressure, taking advantage of its massive advantage in athleticism, and began turning turnovers into easy baskets. Arkansas finished the half on a 17-0 run to claim a three-point lead.

At 2:20 p.m., near the middle of the second half, Colgate had one more burst that raised upset hopes. With a 54-50 lead, sharpshooter Jack Ferguson (a Fort Wayne product playing in his home state) squared up on an open three. It missed, and Arkansas got a three at the other end, and the Razorbacks never had to seriously sweat again.

As Arkansas was pulling away, the Virginia Tech-Florida game was becoming wildly dramatic. When the Hokies hit a tying three with 1.4 seconds left, the arena erupted while watching it on the Bankers Life big screen during a timeout. The Gators would go on to win in overtime, continuing Thursday’s dramatic start to the tourney.

The drama in the Fieldhouse dissipated to the point that, with a 15-point lead at 2:58 p.m., the Arkansas fans went ahead and called the Hogs. “Wooooo Pig Sooie” is Arkansan for “survive and advance.” At 3:00, the 85-68 victory was in hand. At 3:01, the players and coaches called the Hogs again with the fans. There would be more Hog calling outside the arena, as the Arkansas backers spilled forth into the downtown streets to celebrate their first NCAA Tournament win since 2017.

4 p.m.: Hinkle Fieldhouse

Game: No. 9 seed Georgia Tech vs. No. 8 Loyola Chicago

The Harry Potter scarves were back in the Big Dance. Loyola fans, whose school colors mirror those of Hogwarts' Gryffindor, had taken to wearing maroon-and-yellow scarves during the Ramblers’ epic 2018 Final Four run. After missing the tourney in ’19 and no tourney in ’20, they made a triumphant return Friday on the campus of Butler University.

They were around the necks of Loyola fans sipping beers at outdoor tables at Chatham Tap, next door to the old fieldhouse. Given the three-hour ride from Chicago to Butler, it stood to reason they would outnumber the Georgia Tech fans, and they did.

But the Yellow Jackets backers were surprisingly ardent, even vigorously booing Loyola during pregame warmups. It was quite a foreign sound, after the Ramblers’ heartwarming ascension to the Final Four. Who could boo a team with a 101-year-old nun/team chaplain?

Sister Jean was also back, along with the scarves. She sat in Section 203 in Hinkle, running her 21st century NCAA tournament record to a robust 5–1 with the victory over shorthanded Georgia Tech.

One of the sadder developments of the tournament was the unavailability of Yellow Jackets big man Moses Wright, who was sidelined due to COVID-19 issues. Without the ACC Player of the Year, it seemed like Tech might be blown out. But the Jackets fought fiercely, with Josh Pastner and his now-trademark face shield employing a zone defense that flummoxed Loyola early as Tech ran out to a 13-3 lead.

Eventually and inevitably, they figured out the zone and carved it up with sharp passing and clutch shooting. On the defensive end, Loyola adhered to the rigorous man-to-man principles that make it the No. 3 defensive team in the land according to Ken Pomeroy’s numbers. The Ramblers inexorably took control of the game in the second half, thanks to big performances by Lucas Williamson (who was a freshman on the 2018 team) and sophomore Braden Norris (16 points, eight assists).

The March gods provided compelling halftime entertainment for the fans by letting No. 15 seed Oral Roberts’s seismic upset of No. 2 seed Ohio State play out on the big screen in the arena. At 5:10 p.m., Oral Roberts took a six-point overtime lead. At 5:18, ORU won, to the enjoyment of almost everyone in the arena.

Shortly after 6 p.m., only the Loyola fans were happy. The scarves would live on to cast spells another day—Sunday, to be exact, against No. 1 Illinois.

Thomas Bell blocks a shot by Trevion Williams.

7:25 p.m.: Lucas Oil Stadium

Game: No. 13 seed North Texas vs. No. 4 seed Purdue

The closest thing this tournament will see to a palpable homecourt advantage was here Friday night. Purdue fans got into the building and made their presence felt … and North Texas just laughed at them.

At the opposite end of the court from Purdue star Trevion Williams’s postgame bereavement, North Texas guard Javion Hamlet bounced off with the game ball in his right hand, playing to the crowd before throwing the ball skyward, sending it who-knows-where. To the many Purdue fans in Lucas Oil Stadium, he shouted, “Don’t ever doubt me!”

Hamlet delivered a soliloquy of a performance against the Boilermakers: 24 points, 11 rebounds, five assists in 43 ironman minutes. The 6’4” guard deliberately dribbled seconds off the clock time and again—which Purdue passively allowed, as opposed to forcing the ball out of his hands—then converted difficult shots at the end of the shot clock.

The junior-college transfer from Memphis, who had a low recruiting profile out of high school. Was the hero of a comeback victory over Western Kentucky last week in the Conference USA championship game. Then he doubled down on the heroism against Purdue, which joined Ohio State in delivering massive duds for the Big Ten. Meanwhile, a C-USA team won a first-round game for the fifth time in the last six NCAA tourneys—this one led by a guard nobody much cared about coming out of high school.

“I’ve been waiting on these opportunities my whole life, just to show the world who Javion Hamlet is,” said Javion Hamlet.

His coach Grant McCasland, described his guard as star guard as a workaholic. “There’s no confusion—the guy works at a crazy rate. He’s in the gym every night, 8-10, and we practice in the mornings. It’s anchored in effort. It’s anchored in hard work.”

Fact is, North Texas the better team all night against Purdue. The Boilermakers led 3-2 and then never again, failing time and again to get over the hump during repeated rallies. Purdue missed free throws and jump shots, while North Texas made clutch plays at both ends of the court.

“I think our composure was tremendous,” McCasland said.

The next test for North Texas’ composure will be Villanova, the most successful college basketball program of the last five years, winners of two national championships in that time. They were the team I saw win last Friday night — actually early Saturday morning.

11:00: Indiana Farmers Coliseum

Game: No. 12 Winthrop vs. No. 5 Villanova

The most obvious upset pick in the bracket was the Eagles over the Wildcats. Winthrop was 23–1 and blew through its Big South tournament; Villanova had just lost guard Collin Gillespie to a season-ending knee injury and flamed out quickly in the Big East tourney. Everyone (myself included) was on that upset train.

But Villanova wouldn’t allow it. Playing the latest tipoff of the day in a drab old building on the sprawling Indiana state fairgrounds, far removed from the downtown energy, Jay Wright’s team seized the day. ‘Nova trailed for less than two minutes all night, none in the second half, routinely frustrating the freewheeling Winthrop offensive attack.

It was a reminder that most NCAA tournament upsets are the ones that sneak up on you, not the ones that look obvious on paper. That’s part of the tournament’s allure, the shockers you don’t see coming.

Earmarked for a first-round ouster, Villanova instead marches on. The tourney’s first full day ended in the first minutes of Saturday, with Winthrop players and coaches walking off the court applauding their fans, who returned the affection in kind. Villanova bounced out of the coliseum with new life, ready to play again Sunday, as this Hoosier melting pot of a tournament simmers in its hyperlocal flavor.

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