Opinion: Upset-filled weekend may be product of unusual silence at men's NCAA Tournament

Dan Wolken, USA TODAY
·5 min read

INDIANAPOLIS — The maddest March we’ve ever seen is unfolding against the backdrop of a nearly silent city, across arenas with no more than a few hundred people inside them, on city streets where the buzz disappears as soon as these amazing games end.

Over the past week, Indianapolis has barely resembled the city that lights up for Final Fours, Super Bowls, NFL combines and so many other big events that find their way here. If not for the NCAA signs that line the streets, the buses and police escorts constantly rolling through downtown and the barricades surrounding several hotels, it would be hard to tell the difference between the men's NCAA Tournament and a regular weekday.

The dichotomy between the uneventful calm of Indianapolis the last few days and the most electric set of opening weekend games in the history of the men’s tournament is hard to explain. Or perhaps they are related, a cause-and-effect that is simultaneously one of the most heartbreaking and exciting things I’ve witnessed in more than 15 years of covering this event.

As of Monday afternoon, this year's tournament had already seen 12 “upsets” by the NCAA's definition of a five seed line disparity between opponents. That’s two more than the previous record for the first weekend and just one short of a record for the entire tournament.

We’ve seen a 15 over a 2, a 14 over a 3, two 13s over 4s. We have a 7, 8, 11, 12 and 15 seed in the Sweet 16 already.

In other words, it seems almost certain that 2021 will go down as the all-time Cinderella ball. It’s sheer made-for-television madness.

And yet, inside the venues where it’s happening, it feels strange, as if some of these upsets aren’t really upsets at all. It turns out that nothingness is the greatest equalizer of all.

The men's NCAA Tournament has always had a streak of randomness to it, exacerbated perhaps in the last few years by college basketball’s general trend toward older teams. A common thread among these teams that have pulled huge upsets has been older guys that have grown with the program, from Oregon State senior Ethan Thompson to three-year Ohio starter Jason Preston to North Texas senior Javion Hamlet.

There are probably some other factors, too. Some teams clearly were seeded incorrectly. (How was Loyola-Chicago an 8 seed when Tennessee was a 5, BYU a 6 and UConn a 7?) In a year with limited non-conference play and so many cancelled games and teams dealing with COVID-19 throughout the season, it's possible we never really got an accurate reflection of who many of these teams were.

Or maybe it's just a supercharged version of business as usual.

"This happens every year and it’s like Lucy pulling the football on people outside our business," Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. "There are a lot of good teams out there. When you play them on the biggest stage and it’s just one game, anything can happen. There are a lot of great coaches out there. Give them enough time to game plan, they’re going to take away your strengths. I would start with that."

But it seems likely that the explanation for why we’ve seen so many of these upsets this year has a great deal to do with the entire setup for this tournament being something nobody's experienced before.

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March Madness signage announces the men's NCAA Tournament at the Indiana Convention Center over mostly empty streets.
March Madness signage announces the men's NCAA Tournament at the Indiana Convention Center over mostly empty streets.

Beyond the bubble life, which has been a mental grind for everyone here, these arenas are truly lifeless sound stages. With very limited attendance and only a handful of people sitting anywhere close to the court, there’s no real atmosphere to speak of. Though teams have been playing under those pandemic circumstances all season, it’s particularly pronounced at this time of year.

Remember, the NCAA typically protects the top four seeds by sending them to first weekend venues as close to home as possible. In a normal year, if you’re drawing Duke or North Carolina, you’re probably playing them in Charlotte, Greensboro or Raleigh. You might have to play Kansas in Kansas City, Kentucky in Louisville or Michigan State in Detroit or something of that sort.

Generally, the first-weekend venues are electric because you've got eight fan bases gathering in one city and moving in and out of the arena throughout the day. There’s a distinct din in the crowd when the underdog looks like it has a chance and a proportional response from the favorite’s fan base when it makes its push. Add the pep bands sitting on opposite baselines and it’s truly one of the great sensory experiences in all of sports.

But these antiseptic environments — figuratively and literally — that were necessary for the NCAA to hold this particular tournament just don’t have the same intensity. Part of the charm of the tournament is seeing how teams from small schools that typically play in front of small crowds respond when they’re on the big stage. Some absolutely thrive and pull historic upsets. Others get intimidated and fade away.

But here, even though the physical buildings are bigger, this is no different atmospherically than what they’ve seen all season. It’s more comfortable, even when the situations are nerve-wracking.

And sadly, when the game’s over, these teams aren’t going back to a hotel lobby to celebrate with boosters and fans. They’re going straight back to solitary hotel rooms to eat and sleep.

It’s hard to know for sure if that’s why Indianapolis has turned into Upset City, but all those things probably play into the explanation. And for the sake of this tournament, this year, the craziness has its virtues.

Just getting this event off the ground has been a terrific achievement, and from a content standpoint, it has surpassed every expectation. But if fewer upsets is the price for getting fans back in these arenas next season, we should gladly take it.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Dan Wolken on Twitter @DanWolken

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: March Madness upsets may be fueled by unusual silence in Indianapolis