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2015 NCAA Tournament: My Weekend At The Sweet 16 And Elite 8

Syracuse hosted the East Regional Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games for this year's NCAA Tournament. TNIAAM's Michael Burke was there.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

If you've ever been to a Syracuse Orange men's basketball game at the Carrier Dome, you know the deal during the national anthem. The home fans put their own twist on it, collectively shouting "O!" (as in Orange) at the start of the "Oh, say! does that star-spangled banner yet wave" line.

Having attended every home game of SU's 2014-15 season, it was something I grew accustomed to. It was as if it became a part of the anthem -- but only when it was sung at the Carrier Dome.

This past weekend, I covered the NCAA Tournament's East Regional semifinals and final, held at the Carrier Dome. It marked the first time I went to a non-SU basketball game at the Dome.

As the national anthem winded down prior to the Louisville-NC State game Friday night, I waited for the "O" to be shouted. Of course, that never happened. Though there were SU fans scattered throughout the Dome, this crowd was predominantly neutral.

The anthem served as a reminder -- as if I needed one -- that these games would not at all resemble a typical Carrier Dome atmosphere.

And for the Louisville-NC State game, that atmosphere proved to be a pretty dull one. Based on what I could tell from the press box, some NC State fans made the trip from Raleigh to Syracuse, but not many. Even fewer seemed to make the trip from Louisville. I imagine it felt similar to a Syracuse game over winter break (those games feature an empty student section), only the crowd wasn't unanimous in its rooting interest.

The crowd for the night's second game -- Michigan State vs. Oklahoma -- was far better. Plenty of Spartans fans poured into the Dome, draining out the Sooners fans that were also in attendance. Seriously, it felt like a Michigan State home game. Had I not known otherwise, I might have guessed I were in East Lansing.

The same was true for Sunday's regional final between Louisville and Michigan State. MSU fans accounted for an overwhelming majority of the crowd, something that surely aided the Spartans en route to a 76-70 victory.

So it wasn't that the crowds were a great deal worse than an average Syracuse crowd, just different. Green and red instead of orange. Different cheers. Less hostile, perhaps because beer wasn't served.

And the fans weren't the only thing varying from an ordinary night at the Carrier Dome. The place itself looked nothing like it normally does.

The teams played on a court primarily blue, black, and white (the NCAA's colors) and with an abundance of NCAA logos. The entire back half of the Dome was set up with tables and work space for the media. Those same media members were given two rows of courtside seating during the games. Normally, the media gets one row about four rows behind the basket near Syracuse's bench, and another section in a corner closer to the visiting team's bench.

And none of this is even mentioning the fact that Otto the Orange, arguably the staple of Syracuse athletics, wasn't around for the weekend. Sparty, the Cardinal Bird, Sooner Schooner, and Mr. Wuf took his place as the event's mascots.

Don't get me wrong: I had a great time. Friday's games were both highly enjoyable to watch, and Sunday's game -- which went to overtime -- surpassed them in pure entertainment value.

It was fascinating to see fans of several different teams all on campus at the same time. From Thursday until Sunday, a certain air of excitement existed. It's something that's hard to explain. You could just feel it.

But as much as I enjoyed the weekend, something also felt weird. Maybe it's because I had never been to anything but Syracuse games at the Dome, but something about other teams battling for their lives on SU's home court seemed odd to me.

I realize I'm in the minority here, as I don't expect that many others even stopped to think about this. But when I watched Michigan State players cut down the Carrier Dome nets, it struck me the wrong way.

No, that couldn't have been Syracuse. Even if the Orange hadn't self-imposed a 2015 postseason ban and had made the NCAA Tournament, they wouldn't have been in the East Region.

And, yes, I'm glad it was MSU that won this region, rather than Louisville or NC State, and certainly rather than Villanova or Virginia, both of whom were eliminated in the Round of 32.

But it felt wrong to see a team other than Syracuse celebrate on the Carrier Dome floor, especially during a postseason which the Orange couldn't participate in. Again, it's possible I'm alone in feeling this way.

Either way, I wouldn't change those four days for anything. I'd argue the NCAA Tournament is the best postseason that any sport -- college or pro -- has to offer. I'm thrilled to have witnessed some of it.