Syracuse was not part of this year's Final Four. You know why, so we won't dive into that.
But that didn't stop me from being on-hand (thanks, day job!) for the entire weekend's festivities, both on- and off-the-court. So despite lack of Orange, and the team that won it all, it was a pretty fun few days in Indianapolis. Below I share the best observations and photos from the full four days.
Due to weather and the typical West Coast-to-East Coast time change, my flight from L.A. (via Las Vegas) didn't arrive in Indianapolis until 2:30 a.m. ET on Friday. This is problematic because a) I left Los Angeles at 5 p.m. PT on Thursday (delayed). And b) I had to be on-site at Final Four Fan Fest at 5:15 a.m. for a local media spot. So, yup... ended up pulling the all-nighter powered entirely by coffee and the need to actually get work done. I would not recommend this to anyone.
The one thing I noticed once people other than myself woke up, though: KENTUCKY FANS. SOOOOO many of them. The local Marriott was Wildcats HQ and the buzz was palpable early on Friday morning. UK was there to witness history, and they wanted everyone to know it.
Later on, after I began to drift into a state of sleepless delirium, the AT&T Block Party (night one of the three-night March Madness Music Festival) kicked off with openers Cold War Kids and Weezer, plus Imagine Dragons. I was most excited about Weezer, because "obviously" as a kid who grew up in the 90s and gets increasingly jaded about new music.
Actual games, so right away, more important than Friday. I went to a brunch with Shaquille O'Neal in the morning, and he was exactly like you'd expect: funny, charismatic and beyond friendly to everyone he interacted with. Close second to Shaq at the brunch? Local craft beer and bacon tasting. Why aren't there more of these? I'll hold one myself if necessary.
En route to the pre-game events (food, drinks, etc.) on Saturday night, I noticed this shirt in the gaggle of UK fans at the Marriott. Presumptive, to say the least, in advance of the game... especially given the hilarious results (more on that shortly).
At the stadium, the fanfare around the game is BIG -- maybe bigger than normal, and certainly bigger than the buzz around last year's event in North Texas, when no team was really all that close. Three teams being within a four-hour drive or so of Indianapolis, plus another having the disposable income to travel to Indy made this Final Four loaded with fans from every team. But on night one, Kentucky probably made up 60 percent of those, followed by Wisconsin and then smaller contingents for Michigan State and Duke. Every group was loud, though the Wildcats -- with their boisterous tens of thousands, were the loudest. They were also the most obnoxious and entitled. That made the eventual upset that night awful hilarious, especially while watching UK fans leave early.
Indiana can REALLY do events like this well -- which is something that surprised me. Downtown is pretty inter-connected, and that makes it easy for out-of-towners to find their way around. Despite my doubts beforehand, I totally get why they get these types of things so often. It works. And Lucas Oil Stadium is a fantastic venue (admittedly, my opinion is assisted by some nice seats for the games).
But onto the games. For the bummer that the first game, Michigan State-Duke was, the second contest was absolutely fantastic. The fan bases got into it (much more than either did in the first game, and I'd bet much more than we did in Atlanta back in 2013), which kept things electric for pretty much the entire time. We've discussed the cheering issues with Syracuse before, but both of these fan bases really top us in the energy/character department. Watching as a neutral (read: "anyone but Kentucky") supporter, it was a blast to watch history one way or the other -- but especially after it ended up going in the Badgers' favor. I'll remember being there for a very long time as a result of that upset.
Another non-game day, but plenty to do on my end. The Naismith Trophy was presented at the Murat Theater at the Old National Centre, which meant morning dress rehearsals and then the final event later on that night. Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky won, which you probably knew about already.
The highlight (for me), however, wasn't Kaminsky's win but something that happened before. CBS's Bill Rafftery, a legend by most accounts, spoke with me about college basketball for over five minutes prior to the event -- joined by Virginia legend Ralph Sampson about half-way through. And despite their stature in the basketball community, they honestly could not have been nicer or more accommodating to myself and others in attendance. Talking about the title game, Rafftery and I discussed why Duke's ability to play zone could be an asset against Wisconsin (check) and how the changes in the game have made such a big impact in recent years. It's people like Rafftery that stop you from judging all major media and/or famous people, and realize that some of them are just really good, genuine human beings.
The National Title Game! Kentucky fans have largely vanished from the city, which is pretty entertaining to those in Indianapolis who were not rooting for the Wildcats. But in their place were TONS of Badgers fans, who'd make the pilgrimage down from points like Chicago and Madison and Milwaukee, all to see UW compete for a title. Pre-game, Duke fans seemed excited and confident. Wisconsin fans seemed excited and nervous. Pretty sure the Badgers out-numbered the Blue Devils four-to-one in the arena, and yet...
Duke fans REALLY showed up in the noise department. I've been skeptical of the Cameron Crazies before, but they proved me wrong yesterday night. And again: Syracuse fans REALLY need to take some notes. The cheers may not have been overly varied, but the noise was consistent, and they were wired into every single play that occurred on the court. Same goes for the Badger faithful, who made the place feel like it was about to explode at several points while up in the second half.
Most surprising to me, though (other than the way Wisconsin completely imploded late, plus some questionable calls), was the way that I was not angry to see Duke win. I wasn't thrilled, mind you. I had the Badgers in my pool and really, I could never willingly root FOR the Blue Devils. But I wasn't mad afterward. Rather, I was willing to except it for what it was... a talented team turning it on late in the season on the defensive end, and getting the job done. If only Syracuse can be so lucky in the coming years...
So, no, I wasn't thrilled to see Duke win. But at least it wasn't Kentucky. And you know what? A Final Four without Syracuse wasn't as bad as you'd think it would be to sit through. Other fan bases were fun to interact with -- especially when you have no horse of your own in the race -- and the excitement around it all is still something worth marveling at (even in the home of the NCAA, Indianapolis). Plan is to be there again next year. Hopefully the Orange will join in on the fun this time around.
(Full disclosure: John is a paid communications consultant for FleishmanHillard, which is contracted by AT&T, one of the NCAA's Corporate Champions. Views are his own.)