Gonzaga Saint Marys Basketball

Fans celebrate on the court after Saint Mary’s defeated Gonzaga on Feb. 26 in Moraga, California. AP photo

There was an NCAA basketball tournament last year. March Madness, however, feels like it’s making its return this week.

Yes, there were games last year. There were upsets. There were Cinderellas, most notably Oral Roberts and Oregon State. There was a champion. Baylor won it. You can look it up.

But March Madness is a term derived from more than games and a bracket. It relates to the manic swings that come with the tournament, and those swings are fueled by the atmosphere of those games. And that atmosphere is fueled by the fans that lose their minds as the games heat up.

Those fans were hardly there last year. The crowds will be back this year. And with their return comes the heart of the tournament as well.

Think about all of the tournament moments we’ve seen that we just can’t stop talking about for years after they happened.

Imagine if Duke standout Christian Laettner caught Grant Hill’s inbound heave, dribbled, turned, sank the buzzer-beating game-winner against Kentucky during the 1992 tournament, and only a few scattered fans were there to applaud it? Imagine if Kris Jenkins hit his 2016 national championship-winning 3-pointer against North Carolina, and the only sounds in the building were from his Villanova teammates? Or if, when UMBC beat Virginia in the 2018 dance to become the first 16 seed to take down a 1, it all took place in front of empty seats and cardboard cutouts?


No, you need the roar. You need the explosion of sound and the sight of instant jubilation with a game-winning shot, and the deafening silence of breath being held when a shot with the game on the line is in the air. Everything that surrounds the moment, in addition to the drama of the moment itself, is what stamps those moments in our minds.

Before writing this, I went back and watched some highlights from the Baylor-Gonzaga final, and it was weird. It was like taking a walk back in time, and the lack of a fan environment made it feel like the game was being played in a laboratory, or in a room after closing time. There were fans, but with the limited capacity, you had no idea they were there. As quiet as it was, it was as if they were trying to play the game without anyone overhearing or finding out.

Not exactly what you look for in March.

NCAA Indiana Wyoming Basketball

Wyoming forward Graham Ike (33) shoots over Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis (23) during the second half of a First Four game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament Tuesday in Dayton, Ohio. AP photo

What you look for in March are not just the upsets, but the environment that helps make those upsets happen. The underdog starts fast and goes into the end of the first half neck-and-neck with the favorite. The buzz in the background gets a little louder. The underdog keeps hanging around into the second half. The cheers get louder with each basket the team makes. Now there’s tension. It’s as if you can hear each person in attendance going “Hey, wait a minute. This could actually happen here.”

Now it’s late in the game and they’re even cheering the ball being brought up the court. The underdog is getting confident, and making shots it wouldn’t normally make. The favorite is rattled, and committing mistakes it wouldn’t normally commit. The officials can’t ignore it, either. Whistles for blocks earlier in the game are now called for charges, taking the finish through one sharp momentum turn after another. You can feel the energy in the building watching from miles away as “Can they do it?” gets answered in the final minutes.

B12 Texas Tech Kansas Basketball

Kansas players celebrate after tthey beat Texas Tech in the Big 12 Conference tournament championship game on March 12 in Kansas City. AP photo

In March, that’s more like it. And that’s what was missing last year.


Last year was perfectly satisfactory after what happened the year before — when the tournament was canceled because of the pandemic. The tournament is such an integral part of the sports landscape, with the power to entertain and reunite friends and maintain family ties and help strangers bond with one another over bracket pools. Losing it made for maybe the most depressing of all the national COVID sports casualties. We needed it back. The fact that it looked and sounded different — way different — well, that was the price to pay for getting the tournament on TV screens again.

But while it was back, it wasn’t back to normal.

And now it is.

Enjoy the Madness, everyone.

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