INDIANAPOLIS – In their rooms across the street from the towering JW Marriott, the Gonzaga Bulldogs can open their drapes each morning and at least find validation that they’re in a Final Four.
They can see it on the 47,000-square-foot bracket that covers the side of the hotel and became the instant icon of the NCAA Tournament.
It screams, “MAJOR ATHLETIC EVENT AND CULTURAL TOUCHSTONE HERE.”
But for all of that, there’s damned little hubbub in the bubble.
Of course, the names of 68 schools were up on that giant bracket once. Every player, coach, trainer, assistant athletic director in charge of masks and tourist took a picture and then texted it to 147 people they know.
It was posted to Facebook and Instagram so often we should all get Marriott points.
Teams swarmed the hotels and the convention center practice courts – if the socially distanced can actually swarm. Now there are just four, finally – Baylor and Houston in one semi-windup on Saturday, the Zags and UCLA in the other, the winners meeting on Monday night to decide the champeen.
But while the music has reached its crescendo, most of the orchestra has bailed.
“It was like a Virginia City gold rush the first seven days here,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “Now it’s like one of those ghost towns you drive through when I’m out fishing out West somewhere. Tumbleweeds blowing through the hallways and nobody for miles.
“The wells have all dried up. It’s pretty desolate now.”
Twenty-one days have elapsed since the Bulldogs were whisked here on Selection Sunday and hermetically sealed into the NCAA bubble. Well, not really, but it’s fun to say “hermetically.”
Surely more fun to say it than live it.
“I entered into this,” Few said, “with much trepidation.”
Then something strange happened. The Zags started to like it a little bit.
“We haven’t wanted for anything,” Few said. “We’ve actually drawn even closer together and strangely enough – and this is probably a sad reflection at where I’m at right now – we’re used to it now and there’s kind of a rhythm to the bubble. I keep telling every body it’s OK.”
OK. But really, it’s not the Final Four as we’ve come to know it.
And it’s certainly not the Final Four as the Zags first lived it.
In 2017, Few steered his program to college basketball’s grand finale for the first time, a breakthrough in the making for, well, as many years as you want to count back. Few started as an assistant at GU in 1990 when the Zags went 8-20, redshirting a class that would start a painstaking climb.
But when the 2017 team punched its Final Four ticket, Few made sure they did it right. There was still a mission to pursue – the Bulldogs very much believed a national championship was their destiny that year – but there was going to be celebration, too.
“Being our first time, everybody was like, ‘Whoa, we finally did it,’ ” recalled Adam Morrison, the Zags’ radio analyst then and now and one among dozens of former players and coaches Few gathered in Phoenix that year to link his 2017 with the program builders. “All the former players and the community around us – we’d made it over the hump.
“Now it’s like, ‘Well, we’ve done it. Let’s go win it.’ ”
There was a sense of wonder to it. The COVID-19 Final Four seems like strictly business, no matter how much fun the players might be having.
It’s just hard to throw a party in a Mason jar.
“At the public practice, we probably had 30,000 people in Phoenix,” Few recalled. “When we walked out on the floor for the first game, there’s 80,000 people in the stands. It’s vastly different – the energy around the hotel with family and friends and hundreds of ex-players who came back that we had a couple of events with that were very powerful moments for all of us.”
These Zags? Well, they have each other. Any other good vibes come via text and Facetime.
“I feel bad our guys haven’t been able to experience that aspect to it,” Few said. “But the flip side is, we’re so focused and there’s no distractions. None of us are having to worry about tickets or worrying about how to connect with our families around the schedule. You get some camaraderie – as if we needed any more, but it’s been great to have it.”
All year long, players have approached the opportunity to play amid the pandemic with gratitude. That hasn’t changed now.
“There’s a little bit lost,” Gonzaga guard Andrew Nembhard said, “just because how big the Final Four usually is and how the atmosphere is just so crazy. But I think the significance of the tournament is still there – the significance of the moment. And it’s still a very exciting time for us.”
The stage isn’t any smaller. It’s just more of a soundstage.
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