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Benjamin Hochman: Indiana a fitting venue for 2021 NCAA Men's Tournament

Benjamin Hochman: Indiana a fitting venue for 2021 NCAA Men's Tournament

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Basketball in Indiana is cherished. It’s cultural. It’s spiritual. It’s serenity. It’s an identity. And as announced Monday, the state of Indiana will host every game in the 2021 NCAA Men’s Tournament, a turn-of-events that’s fitting and will give the tourney some pure allure.

Though this charm will be countered by the smarm.

Because never has the NCAA Tournament been more about making money than in 2021. The NCAA needs its unpaid student-athletes to survive this season of COVID and contact tracing and cancellations so the players can cash in … for everyone else. When the tourney was canceled in 2020, the NCAA announced a loss of $375 million. The repercussions permeated athletic programs, which fired staff and even dropped teams. And so, never has amateurism been more about profiting — college sports can’t afford to miss another March Madness.

And through this lens, it makes the tournament so impersonal — it’s not about which teams make it to the title game, just as long as there is a title game, televised with advertisements. They just need some coach, any coach to cut the net from atop a Werner ladder, the official ladder of the NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Championships.

As the well-recited NCAA commercial goes, most college athletes “go pro in something else.” Yet for the college basketball (and football) players, the difference is, they’re already part of a professional industry, doing the hard labor and making the accomplishments that make the money. But they aren’t professionals.

That’s the sobering reality this year — really, that’s the reality in any year, but particularly during a pandemic.

But we’ll watch. We compartmentalize all this in our heads. We hope the virus doesn’t spread all over the state. We cross fingers that injuries aren’t season-ending or career-threatening. And we become enthralled with the magic of March. It’s a rather business-savvy setup, from the televised announcements to the online brackets, to the games and the gaming. And we love it all — the seedings, the superstars, the upstarts, the upsets, the interwoven history and the history made.

We missed it last year. Really, it was the first conspicuous void in the sports schedule we endured during 2020. And just like the players genuinely want to play the games, we genuinely want to watch the games, because it’s entertainment, because it’s an escape, because it’s an experience of normalcy.

Of course, for them to safely pull off the tournament, the plan is to have the games in as close to a bubble situation as possible. Minimize the travel and the interactions. And even if all the games were at the Poughkeepsie Civic Center, we’d gleefully tune in, but there’s something special about basketball played in Indiana. And they’ll play it up — the beauty of hoops in back driveways and on the side of barns, the homegrown college hoops heroes from Oscar Robertson to Larry Bird to Glenn Robinson to Jared Jeffries to Gordon Hayward. The schools and staples, from the Butler dog to IUPUI to the IU Hoosiers to the movie “Hoosiers.”

Sure enough, now that scene comes to mind.

Coach Gene Hackman buttons the button behind the knot of his tied tie. He stops at the door, fidgets with the knot some more. He sucks in a breath, looks upward and says to himself: “Welcome to Indiana basketball.”

He opens the door and enters it all — the packed gym, the pregame layups, the pep band.

As the state’s governor, Eric Holcomb, said in a statement Monday: “Indiana was made for this moment.”

And the games will be played in the iconic locales, be it Hinkle Fieldhouse and Indiana Farmers Coliseum, to the arenas at IU and Purdue. Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis will host the Final Four, as it was supposed to, all along.

And we’ll float through it all from the safety of our living rooms, and we’ll subconsciously take in all the advertisements and promotions that come with the great games. It makes you wish it was March right now. But then, maybe not, because St. Louis U.’s team is currently in a quarantine due to positive COVID-19 results. Hopefully they’ll be healthy by March. Hopefully all the teams will be healthy by March. It’s sad to say, but it’s possible a title contender will have to pull out of the tournament because of COVID-19.

But last March, all the teams’ dreams were squashed. This year, the hope is that most of the teams get to live out the dreams in the beloved tournament. But the players have to make it to March first, before they can make all the money for their schools.

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