Miami With just over a minute to play, a chant of joy came out of the postage-stamp section of Arizona fans.
It was then a NCAA official looked to the empty upper deck in AmericanAirlines Arena and said, “Listen. Hear the echo?”
What did the NCAA expect?
Mix the 64th seed of college basketball markets with high ticket prices and teams better suited for south Phoenix than South Florida, and guess what kind of NCAA Tournament weekend you get? The three lowest-attended sessions between Friday’s crowds of 10,163 and 8,990 and Sunday’s 10,204.
No, this isn’t another cliche bash-the-South-Florida fan column. You could go that tired route. You could even hold the contest: Which was the bigger sporting black eye, the World Baseball Classic drawing crickets or these three NCAA Tournament crowds?
Why, in Sunday’s second half, Arizona coach Russ Pennell’s voice carried louder than expected in the quiet arena as he changed the defense. Cleveland State reacting accordingly.
“Hear that?” Norris Cole said. “They’re pressing.”
With Miami and Florida out of commission, there was only one way to help this regional, and the NCAA didn’t do it. It didn’t send Florida State in as cavalry. It couldn’t, according to NCAA Tournament representative Lynn Hickey.
Teams are placed at sites in order of seeds. So at least 16 teams already had been put in by the time fifth-seeded Florida State was up. Then, various scheduling policies must be followed. Like: Conference rivals can’t meet before the second weekend. Like: Teams that have played in the previous two seasons can’t meet.
“So by fifth seeds sometimes there’s only one place for a team to go,” Hickey said. “That’s why Florida State went where it did.”
AmericanAirlines Arena, meanwhile, got two Arizona teams, Utah, Cleveland State, Stephen F. Austin, Temple, Wake Forest (yeah, for the ACC fans) and Syracuse as the only team with any national reputation and local following.
Who, besides alums, would shell out $283 for that? Yet that was the combined price of the first-round games you had to buy. At least until they realized no one was buying and began selling individual games. Then the price dipped to a low of $73.
Our college basketball market, like our baseball market, is awful. We compete annually for the 50th and final ranking of TV markets for the NCAA championship game. The money is on us to defend the title this year.
But let’s see. The CA Championship drew 110,000 golf fans last week. The Heat and Panthers are in stretch runs. Tennis comes this week. The aforementioned WBC just came through town. The Marlins’ opener is two weeks away.
It’s the time of year the limited sports dollar is stretched thinner than Tyra Banks.
Three teams returned portions of their allotted 550 tickets. Of Utah’s starting five, only one player’s parents could make the cross-country trip.
In other words, this was a bad marriage for everyone. Yogi Berra once said something that resonates in our sports market: “If the people don’t want to come out to the ballpark, nobody’s gonna stop ’em.”